The release of branko Lucic's forthcoming design fiction book, nonobject has been moved from late 2007 to early next year. This seemingly fascinating book is about:
" deliberately creating objects that cannot exist -- because the material is not yet available, or the business plan, or the manufacturing process, or the infra- structure to support it, or even the human sensibility -- it becomes possible to explore the meaning of design at a more profound level and to think more richly about what is and what might be."
In addition to a penchant for starting proper nouns with lowercase letters, Lucic's four initially available concepts and videos emphasize communication, with two versions of cell phones - the CUin5 (pictured above) and the Tarati (pictured below). I recommend viewing the videos about each of the design concepts before reading further to get a clearer understanding. At his presentation at Connecting '07, Lucic previewed some to-be-released concepts as well including a motorcycle design, which will presumably be available online at a later date.
In the spirit of intellectual/conceptual thought, I started thinking about these nonobbjects for a human factors perspective. One of my first realizations is that while these are conceptual product designs, the concepts that are strongly human-centered. I don't know whether or not ergonomic and usability aspects of these concepts will be discussed in the book, but here's my take with respect to the two phone concepts - based on the limited information currently available:
This concept might best be described as the anti-iPhone. While Apple's device is all about screen size and minimal buttons, the CUin5 is literally all buttons and no display. Multiple sets of numeric keypads are provided on all six sides in different arrangements and orientations. The foreseeable human factors aspects of this include:
- Ability to "dial" the phone without re-orienting it. In other words it may be used immediately whichever way the device is facing when you pull it out of your pocket or pick it up.
- The large, clearly visible and tactile buttons would lend the device well to use by individuals with visual and motor limitations.
- Single-handed and multi-finger dialing. For example, when holding the phone in the palm of one hand, the user could conceivably use all 5 digits in their resting positions to access the buttons on the various faces of the device, perhaps somewhat analogous to holding down different strings on a guitar. Compare this with the relatively laborious current process of holding the phone in one hand and selecting buttons in sequence with a single finger. Similar benefits might be applicable to text messaging as well - were there a display for reading messages.
- At the same time, the presence of buttons across the device suggests a risk of inadvertently pressing buttons. This could be addressed by finding an appropriate resistance for the buttons (which may vary from face to face) as well as a lock-out feature.
- The lack of a dynamic display would suggest that the phone would have limited functionality compared to current smart phones. But this might be fine by many people who just want a phone that works well as a phone. And some features (e.g. address book) could be handled through interactive voice functionality.
If CUin5 is all about maximizing tactile connection with a phone, the Tarati is about minimizing it. A very thin design is accomplished by removing all buttons and replacing them with spaces for the user's finger to pass through while dialing. A dynamic digital display, in conjunction with dial tones, provides feedback on actions. From a human factors perspective, several issues are worth considering:
- The lack of tactile feedback when "pushing" buttons is probably not a problem for most users, given the familiarity of the keypad arrangement, the audio/visual cues and and procedural or muscle memory that we have for using phone keypads. One case where it may be a bit of an impediment is when dialing consecutive numbers - tactile feedback is more important here as it let's the user judge when to reverse the application of force from withdrawing to re-pressing. The effectiveness of this in Tarati will largely depend on the sensitivity, distance, and timing of the sensing system.
- It's not clear whether the lack of visible and tactile buttons would automatically be an impediment for users with limited vision and/or motor skills. For example, the lack of visible button labels is of no consequence to blind users, and the fact that no force is required to depress a button may make use easier for some people.
- Minimum finger dimensions, particularly circumference, would need to be accounted for in the size and shape of the insertion points to accommodate use with large fingers without getting scraped by the edges or stuck - not to mention long fingernails.
- A device with openings such as this is likely to collect dirt from both use and lack of use - so cleaning and maintenance are important factors.