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The issue: an industry that competes by bombarding consumers with products that are feature-heavy, stubbornly proprietary and persistently incompatible with one another.

InformationWeek Staff

January 9, 2007

4 Min Read

LAS VEGAS — The bad news emerging from a Consumer Electronics Show panel seeking answers to the mounting complexity—for consumers—of electronic devices was the dizzying complexity of the potential solutions proposed by the panelists.

"The underlying base is growing more and more complex," said panel member Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research & Development Center at the University of Wisconsin. "There's nothing that's going to change that." Later, he added, "It's killing us. It's slowing the industry down."

The good news is that a number of industry organizations are developing novel but complicated approaches to easing the burden for consumers. Among the answers are devices, like the computers in "Star Trek," that understand spoken commands, the implementation of User Interface Sockets (UIS) that would allow a user to choose interface that best suits his need to control electronics devices. Through an emerging standard dubbed CEA128, the Consumer Electronics Association is also working on Task Model-based user interface initiative that provides a user the ability to control devices based on "tasks" he wants to get done.

Other industry attempts to make devices easier to use and connect include Digital Living Network Alliance and Ease of Use Round Table.

The bad news, however, is that none of the solutions now under consideration will instantaneously make the current generation of devices easier to use, or the next. Nor is the pell-mell pace going to slow in an industry that competes by bombarding consumers with products that are feature-heavy, stubbornly proprietary and persistently incompatible with one another.

Panelist Glen Stone, vice president at Sony Electronics Inc.'s U.S. Advanced Technology Center, noted that when he thinks about ease-of-use standards attempted in the past, "I just keep coming up with things that failed."

Paul Sorenson, principal human factors engineer at Intel, quoting the words of Bjarne Stroustrup, inventor of C++, summarized the difficulty of reversing the momentum of complexity: "I have always wished for my computer to be as easy to use as my telephone; my wish has come true because I can no longer figure out how to use my telephone."

The good news, according to Sorenson, is that consumer electronics companies previously too busy to consider the plight of the consumer are starting to pay attention to the human factor. "There's a huge change in the attitude of purely technical forums, and that's new," he said.

Sony's Stone referred to this fresh awareness as a consumer "SOS" to which at long last manufacturers are responding.

Vanderheiden detailed the most promising ways that user interfaces might be engineered to make devices easier to use. Among these, he cited UIS. On any new device, a UIS would allow the user to import an older, more familiar control interface. The device would then recognize this interface, allowing users to interact with the device in familiar ways.

Describing the potential of this technology, Vanderheiden said, "It's like having a friend who's going to do things for you."

Vanderheiden said his laboratory is one of several working on a task modeling approach to consumer devices, which would define—and limit—the use of the device in terms of tasks users want to perform, rather than according to the full range of the device's capabilities. He also said the dream of "natural language" devices is closer than it was when Captain Kirk put the idea into TV viewer's minds 40 years ago.

Panelist Tom MacTavish, director of the Center for Human Interaction Research at Motorola, said that ease-of-use will also be enhanced with greater use of bit-mapped graphics, touch-screen technology and other interfaces that "isolate the user from the complexity of the device."

The bad news is that none of these answers is likely to emerge in the near future.

One thing that can be done immediately, said panelist Charles Rich, distinguished research scientist at the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories, is for retailers to discourage manufacturers from overemphasizing their "features list." The more features offered on, for example, a TV, the higher the price. But with more features comes more complexity, followed by confusion, followed by disillusionment. "The rate of sales of new technology," noted Vanderheiden, "is being held back because people just do not want to deal with another new interface."

So, asked moderator Junko Yoshida, EE Times news editor, if not now, when?

The panelists agreed that, unlike the technology thunderbolts that are typically launched at CES, ease-of-use solutions will emerge incrementally, driven by an industry slowly recognizing complexity as a major issue, but hindered by a reluctance to standardize user interfaces that often serve as keys to product differentiation. Rich stressed that ease-of-use solutions, like natural language controls, must be bug-free before they're introduced—or they will end up as part of the complexity problem, not the solution.

The good news about solving ease-of use problems in incremental steps, said Vanderheiden, is that they are sure to be "100-percent successful," but only "when it's mature enough."

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