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3/10/2006
04:25 PM
John Soat
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IT Confidential: You Always Hurt The Ones You Love/Hate

Like every other technology conference these days, last week's CeBIT in Hannover, Germany, featured consumer devices: more high-definition televisions, car-navigation systems, and wireless handheld devices, which, of course, the world is in desperate need of. A side alley at CeBIT, though, featured a research team from the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research in Rostock, Germany, which has been working on techniques to make computers able to sense the moods of their users. (My colleague Mitch Wagner has a funny video about this at Teaching Computers To Read Minds.) This research is important because "several recent studies have found that computer users not only love and cherish their machines, but very often maltreat them," according to the institute's Web site. "Experts have identified aggression towards the PC as a genuine problem that deserves greater attention in the academic field."

Do you remember a video that made the rounds on the Internet several years ago called "Bad Day"? Supposedly shot by a surveillance camera, it showed an office worker in a cubicle getting increasingly frustrated with his computer until he grabs the keyboard and smashes it into the monitor. It turned out to be lifted from a security company's promotional material, but the sentiment was familiar, and struck deep.

So Fraunhofer's idea is to make computers too lovable to be trounced. Except, it won't work. People don't want cute machines: efficient, effective, yes; adorable, no. Sony recently acknowledged that lesson when it stopped development of its two adorable robots: Aibo, the dog, and QRIO, the humanoid robot. Sony spun the kill-off as part of a corporate restructuring and refocusing, but let's face it--if adorable robots were doing as well as, say, MP3 players, Sony wouldn't be bailing.

Which reminds me of Microsoft Bob. Introduced in the mid-1990s, this was something of a departure for Microsoft--a truly innovative piece of software. Microsoft Bob was an early attempt at a user-friendly interface that featured metaphorical rooms in a metaphorical house and, of course, an adorable dog companion called Rover. It flopped, badly.

People don't want to buddy up to their machines. They want arm's-length relationships that allow for a degree of mutual respect but are actually based on a low-simmering antagonism that can--and does--escalate easily. There's a psychological dimension to the man/machine relationship that's ugly at its heart and largely unacknowledged. Physical violence isn't the primary mode of interaction people want with their machines, it's a lesson-teaching last resort. More common is a stream-of-conscious browbeating usually characterized by a barely audible expletive-laden dialogue about the machine's inherent shortcomings and frustrating limitations. It's a refreshingly candid interaction most humans allow themselves with no other entities on earth.

The sooner engineers design machines that more accurately reflect this--hardened cases and simple-to-the-point-of-idiocy interfaces would be a start--the better. Like, say, MP3 players.

How did the screen on my PC get smashed? And the keyboard pounded in? Uh ... let me get back to you. Meanwhile, send an industry tip to jsoat@cmp.com or phone 516-562-5326.

The News Show gives as good as it gets, so save your smart remarks but tune in at noon EST every weekday, at TheNewsShow.tv or on InformationWeek.com.


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