What is Interactivity?

A few thoughts on Bret Victor’s “The Future of Interaction Design”

Victor begins his invective against current trends in interaction design with a video produced by Microsoft that depicting various lonely souls swiping at paper-thin screens in a not-too-distant future. It makes for a good target and feels at home in Microsoft’s line of depressing videos about the current and could-be future state of technology. The characters in it seem so alienated and the overall mood so melancholy that I was actually surprised that the man at the subway station at 1:52 doesn’t just go ahead and step in front of the oncoming train. He really looks like he’s considering it:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6cNdhOKwi0&t=1m45s&w=640]

Victor laments the lack of vision in this version of the future, and notes that the paradigm of the tablet, which has only recently become a reality, was in fact initiated by Alan Kay in 1968. The vision has not advanced significantly since then, and the tools that we use do not come close to leveraging our expressive capacity (although I do think that the glass smart phone does, ironically, enhance human capability: in this case it is the human capability to swipe ineffectually at a world that you are alienated from).

Chris Crawford describes interactivity as a kind of infinite loop of “listen, think, speak” between two actors. Victor, I think, would want to collapse that loop, make it entirely invisible to the actors. Victor has described his work almost as a cure for blindness, saying that good interactivity allows the user to “see what you’re doing” and “try ideas as you think of them”. This type of interaction, which seeks to enhance understanding, generate unexpected ideas, and aid in creativity, requires tools that are able to leverage a full range of sensory input and output. Not merely of the eyes, but also the ears, the hands, and ultimately the entire body.

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