Saturday, January 31, 2009

On Precision

Do YOU know your car’s height down to the millimetre?  You’d better…

Saw this in Southbank:


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Blade Runner 2, Brave New World, Forever War – coming to a cinema near you… umm.. soon…

In case you missed it, Slashdot had coverage of the fact that a Blade Runner sequel may be in the works, as would a film based on Brave New World (by Aldous Huxley), and Forever War (by Joe Haldeman).

Brave New World didn’t really do much for me, but Forever War, if properly done, could be the serious sci-fi movie people have been waiting for – they seem a bit thin on the ground these days.  More importantly, all this is supposedly to be directed by Ridley Scott (director of Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down among others).  Apparently he’s secured the rights to Forever War, and is now looking for a script.

Read all about it:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chernoff Faces and Data Visualization

While we might have a good feel for what makes a good UI, few of us give much thought to the niche are of data visualization.  Too often we’re content to present users with drab boring datagrids and lists.  While on one side there is the issue of familiarity (everyone has seen tables), the usability of grids for slicing and dicing data is limited at best.  Filtered columns, sorted columns can only get you so far, and certainly don’t provide you with a “feel” for the data.

Having just finished reading Blindsight by Peter Watts (freely available online – not too bad, with an interesting central idea looking at the potential for self-awareness to be unnecessary for intelligence), one of the characters makes use of Chernoff faces to visualise data.

Chernoff faces are an attempt to make use of the special brain circuitry that we have for recognizing faces in the context of data visualization.  The idea is to present the user with a field of stylized faces, associate a specific data dimension to a facial feature, and let the brain do the rest.  The below example maps data onto a real geographical space, but that is not strictly speaking necessary, the map could have been a set of two dimensional data of more abstract nature.  Using the following key to map facial features:


You can for example sweep your eye across the map looking for all the “big eared” faces to give an idea of crime rate.  Or you could look for “frowning faces with big ears” (which would map to high unemployment and high crime rate).


(image from

(for another interesting example, go to

While not bad on paper, it appears the applications are quite limited, and the data still doesn’t “jump out” at you, as well as the difficult issue of non-intuitiveness when dealing with abstract data sets (what facial feature should be “average sales”?).  Your mileage may vary – it still seems quite good at performing visual searches for specific patterns (for example consider the lot of faces with brown skin and short hair – higher percentage of collage graduates, but with lower incomes – what gives?) .

Regardless, this is but one attempt at visualizing data in a non-tabular way.  There are other stabs at doing this, some which even add motion to the visualization to suggest another data dimension.  Consider “Anymails” where email is visualized as various critters moving around in the visual space – older email moves more slowly, and various characteristics of the email are encoded into the shape/color of the insects:


(from, there’s also a video of the application in action there, I believe)

Why am I bringing this up? Well it’s all to do with with the trend we’re seeing in UI technologies.  Silverlight and WPF are both platforms in which animation and custom drawing are readily available, giving the freedom to easily create “compelling” user interfaces that may give us the ability present data in a more intuitive way, as well as interaction options that would have been too “expensive” to create in the past.  This will require more focus on what the users are trying to achieve as opposed to regurgitating the same dropdowns and text-boxes.  It will take years for this trend to develop, as the area appears to be largely unexplored in mainstream software design, and would be classified as risky. 

Regardless, creative thought in software engineering is back, and we should use the flexibility of SL and WPF to bring users the UIs that will give them truly better productivity, not just proxies of paper-based processes – Minority Report UI here we come!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Functionality vs Prettiness

Although I’ve traditionally been a proponent of Windows Mobile as a platform for pocket devices, the arrival of the iPhone certainly shakes the foundations of that conviction.  Watching now the rapid spread of the iPhone I wonder at how something like that could become so popular.  After all, PDA devices that mixed the PDA functionality with a phone are nothing new.  Consider the O2 XDA range for example, which has been out for years.  Nor is the tilt sensor anything unique – Nokia N95 had done it earlier.  GPS – others had it.  We can argue that it was all these features finally have come together in one reasonable package, and we’d be right.  Mostly.  There is however another feature that I think cuts to the bottom of the iPhone sales mystery – the UI.  Apple recognises that great functionality only gets you so far – the average user is a sucker for a pretty UI.  The iPhone is simply a pleasure to look at and operate. Everything from the sliding menus to the gradient background screams “luxury”.

For a lark, consider a unit/currency conversion application. Let’s ignore multi-touch, GPS and tilt sensors  Here’s a screenshot of an existing iPhone app that does this:


And here’s the same functionality, mocked up in a Windows Mobile 5 emulator under Visual Studio 2008, using the Compact Framework:


Sure, I could have made custom controls to beautify the thing, but the point is how far one could get with mostly out of the box tools, and there is no contest.  I’d buy the mobile that gives me the great looking UI, given the same functionality.  In fact I suspect a lot of people will take a hit on functionality for the sake of snazzy UI.  This is one of the reasons Silverlight on Windows Mobile is a big deal, and I look forward to it in “Q1 of 2009”.  No doubt MS will be playing catch-up to Apple for a few years.

PS: I don’t actually own an iPhone, the above is strictly based on short impressions, however I’d argue that a lot of purchasing decisions are made that way, for the majority of the shopping populace.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Silverlight 2 for mobile devices

Just finished watching a presentation from PDC2008, and apparently Silverlight 2 will be available as a tech preview on the mobile in the first quarter of 2009.  This is the first time I’ve heard of SL2 being released for mobile.  Previous announcements have centered around SL1, not version 2.  Version 2 was previously discussed as a distant Alpha, with no indication of timelines.  Silverlight 1 always seemed like a sad excuse for a framework, so I can’t say I was looking forward to a mobile release.  But the release of SL2 will finally give us the ability to design Iphone looking applications for the mobile.

As expected, designing will be available from Blend as well as from Visual Studio.  According to the demo, the development experience will be very similar.

See session PC10 for the announcement. (

Performance will of course be an interesting issue, as will the experience on a non touch enabled phone, eg Smartphone.