The Revolution Will Not Be Frustrating: Introducing Natural User Interface
Natural User Interface design, or NUI, is an interface design process that creates “real world” methods for interacting with technology. At Kicker, we use NUI to design digital interfaces that are highly intuitive and compelling, making your idea or product better, smarter, and easier to use.

 


 

NUI & EMBODIED COGNITION

NUI is based on the science of embodied cognition, which says that thinking is grounded in our body mechanics. Here’s an example: We associate control with up and being controlled with down, right? Because you have experience with down as heavy and up as light… When we don’t understand something, we say it’s “over our heads” because we naturally relate not being able to understand something with the physical experience of not being able to see it…it’s about embodiment…Ok, how about this one? We associate anger with heat, because our body temperature literally rises when we’re pissed off. You get it, but what does that have to do with Natural User Interface design?

You’re familiar with ASIMO, yes? He’s the Honda robot who can dance, run, climb stairs… stuff like that. He’s quite impressive and pretty cute too, but somehow, a bit sluggish, even geriatric at times. The thing about ASIMO, is that it’s really easy to screw him up. Put down a wad of paper in his path, and he’s as befuddled as Grandpa from the Simpsons. That’s because ASIMO’s “thinking” style or “computational approach” is non-embodied, or “top down”. ASIMO makes all his decisions by assimilating input (the wadded up piece of paper on the floor), processing that input in a central processing center (his “brain”) and then sending output back to his body parts (move foot five inches to the left). Are you thinking, wait, isn’t that how humans do it? Wasn’t that how they said it worked on School House Rock? Actually, we humans are way better than that.

It turns out that people use embodied cognition too. Think about catching a baseball in the outfield. You don’t just stand there, looking at the ball. You look at the ball AND simultaneously, without “thinking” about it, run in a curve, which makes it easier for you to figure out where the ball is going to end up. This is what cognitive psychologists call a “perception-action loop”, and a great way to understand embodied cognition.

At Kicker, we’re all about dynamic design. We recently worked with DARPA to design a Natural User Interface for the robot called Alpha Dog. Alpha Dog is to be a companion to soldiers. He’ll walk over rugged, unpredictable terrain, carrying heavy loads, and need to react quickly to stimuli. His thinking process needs to be more dynamic and way less cumbersome than ASIMO’s, who’d be utterly confounded by an unpredictable landscape, and end up on the floor most of the time. Designed and built like a dog, Alpha Dog has amazingly bouncy and flexible legs and joints, and interestingly, not a lot of brain. His legs are built specifically to interact with the surface they’re on, and with each other, without needing to wait for recomputational information from the big boss, his “brain”. His anatomy is constructed to respond to stimuli directly, meaning he’s not just thinking with his brain; he uses embodied cognition.

Alpha Dog was designed to be nimble and strong, but best of all, we designed him to be trained like a dog. This was Kicker’s contribution to the project, designing the way in which Alpha Dog will interact with people. We observed how the soldiers interact with one another in the field and quickly realized Alpha Dog needed to be trained to understand their language. Alpha Dog will sense the soldiers, discern their commands and respond accordingly every time, in the same language the soldiers use. If the soldier gestures, Alpha Dog will gestures back. If the solider speaks, Alpha Dog speaks back, etc. Dog training for robots. If the soldiers had been forced to interact with a screen in order to use Alpha Dog, the experience would have been clunky and he wouldn’t have been half as useful. Alpha Dog worked seamlessly with the soldiers because he was designed to conform to the way the soldiers functioned naturally in the world.

We humans have an array of senses at our disposal. Vision is the sense that currently dominates the way we interact with technology. Vision is great, amazing even, but at Kicker, we believe that focusing so narrowly on vision is ultimately hampering our capacity to innovate effectively. We communicate with our whole bodies, not just with our eyes or our voices, but also with body language, touch, etc. We use the sense that works best, depending on the scenario. Think about a cup of coffee. If you want to know its temperature, you don’t examine it to see whether or not steam is rising from it. Most likely, the very first thing you do, without even thinking about it, is touch the coffee cup, right? What if we lived in a world where touching coffee cups just wasn’t an option, and in order to check the temperature of your coffee you were obliged to examine it for steam? Silly, right? What kind of ridiculously limited world is that? You can’t make me live there… well, the truth is, you do live there technologically, but not for long, because we’ve made it our mission to push past this limitation. We design by focusing on what people are naturally inclined to do in the real world, and use emerging technologies like touch, haptics, gesture, voice, kinesthetics, orgomomics, anthropometrics, optical flow, bio and emotion sound signatures, and physical sensors to interact with that process. We look at how people exist, process information, and communicate, then make technology understand that and talk back to you.


 

At Kicker, not only do we feel that our devices should be designed using embodied cognition, and built using interfaces that understand that humans are kinesthetic beings, we whole-heartedly believe that the design world is in the nascent phase of what will ultimately become a fundamental and inexorable shift in the way devices are created. We are the avant guard of a technological manifest destiny.

 


 

NUI IN CONTEXT

Now that you’ve transcended your outmoded way of understanding cognition (you’re welcome), we can talk more meaningfully about Natural User Interface, or NUI. Let’s start at the beginning…

User interface has deep roots in industrial design. At the outset, it was all about the interaction between man and machine. Imagine a big, loud, steel contraption in a factory, with a bunch of cogs and levers and maybe a plume of steam shooting out the top for added drama, being operated by someone with impressive biceps, making the machine do its thing. The machine was designed with the operator’s (really nice) body in mind, which set the important precedent: “objects designed for controlling physical matter are designed to relate to, and interact, with the human body.

Eventually, things evolved, which is awesome, because continued evolution is the key to life, (read: good design). User interface progressed to include machines that stored and processed information. At this point, everything moved up into our heads, and our collective biceps became pretty flabby. Users interacted with these new machines, calculators and computers, for example, with minimal bodily effort, a poke here, a click there, most often centered on some sort of screen, and we accidentally lost the intrinsic ability to relate to these machines via embodied cognition.

At Kicker, we recognize the limitations the design world suffered, as a result of the ongoing separation between the physical and mental. Many designers are still burdened by the long-held belief that cognition, or the “mind”, is separate from the functions of the body. However, we sophisticated types (that means you), have been shown again and again by embodied cognition research, that humans think with their whole bodies, so it follows that the interfaces we create need to reflect this shift in thinking. Interfaces need to transcend the screen, be fined-tuned to work efficiently and ergonomically with our anatomy. Emerging technologies have the potential to transform technology, so that body and mind are seen as one.

Our passion has always been to use design to continue to make things easier, effortless even. We want to incite a revolution beyond visual interface. The original principals regarding working with the body’s inherent interaction with machines can finally be coupled with our device’s ability to store and process information. Embodied cognition is mounting an amazing design revolution that take into consideration the innate aptitudes of human anatomy and potentially, engage all the senses. We want technology that augments our human qualities to make us super human. We believe that understanding and utilizing our bodily cues and inclinations is fundamental to designing natural user interface that will yield the highest cognitive capacity.

The more we engage the body, the more effective we as humans think. Amplified through technology, tools that enable the use of the body and the mind working seamlessly, offer limitless possibilities.


 

At Kicker Studio, we make technology speak human.

 
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