Physical intuition

Read-outs from the cockpit of the OPL experimental plane.After the last couple of posts I got some interesting comments about familiarity being important to intuition. Roger Attrill pointed out that Adobe users would find Photoshop intuitive (while others wouldn’t) and Bob Salmon pointed out that musicians might find software using some kind of musical-score based interface natural to use that the rest of us wouldn’t.

For the kind of sensory interfaces I’m interested in, however, I think you’d want something that is cross-cultural, something that relies on being human, maybe, or on a naive understanding of the physics of the world, but not otherwise requiring training.

What I’m getting at might be considered a wider definition of a term I just learned for the first time last year: symbology. When I visited Tom Schell’s lab, I talked to him and to Todd Macuda about the various ways that, mainly through visual display, they try to make jobs easier for pilots. One of the examples they showed me, for instance, was having a ‘road’ displayed over the landscape that you were flying over—a road you were supposed to keep to—or a set of rectangles appearing that you aimed to fly through. This, it seemed to me, was very easy to understand: anyone, from any culture, can understand the concept of a path or a tunnel.

I was also shown some more traditional displays: the kind you’re more likely to see in cockpits today. These consist of artificial horizons and dials etc. as shown in the picture, and anyone who has ever tried to use them would agree that they require a lot of training: their connection with the real, physical world is not at all obvious to the lay person.

The three haptic displays I used, on the other hand, all had inherently physical properties. With the vibro-tactile suit to aid spatial orientation, there was almost a direct physical meaning to the location of buzzing. For instance, if you were in a small room with your arms out and leaned forward, your chest might touch the wall (chest vibrators buzz when you lean forward). If you leaned sideways, your hand might touch the wall (wrist vibrators buzz when you lean sideways), and then more of your arm would make contact (elbow/shoulder buzzers start to go). So there is a physical meaning to the signal, relating to the physics of the world.

Photo: Read-outs from the cockpit of the OPL experimental plane.

The version of the tongue-display designed to help with balance feels like having a kind of two-dimensional spirit level on your tongue (and it really works too, more on this later): another physical interface. Likewise for the North (or Feelspace) belt discussed in the Wired article.

I think there’s something fundamental here.