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WIMP interfaces

July 8, 2009

Human-computer interaction is undergoing a revolution, entering a
multimodal era that goes beyond, way beyond, the WIMP
(Windows-Icons-Menus-Pointers) paradigm. Now European researchers have
developed a platform to speed up that revolution.

We have the
technology. So why is our primary human-computer interface (HCI) based
on the 35-year-old Windows-Icons-Menus-Pointers paradigm? Voice,
gestures, touch, haptics, force feedback and many other sensors or
effectors exist that promise to simplify and simultaneously enhance
human interaction with computers, but we are still stuck with some 100
or so keys, a mouse and sore wrists.

In part, the slow pace of
interface development is just history repeating itself. The story of
mechanical systems that worked faster than handwriting is a 150-year
saga that, eventually, led to the QWERTY keyboard in the early 1870s.

In
part, the problem is one of complexity. Interface systems have to adapt
to human morphology and neurology and they have to do their job better
than before. It can take a lot of time to figure how to improve these
interfaces.

The revolution has begun, with touch and 2D/3D
gesture systems reinventing mobile phones and gaming. But the pace of
development and deployment has been painfully slow. One European
project hopes to change that.

The EU-funded OpenInterface (OI)
project took as its starting point the many interaction devices
currently available ““ touch screens, motion sensors, speech recognizers
and many others ““ and sought to create an open source development
framework capable of quickly and simply supporting the design and
development of new user interfaces by mixing and matching different
types of input device and modality.

“These devices and
modalities have been around a long time, but whenever developers seek
to employ them in new ways or simply in their applications, they have
to reinvent the wheel,” notes Laurence Nigay, OpenInterface’s
coordinator.

“They need to characterise the device, develop ways
to get it to work with technology and other interface systems. And then
do a lot of testing to make sure it usefully improves how people
interact with technology,” he says.

Then the whole interminable process begins anew.

OI gets in your interface

But with the OI framework, designers can rapidly prototype new input systems and methods.

Here
is how it works. The framework consists of a kernel, which is a
graphical tool for assembling components and a repository of
components. The OI framework enables developers to explore different
interaction possibilities. Faster development time means more
iterations of a new interface to achieve usable multimodal user
interfaces.

The graphical environment of the framework is called
OIDE, or OpenInterface Interaction Development Environment. It allows
designers to assemble components in order to specify a “pipeline” for
defining certain multimodal interaction.

Currently, the
framework includes various interaction devices and modalities including
the SHAKE, a lab-quality motion sensing device, the Wii remote
(Wiimote), the iPhone, Interface-Z captors, different speech
recognisers, vision-based finger tracker, and several toolkits
including ARToolKit and Phidgets.

Proof at hand

The proof
of the pudding is in the eating and OpenInterface developed a large
series of interface concepts to test the OIDE (see Showcase at
www.oi-project.org). One application used a Wiimote to operate a slide
viewer. Another developed game controls using the tilt sensor of the
iPhone and the motion sensor in the Wiimote.

Another slide
viewer was developed to switch between a wide variety of interfaces,
including the Wiimote, SHAKE, Interface Z captors and the Space
Navigator. Users could choose any interaction device they wished. A
balloon input system combined with a Wiimote allowed users to zoom into
a specific point on the slide simply by using the Wiimote and squeezing
the balloon.

Mapping featured in the project too, with one
application using a SHAKE motion sensor to navigate a map, while an
augmented, table-top touch screen could process voice commands combined
with touch to “Ëœzoom here’, for example. All sophisticated
demonstrations of the OIDE’s power. Meanwhile, a third map application
allowed users to combine a Wiimote and iPhone to navigate round a map.

Lastly,
several multimodal interfaces have been developed for games, in
particular games on mobile phones. As the mobile game market tends to
follow the more mature console/PC game market ““ and with the growing
diffusion of phones with new sensors ““ game developers will be more and
more interested in following this new trend.

“All these
applications were developed simply to demonstrate the capacity of the
OI framework to rapidly develop and prototype new multimodal interfaces
on PC and mobile phones that combine several input devices,” explains
Nigay.

Works with computers, too

Multimodal interaction
can be developed for PC applications as well as mobile phones. The
framework is open source and it supports various programming languages,
and can be downloaded from the project website.

The framework is
also extensible, so if a new input device reaches the market, it simply
needs to be characterized and plugged into the framework to then become
part of the framework “Ëœreference interface library’.

According
to the partners, this is a first step towards a commercial tool for
multimodal interaction. The only existing tools dedicated to multimodal
interaction like this, according to the project, are research
prototypes.

In addition to the framework, the OI repository
describing various interaction modalities is also a reference point for
the community interested in this field. And it is a way to promote
multimodal interaction in various application domains including gaming,
navigation in a map, and education.

The platform also ushers in
another welcome development: standards. So far, according to the OI
project, no industry agreed standard for defining multimodal interfaces
on mobile devices exists. The project has championed the creation of a
standards group at the European Telecommunications Standards Institute.

Next steps include taking the concept further, both through standards initiatives and further research.

The OpenInterface (OI) project received funding from the ICT strand of the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme for research.

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