Monday, November 22, 2010

Microsoft's Kinect

Penny Arcade has had quite a bit of writing about the Kinect, they don't particularly like it, but others are fascinated by it. Whatever their take, I am profoundly disturbed by Jenna Wortham's writeup in the New York Times (indeed where one tends to find her writeups), especially the sentence that says how hackers are "getting the Kinect to do things it was not really meant to do," because this is not at all true (besides the "not really..." part, which any good Wikicultist would flag as "weasel words" and actually be correct about it).

The Kinect was not designed to be a motion sensing device that is inherently and only part of the Xbox 360, if it were, it would have been built in. It is not. It is a motion sensing device that you can connect to something with the right connector, with Microsoft hoping that would be the Xbox 360. And if you know anything about people, you know we like to play with things, especially things we like.
“Anytime there is engagement and excitement around our technology, we see that as a good thing,” said Craig Davidson, senior director for Xbox Live at Microsoft. “It’s naïve to think that any new technology that comes out won’t have a group that tinkers with it.”
Except of course Microsoft, or the people at it, were extremely naïve, because earlier...
A [Microsoft] representative said that it did not “condone the modification of its products” and that it would “work closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant.”
Microsoft's model has typically been one of control. Control over Windows, control over the Xbox, control over Microsoft Office, and so on. It was Sony that made it easy to load Linux onto their PS3, not Microsoft and its Xbox 360, although Sony later took away this capability (I am not sure of the politics behind that one, it may be interesting). Note that hackers have adapted Linux for both platforms regardless.

But we've seen so many instances where people do like to play with things (it's a part of who we are). For instance, Bethesda's line of games, such as Oblivion, which is available for both the Xbox 360 and Windows. There are no mods for games or anything on the Xbox, it's not part of the business model. (Mods, made by players, opposed to patches and DLC, by the company.) On the PC, however, there is a thriving mod scene (which I have written about). Bethesda supports the modders, gives them forum space, and interviews them (here is one example, and you can check out their posts tagged "modding"). The people at Bethesda know we like to play games and play with games, and we will do so whether they want us to or not. Mods can, and do, fix bugs, add new maps, zones, characters, quests, and everything: for the game producer, your customers can be developers who make the game better, for free. It's not just win-win, it's win-win-win (producer, modder, players).

Here's a recent Ten Best Oblivion Mods list from PC Gamer. Keep in mind Oblivion is over four years old already. In part because it's a great game, but in part because of the mod scene, people are still playing it.

I'm not sure, definitely, how old the modding scene is: the Internet itself is essentially a giant mod, so, 40 years. It depends on your definition. The Flight Sim mod scene is pretty old, dating back to at least 1990. That's 20 years (and Flight Sim is now, or was for a long time, a Microsoft product!). One would think that everyone would have noticed this long-standing given (I resist the word "trend" there, this is a not a trend, it is a constant).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Design Options

I want to talk about two designed items, the choices behind them, and the resulting ease of use: an alarm clock and a recycling can.

I have a Brookstone alarm clock, with a long-life battery so it will always (or, for longer than the rest of it will last) remember the time, like magic (that's the idea). As a user feature, they built into it the time change for daylight savings. Which is nice, since I don't have to ever change the time, it does it automatically, like my phone and my computer. Except I do have to do it, four times a year, since the US Congress changed when we change the time.

The problem is it's hard coded, and not at all flexible, and the information that is hard coded into it (what date the time change happens) did indeed flex, but the device can't. So, zero was better than two (zero changes if the clock changes the time, twice if I change the time). But now it's four, and if zero is better than two then we know four is pretty terrible.

(To be clear, it's four because it changes earlier than it now should, so I have to change it back, then it doesn't change when it's supposed to, so I have to change it again, and do this the two times a year we change the clocks. And this only works if I live in part of the US where we change the time.)

Automatic time change? Good usability decision. Hard wired? Not good.

The other item, a recycling can, I saw the other day at one of the artsy theaters on Houston street here in NYC. One problem with a lot of public-area recycling cans is that people are busy and their attention is elsewhere and they throw out trash in recycling cans, which makes it look like a trash can and more people do it. But this design had a little lid with the recycling logo on it, and you had to lift the lid, which meant you had to look at it and think, "How do I open this, aha a handle, oh look a recycling logo." It forced you to slow down a second, and think, but only a very small, easy amount.

Granted these are two different areas of design, but they both remind us of the importance of design, and how little things can make a big difference. Also, flexible systems.