Friday, October 7, 2011

Cognitive reboot

My three year old has been playing with Sifteos for a couple hours (in 30 minute sessions). There aren't many games for him yet; all the games he plays are recommended for 4-7 year olds. One simple game of navigating a gopher through a maze looking for a turnip gives him equal amounts of fun and frustration. I think it breaks his concept of object permanence.

The game works by creating a secret, virtual maze that you reveal one block at a time by placing a block adjacent to the block displaying the gopher. Clicking on a block will move the gopher to that part of the maze. The gopher is always visible, but other blocks turn off as soon as they stop touching the gopher. They are kind of bizarre as physical objects go:

  • Blocks look different and have stable displays. There aren't any animations on the blocks, so it looks like the blocks are printed with pictures. This is an illusion!
  • The blocks are actually fungible. It doesn't matter which block is placed adjacent to the gopher since they all just reveal the same section of the maze.
  • Orientation doesn't matter. Spinning the block doesn't matter because the picture of the maze shown on the block isn't part of the block--it's just revealed by the block.
  • Position on the table doesn't matter. The maze revealed is relative to the gopher even though it looks like the block is revealing a maze drawn in hidden ink on the table. Moving the gopher block changes all the other blocks. Moving all the blocks together doesn't change any block.

My son kept trying to build a maze instead of reveal a maze. When he set a block next to the gopher and revealed a path, he associated that path with that block and remembered it even after setting it aside. When he was in a section of maze where he wanted the gopher to turn, he'd pick up a remembered "turn block" and place it. The old block instantly morphed into a different piece though and then he'd shoot me this wtf expression as if the game cheated.

He has made progress understanding the game, but doesn't quite have the correct mental model. His current strategy is to never move the gopher block. This makes the hidden maze act as if it is drawn on the table. All the blocks become simple secret decoders revealing the table's maze.

All the concept games I've made don't break players' mental models of the world. This gopher maze seems to have done it accidentally--at least for three year olds. I wonder how far this idea can go if a game really exploited it?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Woot! My Sifteos arrived!

These have been in the news for a while. Ars technica wrote a detailed review. I found them after seeing David Merill's TED talk on his Siftables research. I bought the basic set plus three extra cubes. Here's what it looks like in practice with the six cubes, charging dock, and USB wireless link plugged into my laptop:

The SDK uses C# to build a program that runs on the laptop. The program talks over wireless to the individual cubes which report back events such as cube shake and tilt, cube touch and button push. The drawing API seems spartan--mainly drawing images onto individual cubes--so I think none of the game play happens on the cubes. Loading programs onto the cubes takes a while (15 to 30 seconds for what I've tried) so all the images are local to each cube and drawing is smooth. Once I get going with the SDK I'll know a lot more. (It's possible that the Sifteo wireless creates a lot of traffic that interferes with my laptop wireless network--shutting down Sifteo sped things up considerably.)

My three year old son played with them and there's a lot of potential. It was fun watching him learn how these work--more on that tomorrow.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Scrolling: document up or viewport down?

My first graphical user interface was a Sun 3 running SunView. That's a classic WIMP interface bordering on antique. I was already a programmer so it's hard for me to separate the machine from the user interface. The machine's model of scrolling consists of a viewport window, a scrollbar and data to display (frequently another window). This is the model-view-controller paradigm invented for Smalltalk. It's easy to see the scrollbar thumb as being the position of the viewport over the data, so scrolling down means moving the thumb and viewport down the data and holding the data still.

My three year old son using a touch interface has a completely different mental model. The machine still uses the same model-view-controller paradigm, except the UI consists of dragging the document up rather than moving a scrollbar thumb down. What I call scrolling down, my son calls up. His model is more intuitive and simpler in every way.

This is really exciting! After 30 years of stagnation, user interfaces are finally changing.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tablets and toddlers

I just bought a 7" Android tablet for my three year old son. I thought a small tablet would be easy for him to use, but there were some surprises when I observed him.

The battery in a 7" tablet is still too heavy, so he just sits with it on the floor like he's reading a big picture book. The 10" size is probably better--especially if the touch targets are larger and less scrolling is needed.

The touch UI generally works very well, but multi-touch has caused a lot of frustration. The sexy flush screens that are popular now hurt usability because there's no tactile feedback that his fingers have creeped onto the touch surface. Many times he was frustrated because a touch wasn't detected (or was treated as a multi-touch) due to an errant thumb sneaking onto the edge of the display. A physical ridge or lip around the screen would really help even if it would be a bit ugly. Disregarding that hardware issue, there are still a few problems.

  • A small child's body has different proportions for arm, hand and fingers. My son found it easier to use his thumb to tap because he could see touch targets better. He also experienced lots of false multi-touches with his index finger because the fingers curled up under his hand would brush the screen. His arms were much closer to parallel to the display than mine were, so he compensated by using a thumb (and keeping his fingers out flat) or by using his index finger at steep angle.

  • Only a few gestures were intuitive: tap an object, drag an object and drag the background. The background drag had a funny side-effect of wanting him to hold his other hand flat on the screen to "stabilize" the background when dragging an object. Obviously that didn't work and frequently confused him with a multi-touch activation. In the real world, holding your hand on paper will keep it still, but in the computer world it causes random magic. Tap worked well, except when it wasn't obvious what should be touched. My son usually tried to touch where he expected something to happen, then touch harder (and harder and harder!) before giving up to try something else. It's too bad the touch screens don't recognize position and force.

  • Lastly, the Samsung Tab he uses has poor physical button layout for a child. The power and volume buttons are on the side of the tablet, and four flat touch areas are on the bottom (or side) of the screen in the bezel. He occasionally hit one of these without realizing it and was confused by what happened. I don't think the design is particularly bad just for children--it seems pretty bad for everyone.

I'm really pleased at how well he's been able to use the tablet and I definitely recommend parents to try a tablet with any child able to use a picture book.

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