Las Vegas -- Developers for the consumer market should worry less about wowing users with gizmos and features, and more about how consumers actually use the devices, speakers and papers concluded at the International Conference of Consumer Electronics. Attendees heard repeated calls for a change in their approach to design.
"We are part of an emerging 'network economy,' " where consumers have access to downloadable content from a broadening variety of sources in an expanding universe of venues, from home to car to personal space, noted ICCE keynoter William Lumpkins, director of engineering at Pragmatics Technology Inc. Thus, he said, developers' focus should be shifting from the devices themselves to the consumers who buy them.
Lumpkins called on consumer electronics engineers to become politically active within their companies, working to sell colleagues and management on the need for a multidisciplinary approach to design that "includes such diverse fields as anthropology, cognitive science, psychology and the social sciences, as well the usual electrical engineering, computer science and mechanical engineering disciplines."
"If you take a look at the industry's best [innovators], you discover that they have multidisciplinary approaches," said Richard Doherty, president of consultancy Envisioneering (Seaford, N.Y.). Steve Jobs, for example, has a passion for psychology as well as industrial design. Intel, Doherty said, embraces ethnology, the study of social cultures, and Disney's Imagineering arm is staffed by psychologists, artists, industrial designers, musicians, architects and engineers. "The finest engineering consultants I have worked with, are from multidisciplinary backgrounds," he said.
In the book Emotional Design, Lumpkins noted, author Donald Norman writes about two ATM machines that were identical in function but differed in appearance: One was drab and the other brightly colored. "Consumers preferred to use the lively colored machine. How we perceive products becomes a cognitive enabler for designing successful consumer electronics prod- ucts," said Lumpkins.
He cited a blood-sugar-level checker called Glucoboy as as an example of a well-thought-out product born of a multidisciplinary design approach. The handheld glucose meter can be inserted into a Nintendo Gameboy and operates independently of the videogame system. It downloads videogame programs contained within its circuitry into the Gameboy as a reward for maintaining good blood sugar control.
The device takes the edge off a dreaded chore for diabetic kids. But to its creators, Glucoboy is a key portal for obtaining patient-critical medical data.
"The human body is becoming an Internet data source, and that is saving money in the highly costly health field," said Lumpkins.
A few ICCE papers pointed to the direction designers are taking to develop the "perfect" user interface.
Researchers from the Hitachi Human Interaction Laboratory (Tokyo) collaborated with interaction design specialists at the Royal College of Art (London) to develop an interface that accesses a rich variety of content more easily by using a poetry-reading metaphor. The interface searches for content by turning the pages of a booklike device.
The researchers noted that poetry fans frequently know how to find a favorite work quickly in an anthology, even a thick one. The book may "naturally" fall open to a favorite page because the reader has turned to it so often and may even have left the volume open, face down, to save the spot.
The researchers emulated that scenario for their physical prototype of the booklike interface. The device can detect three states: whether the "book" is open or closed, the page to which an open book is turned, and whether the open book is face up or face down (see figure). To distinguish the states of the book, light-dependent resistors (LDRs) measure brightness. Resistors on each page and the front and back covers have gray-scale values from 0 (bright) to 255 (dark) in response to the brightness. When the book is closed, the value from the LDR on the front or back cover, LDR-f or LDR-b, is the smallest.
When page number "n" is opened, the value from LDR-n on page n becomes the smallest. When the opened book is face down, the values from LDR-f and LDR-b are the first and second smallest. A peripheral interface controller (PIC) judges the state using the input value from each LDR and sends the state as output to the target device.
The interface could search for digital radio stations, for example, by turning pages, and the users can turn the volume on or off by turning the book face up or face down. A digital photo viewer based on the book device would allow a user to find a favorite photo by flipping pages. A bookmarked Web site could be assigned to a page to allow the site to be found without searching for it in the bookmark list.
Another user interface, developed by researchers from Mitsubishi Electric Microcomputer Application Software Co. Ltd. (Nagaokakyo, Japan) and Ryukoku University (Otsu, Japan), allows a display to be changed by moving a 640 x 480 viewer.
The viewer has a "magnifying glass" interface that the user can operate intuitively to change the contents displayed on the small screen of the viewer in real-time as the viewer is moved. The system inputs data by the physical movement of the device itself, without requiring special input tools such as a mouse or buttons.
The experimental system, embedded with a gyro sensor and a microcomputer, confirmed that the user's operation of the viewer is reflected on the screen by detecting the amount of inclination, slide and rotation of the viewer.
Researchers at Kyungpook National University (Daegu, South Korea) developed an interface that recognizes a user's "sequence action." The user interface recognizes various hand gestures, such as throwing, swinging, tilting, pushing, pulling and snatching, and can estimate the user's various postures.
A state machine algorithm for sequence action recognition is applied to the output signals of an embedded two-axis accelerometer (ADXL202EB). The output is signal-pro- cessed for gesture recognition and posture estimation. The resulting output signal defines each user's posture and gesture stage by stage, by considering a typical accelerometer signal for the action.
The researchers concluded that the state machine approach is effective in sequence-action recognition and is suitable for low-end mobile devices because the accelerometer can be easily and inexpensively embedded into mobile devices.
Philips goes modular
Researchers at Philips Semiconductors (Eindhoven, Netherlands) have come up with a modular architecture, based on fast serial interfaces, that's said to allow car infotainment manufacturers to respond quickly to changing requirements.
In the Philips architecture, a network of serial buses connects the various modules. Because multimedia applications require relatively high bandwidth, the bus partitioning taps a slower bus to handle audio and control data, while a high-speed bus handles the video and graphics information. The range of the serial buses is limited to the onboard communication requirements to yield the most efficient use of bandwidth.
A bridge connects the car infotainment center with the automotive networks of such platforms as CAN, FlexRay and Most. Even a connection using Ethernet technology is possible, the researchers reported.
A number of challenges remain, according to the Philips team. They include dynamic configuration in the field and effective reuse of building blocks from other domains, such as mobile and personal environments.