Richard Banks talks social engagement tech on Kinect, WP7 and the web

Microsoft on technology for social engagement

Game development has always been about interaction design.

Microsoft Research in Cambridge are conducting research on how our social relationships are being affected by the technology we use. And their findings could be beneficial for all sectors of the gaming market.

We contacted senior interaction designer Richard Banks to hear his perspective on how Kinect and Window Phone 7 are changing interface design, lessons to learn from social networks and the effects of multitasking.

What can attendees expect from your session at Evolve in London?
I’m a senior interaction designer in Microsoft’s Research group working out of the Cambridge lab in the UK. The team I’m part of spends a lot of its time looking at the home and families, particularly from the perspective of digital media and communications. So my session will hopefully work at three levels for attendees: from a technology trends level (looking at new hardware and software, from both inside and outside Microsoft, that might affect the gaming world); from an interaction design level (looking at new ways in which we’re designing for the way in which people use technology); and from a social/societal level (describing some of the ways in which we think people really behave and think that may inspire game ideas).

Many of the ideas and functions of social networks, such as news feeds, are now being incorporated into games. What is it about social networks’ interfaces that has encouraged other parts of the tech community to adopt them?
We probably have to separate out the data that a social network creates continually from its interface. One of the powerful things about the interfaces built on top of these networks is that they can be presented to people in a wide variety of ways, many of which create new approaches for thinking about the source. So, TweetDeck, a client application for Twitter, presents streams of content in a way that makes the service feel like something that needs monitoring. FlipBoard, which presents exactly the same data, but in a format that is more like a magazine, makes Twitter feel like a service that you casually browse through at leisure. This offers other parts of the tech community to re-contextualize the network in a way that suits them.

I suspect that a key component of a social network’s interface at the outset has probably been that it simply doesn’t get in the way. Most if these networks have started with a simple idea – sharing 140 characters of “what you are doing now” in the case of Twitter, and creating a network of friends by invitation in the case of Facebook. That’s what has drawn them in. That it has fulfilled a need, and connected them to others, in a way that is very approachable, and to some extent addictive.

Kinect has been a big push for Microsoft. What kinds of interface opportunities does this new technology present?
We’re at an early stage with this technology in which some of our job now is mapping this new thing onto old systems (for example, allowing you to do menu navigation by gestures). This is important, since it lets Kinect be a part of our existing experiences, but the question is what values and new forms of experience does it offer.

There are a lot of things about Kinect, as an interface designer, that are really interesting and offer huge opportunities for rethinking the way in which we engage with computers. One is that it is full body enabled. It has a sense of the whole person both as an individual (through face and voice) but also as a series of linked components. It knows about your feet, for example. We’ve never really had feet as a form of input for computing before, beyond the odd driving peripheral. Another interesting aspect is the casualness of shared experiences. Someone can just walk into the frame of the device and join in the game then leave. This invites interaction, I suspect, because suddenly you don’t need your own devices and peripherals to join in. You can just walk in and be part of an experience.

It’s taken game developers a long time to master the joypad for subtle control experiences. How long before we see such uses with Kinect?
I think it takes a while for a new form of input to be properly understood and exploited. This was true for the mouse, for example. It was a while before we understood about acceleration and deceleration of the pointer, ways of building controls that take advantage of it in the best way possible and so on. It’s both about the subtlety but also the standards that are emergent. We’re currently going through a similar cycle with touch-based devices, understanding how to build optimised experiences (for example, the best size of hit target on the screen for the finger) as well as conforming to emerging standards (like the way in which two fingers are now used to zoom in and out on items).

I think we’ve done a great job out of the gate with Kinect, setting a high bar for interactivity, while also leaving plenty of wiggle room for developers to experiment with the technology. It will be interesting to see how the use of the device changes as different games exploit it in new ways, while also watching standard interface gestures emerge as developers learn from one another.

How do you see user interfaces evolving across social networks and mobile platforms?
I think there are probably two big elements of interface evolution that could change the way in which we think about the experience of social networks and mobile platforms. The first is the way our social network is integrated into what we do, and the second is how we think about the re-configurability of content.

When I got my Windows Phone 7 device I was amazed at how well the Facebook integration worked, and how it changed the way I thought about my network of friends. The device automatically connected the people in my phone’s address book with their Facebook profiles. Suddenly their birth dates, the names of their spouses, the URLs of their websites just all showed up right underneath the traditional contact details of phone number, home address, etc. This really made me see the network as a pragmatic resource for connecting me with my friends, as well as simply a way of finding out what they’ve been up to most recently.

FlipBoard, which I mentioned earlier, is another app that’s had a big impact on me, in terms of the way I think about interfaces, content and the network. Many of the Twitter feeds I subscribe to are made up of Tweets that are pointers to other content. Links to websites and pictures for example. FlipBook takes all the Tweets and pulls in everything that is being pointed to, presenting it like a magazine, using dynamic pages with lots of different kinds of layout. It’s really made me realise how malleable the social network content is, and how I can see it in lots of different ways, through difference interfaces, depending on the amount of time I have, my mood, my interests and so on.

What are you working on at Microsoft Research that could benefit the gaming market?
My team is made up of developers, social scientists and designers. We focus on the home and families a lot, looking at the way personal relationships work, or the way digital photos are used between friends and relations. There’s some work there, obviously, that will be interesting to the casual gaming market, focused on the home and family. What we’ve learnt about the way people communicate, and use communication tools like SMS and email, should be valuable when it comes to designing social games, casual or not.

I think of some interest, too, is work we’re doing around serious issues about what it means to be human. I’ve been encouraged to see independent games like Pathways and Passage, and even Limbo, start to play with mature themes like mortality, loss and so on. There’s a lot of meat there for inspiring new ideas for games, particularly as storytelling takes a more central role. So, although my presentation will by no means be dominated by this kind of (potentially depressing!) content, it’s something I’d like to touch on.

It’s becoming more common for people to watch TV, browse the internet, send tweets and other activities at once. What affect is increased multitasking having on our demands of technology and our lives?
I’m certainly as guilty as the next person in trying to achieve a lot at once when, say, I’m watching the TV. There’s a side of TV that’s always been passive, and a little in the background. It always seems to draw our eyes in, yet I think we’ve always done quite a lot in front of it.

I think there are two issues here, really. How much we can actually do with our time (overall capacity) and how much we can try and do at once. I think some of the statistics on how we spend our time are pretty interesting. The latest Nielson data from the US indicates that teens are doing the least amount of TV viewing in the home. I was surprised by that. There could be a lot of reasons for that, one of which is that they have a lot more outlets for their time, many of which, you could argue, are better than TV. So there’s something potentially positive there.

Multitasking is a big issue, I think. There is a sense of constant distraction from texts, emails, calls, as well as the draw to check Facebook and Twitter often. There are aspects of this that may be very positive too – our capacity to skim, and understand a situation quickly may improve. Personally, I have to force myself to set time aside to write and design that is free of those distractions, which takes quite a bit of discipline.

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