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Smart User Interfaces. Hidden Potential?

In the current era of technology, personalisation has become a key consideration for developers. Users of modern day computing range from infants to the elderly, from varied cultures and backgrounds, so how can a one size fits all system be appropriate for such a diverse audience?

Photograph: Murdo Macleod
Photograph: Murdo Macleod

Smart user interfaces (smart UIs) are defined to be interfaces which adapt their layout or elements according to the needs of the context or user. The concept of smart UIs has been around for several years, and has gradually been pushed into the mainstream realm. Such systems which incorporate this include the Windows XP Start Menu, which automatically updates to highlight applications that are frequently used, or even Facebook, which personalises advertising based on content you upload.

Windows XP Start Menu
Windows XP Start Menu

However, despite its well established nature, there is still lack in widespread usage of smart UIs across various sectors.

Take for example in medicine, most systems that have been introduced are targeted to adapt to the needs of doctors or nurses. There is scope to bring in similar technologies for patients, by providing them with information on their well being based on education level and background. This has potential to enable patients to take charge of their own health, reduce the need to learn and understand complex terminology, and can save valuable time for doctors.

Not only can such systems be used in hospitals, but also in homes. Remote monitoring systems could automatically detect when users haven’t taken their medication or performed certain exercises, and consequently, provide gentle reminders. Most current medical monitoring systems lack this ‘smartness’, often having to rely on user intervention, whilst more novel technologies can be directly connected to the doctor’s system.

Education is another area that can benefit from greater use of smart UIs. Emotionally responsive computing has been widely explored in this field, however, there is the possibility to take this beyond the student’s immediate feelings, and adapt interfaces and content to depend on other factors that influence learning, such as upbringing and quality of schooling. This can help to reduce dropout rates and incite curiosity to facilitate learning.

Introducing computer technology in the home environment such as the kitchen, has thus far been limited. There is huge scope to bring products to the commercial market that can dynamically aid users during food preparation. This can be done in several manners such as voiceover instructions, or immersive experiences which can provide the user with 3D renderings of how to cook a particular meal. In these cases, systems can identify when users are experiencing difficulty and adapt content accordingly.

Whilst it has been commonly used to increase productivity, smart UIs have a lot of hidden potential that is yet to be unveiled. Regardless of the field it is applied in, effective personalisation is mandatory, to cope with the growing demands and rapid advancements in technology.

Smart UIs may be an area that’s old, but it’s definitely not dead.

DuckDuckGo Review

DuckDuckGo, is a new search engine, which has recently been growing in popularity.  With the market being inundated with these websites, Yahoo, Ask, and the current master, Google, you may wonder why we need another.  So what’s so different about this underdog in search?

First of all, unlike other major search engines, DuckDuckGo doesn’t track you.  There is no search history, personal profile, or any other information about you being stored.  This prevents targeted advertising, perfect for when you want to keep that embarrassing illness quiet.

In addition, in other search engines, search results and advertising are based on your web history and personal profile.  That is, if two people search for the same thing, they may not necessarily see the same results.  DuckDuckGo however, bursts the filter bubble, a term developed by Eli Pariser, in which websites guess what information a user would like to see based on their search history, this avoids you spinning your own webs.

But is DuckDuckGo only for the privacy conscious? Well, it’s filled with features for those techheads. The !bang syntax, allows searches to be made using other search engines, in a way that you won’t be tracked on them.  For example, a Google search for cat videos would be !g cat videos.

As for the interface, it is very simple and minimalistic. Although this comes at a cost, there are no images, maps or news search.  These all have to be done through the !bang queries, this can get annoying and become a bit of a hassle.  Furthermore, there is no auto-completion or instant results, DuckDuckGo is pure manual text input web search.

The quality of the results are not bad, they are no more relevant than what Google may produce.  But DuckDuckGo combines its own results, with ones from other search engines, so it does bring back useful links.

I haven’t switched over from Google to DuckDuckGo yet.  I’m familiar with it, I’ve grown up with it, and I love seeing its Doodles, so to have a sudden change, would admittedly feel alien.  Nevertheless, with Google now tracking our every move, users may start feeling apprehensive, and DuckDuckGo seems to be the natural alternative.

So what’s my verdict?

I’d say DuckDuckGo is DuckDuckGood.

A Slice of Pi

Have you ever sat in a ICT class fumbling about with the formulas of Microsoft Excel or the forms of Access?  It brings back memories of the days when computing was about who could make the dizziest Powerpoint presentation.  However, all this is about to change, gone are the ICT lessons where Microsoft Office was all you needed, kids are about to become much savvier.

Raspberry Pi is the new initiative being rolled out in schools across the country to teach kids how to program.  It’s the way of improving computer education in the country, as children nowadays are able to type before they can walk; so why do we need to teach them how to use commonly utilized software, when they’re learning it from themselves?  Take it from me, typing lessons at school were a complete waste of my time, I learnt how to touch type by talking to my friends on MSN.  What we should be concerned with however, is educating a new generation on how to make the software we use, and this is exactly what Raspberry Pi does.

Fundamentally, it’s a small, cheap computer, about the size of a credit card, with a processor, memory chip and an Ethernet port to connect to the internet.  In addition to this, it also has a couple of USB ports to plug in a keyboard and mouse for the programming.  The whole thing, not including the keyboard and mouse, comes to a very affordable £22 (excluding VAT), just a couple of weeks pocket money for any child. This also solves the problem, of parents being reluctant to allow their children to do anything ‘adventurous’ on the the home computer.  Pi’s are relatively cheap, so you don’t have to worry about breaking it.

Raspberry Pi is an excellent initiative for kids to get started in programming.  It is highly embarrassing that computer science is not taught in our schools, in a country where the roots of computing lie in Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, and Alan Turing’s work on the Enigma machine.  Furthermore, it would also remove the misconceptions surrounding computer science, as a computer scientist myself, I have lost count of the times my friends have asked me to ‘fix’ their computer or tell them how to find a function in Word.  My response being, ‘no I can’t fix it, but I can write a program that will check your filesystem for inconsistencies’.

Technology is our future, and we should be teaching our kids how to create and shape the future.  I know that learning programming at school would have tremendously helped  me when I came to university, yet I struggled in first year, learning the basics, whereas people from other countries had programming as a core part of their computing curriculum, and were well equipped to take on the degree.  Now as a third year, things have become better, but these days when nearly every job or science related degree requires some knowledge of coding, why is our schooling unnecessarily preventing us from gaining these useful skills?

Raspberry Pi, should hopefully solve these problems, and it would be interesting to see it’s impact in a few years time.

Spinning Our Own Webs

Facebook stalking is a favourite hobby for many of us, but how much do we think about Facebook actually stalking you.  Yeah, yeah,  privacy blah blah it’s all been done before, but this isn’t what I’m talking about, rather, how the internet is getting to become one of our closest  chums.

Recently, I’ve started reading The Filter Bubble by Eli Parise, in this he argues how large web firms are gradually gathering more information about us, personalising our web browsing experience through targeted advertising.  He fears that because of this, the internet will always agree with us, so we won’t see anything that may challenge our views.  For example, if you are a vegetarian, you will tend to see information that reflects in favour of vegetarianism, such as adverts, societies and conferences.

I’m sure we’ve all been a victim of the internet following us.  You’re casually stalking your friends on Facebook, or doing a search on Google, and BAM! On the side, an ad catches your attention: ‘Female and study Computer Science? Apply for a scholarship to the Grace Hopper Conference’. Ok, in this case that information is pretty useful.   Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against personalised advertising, ofcourse it helps you find what you want a lot faster and more easily (and maybe even not what you want), but when does it cross the boundary? Yes, I act gay with my best friend, but does that mean I want to watch lesbian TV? No.

If you haven’t already, take a look at Intel’s museum of me.

This is a classic example of the cringe-worthy, narcissistic direction the internet is heading towards. Intel have brought together all your likes, comments and friends on Facebook, to walk through a gallery of your life.  If you can’t stand doing this for yourself, take a look at some guy Steven’s museum

Although this is a pretty cool trick from Intel, it is still creepy, and essentially what these tech giants are doing with your information; just not providing you with the same kind of visual representation.

I once attended a Facebook conference in London.  In this, Zuckerberg was saying how he wanted to make the internet more open, catering to what we want and how we want it.  This seems to have worked rather well, with Facebook ‘Like’ buttons on nearly every webpage. However, whenever we perform this simple mouse click, we are gradually selling a part of our soul to the webbed world.  But maybe this is a good thing, targeted advertising keeps the web going after all; at what point do people get frustrated and give up on what they want to find? Although, at the same time, the idea of the internet getting to know me better than I know myself? That’s scary.

Google – Self Driving Cars

Recently I visited the Google headquarters in London for a women in computer science event.  Aside from it mainly being a networking opportunity to meet some Googlers, we were also given insight into some of Google’s new and current projects.  Being the sort of person who gets excited about any new additions to the world of technology, this was easily my highlight of the day.  We were told about various innovations which are currently under development in Silicon Valley, and in particular, one stood out to me, Google’s self-driving cars.

We all know of Google’s cars taking the roads, from Street View, and it now seems that they have had enough of technology and are attempting to break into the automobile industry.  Once a secret project, the cars are now being test driven around Mountain View.  So how does it work?

Well, this video explains everything you need to know:

Chris Urmson, the tech lead behind the project said that aid that the “heart of our system” is a laser range finder mounted on the roof of the car. This generates a detailed 3D map of the environment. The car then combines this with high-resolution maps of the world, producing data models, which allows it to drive itself  , avoiding obstacles and respecting the rules of traffic.

But is it safe? Seven test cars have driven around 140,000 miles without human intervention. One even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in California. The only accident, was when a human driver, drove into the back of it, whilst it was stopped at a traffic light.  Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor responsible for the project said that, “Driving accidents are the number-one cause of death for young people and almost all of these are due to human error, not machine error. And therefore can be prevented by machines.”   The engineers argue that robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated.  This may all well be true, but I do see a serious flaw with this, humans have a tendency to be cautious when they are putting their life into the hands of something that isn’t human.  Yes, auto-pilot might fly all the planes these days, but we still have the pilot incase something goes wrong. So in order to drive and trust this car, you would have to be very comfortable with its technology.

The cars are also Toyota Prius’, this is an elegant move by Google to address the challenges of global warming, by lowering fuel emissions.  In addition, the self-driving aspect  reduces fuel consumption by eliminating heavy-footed stop-and-go drivers.

The project, which involves using artificial intelligence in automobile development, highlights how Google is trying to move away from its search engine image.  Furthermore, it is also a ray of hope in Silicon Valley, which has recently settled comfortably in social networking and digital media.

So now thanks to Google, future generations may never have to go through the pain of driving tests again, and who knows what we may now be able to do behind the wheel. Travel Scrabble anyone?

Positive Social Networking

Google+, Google’s contribution to the social networking world. We’ve all probably heard of it by now, with the surge of ‘I now have Google+! Who wants invites?’, on our Facebook newsfeeds.  So what’s the hype about, and is it really worth it?

After the  questionable successes of Google Buzz and Google Wave,  you may ask, ‘Why bother?’.  Well, Google are carefully picking out the large markets on the internet, and social networking is definitely one of them, which they haven’t yet managed to break into.  Google+ however, seems to be a lot more welcomed than its ill-fated forefathers, with a debate already brewing…is Facebook the new MySpace?

The main advantage, and difference with Google+, is the way that you can share.  It allows you to create ‘circles’, for family, friends. etc, and share specific content with each circle. For example, photos from a night out you only want your friends to see but perhaps not your family or your boss.  This puts you in firm of control of what you communicate with whom.  In Facebook however, if you post something, everyone can see it, unless you remember to use custom privacy settings to prevent certain people seeing a post, which after a while, can get a bit tedious.

This is all well and dandy, and some people are still going to criticise Google+ as a derivative of Facebook. On one hand it is, the service mainly revolves around contributing updates to a Facebook style Newsfeed called a ‘Stream’. However, it is unique in its own way, the concept of the circles is brilliant and intuitive to pick up, how many times have you heard of people complaining about the difficulty in understanding Facebook privacy? Well, this sorts it.

We also have the much awaited ‘Hangout’ feature, a group video chat with contacts. Facebook, once hearing this, launched their own Facebook video calling in collaboration with Skype.  However, this only allows you to call one contact at a time, and if you are on Linux you may have some difficulty installing the plugin.  Google, on the other hand easily takes care of such installation problems, so you don’t really have to fiddle about with the techie stuff.

One major difference, or perhaps even a flaw in the Google+ design, is how you have no such thing as a ‘Wall’ to write on friends’ profiles; you would have to either message them or call them. There’s nothing WRONG with this, but writing a quick note on someone’s wall, can be slightly more convenient.

However, it must be noted that this is only a beta version, so many features are not present.  Nevertheless, the potential for Google+ to turn into a fully fledged social networking service is there, but there is nothing revolutionary Google have done  to change the face of social networking, everything is just new and shinier.

Overall, I’m impressed with Google+, knowing there is more to come. But it is going to be a challenge for Google to move users over from Facebook, when all they hear is the constant song of ‘Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better’, from Facebook.