Take a second, forget about trash-can icons and QWERTY keyboards and ponder the real interface — our future interaction with technology. How will we navigate the infosphere in 10 years? Will we use mouses or cursors controlled by biofeedback? Will our browser windows be square and scrolled or dynamically controlled by content, or even our retinas? And what will be the architecture of the infosphere and how will we search it (or how will it be searched by our agents?)?
Wim Wenders’ sci-fi opus “Until the End of the World” may be somewhat fuzzy and long-winded, but his visions of the future are impressive. The movie is a cautionary tale about our reliance on images and technology, in which the characters become addicted to replaying their dreams viewed through headsets.
In a minor but memorable scene, Wenders’ heroine jacks into a computer network to search for an American fugitive. A 3-D Russian bear appears on her screen, saying “searching, searching,” as it dances around a map of Europe and later interacts with a smiling Uncle Sam.
Wenders dreamed up this scene in 1991, when the Internet was still a blip on the big radar. In the movie, Wenders was able to see far enough into the future to know that the standard interface would evolve. A German auteur, Wenders wished to comment on our dependence on techno-toys, but he seems to betray his own fascination with their power and influence.
It’s easy to see the dancing bear as a frivolous interface for a practical task, but the importance of whimsies or aesthetics shouldn’t be so easily dismissed. Look at the success of flying-toaster screen savers, or the psychedelic MetaTools of visionary guru Kai Krause. Whimsy is a weapon against stifling standardization.
Interfaces must be efficient, but they need not be bleak and unengaging. It’s easy to dismiss the geeks who obsessively decorate their desktops, but whatever our tastes may be, the power to customize is crucial.
This works for what’s under the interface, the hardware. Look at the success of the configure-it-yourself PC offers of Gateway and Dell. And then there is the popularity of iMac’s yummy color schemes. Options are the operative term.
For a good example of interface evolution, turn your attention to “skins.” They might be a minor cosmetic element, but they hint at something bigger. A skin is basically a design template, a graphic overlay that alters an application’s look and feel. I starting seeing skins after the emergence of MP3 players. On the desktop, MP3 players look like CD players with conventional buttons and knobs. A new skin changes all that.
Skins can be provided by the software developer or, as is often the case, ordinary computer users. At sites such as Skinz.org and Customize.org, skins are available for a variety of applications such as Palm OS Emulator, the chat client ICQ and the desktop organizer LaunchKaos.
Let’s look at the evolution of Net applications. Browser integration with the desktop isn’t the only game in town. Enterprising developers are supplementing browsers, synchronizing with browsers.
Forerunners of this trend were small free-standing search applications from Infoseek and Alexa; they were separate, yet connected to the browser. Now these are actually part of the browser (Infoseek Express has to be installed; Alexa is part of the recent Navigator).
Cue bells and whistles for the entrance of NeoPlanet, an application (or more specifically, a shell) that runs on top of Internet Explorer. NeoPlanet is unique among alternative browsers in that it’s skinnable — you can change the overall look of your browser, choosing from default skins or those made by independent designers. Choices range from Scratchy (squiggly low-tech lines) to Treasure Chest (wood paneling, moving gears) to NeoCircus (watch the juggling clown). Without a lot of programming knowledge, anyone can design a NeoPlanet skin.
Similarly, companies could design special browser skins for intranets or brand promotion. The antivirus company McAfee has already done just that. Snapple, MTV, Virgin — where are your NeoPlanet browsers?
Despite the slick appearance, NeoPlanet is more than a gee-whiz interface. It calls itself the next generation of “browser/portals.” For starters, it allows users to easily trade channels (which are essentially lists of bookmarks). This resembles schemes such as the Open Directory Project (formerly Newhoo), where indexes are maintained by users. NeoPlanet, however, has taken this further by building it into the browser (and aligned itself with Snap and Alexa). NeoPlanet hasn’t given birth to a community, but the potential is there.
Some say that NeoPlanet is parasitic, in that it relies on the technological advances of other browser creators (it’s also utilizing Netscape’s next generation engine, Geko). But seen in terms of that recent buzzword “open source” it’s fair game.
It’s not hard to imagine that software developers will start bundling skin design helpers with their application. NeoPlanet already includes a channel designer, which isn’t any great leap but indeed a step in the right direction.
“Until the End of the World” is set in 1999. We might get our dancing bear yet.