Skip to main content

GLOBAL – A few months ago, I got really excited about an NRC Tampere project that involved creating a usable multitouch interface out of blocks of ice. Most people seemed to think it was quite a cool video and moved on, but I thought it was the future of computing. In case you’re thinking I have more topical things to write about, this all connects to the potential promise of Nokia Windows Phone devices, honest.

Back to the ice. Making computer interfaces out of natural materials that sit comfortably in the landscape might sound like some sort of contemporary art installation, and in some ways, I suppose it was. But it was also an experiment in what Mark Weiser first termedcalm technology’ in a paper published back in 1995.

Technology today is anything but calm – it’s positively frenetic. And our mobile devices are often the worst culprits, especially the smart devices that collate meetings, emails, tweets, RSS feeds and more. That’s an information overload right there in your pocket. How many times have you sat in meetings where people are heads-down into their mobile phones for half its duration? It’s amazing we get anything done at all, and many are finding that they’re not.


So what Weiser, and many others since, proposed is that we need technology that doesn’t require very much of our attention at all. If we aren’t continually jumping at the sound of pings and dings like Pavlovian monkeys, then we might get stuff done, feel calmer and achieve a more healthy connection to the real people around us.

And Windows Phone, then. The most obvious feature of its interface is the live tiles. There might be a lot of good and bad things about tiles, but the one that’s relevant here is that they are glanceable. You don’t need to dive into an app or press buttons to see what’s going on – much of the information is bubbled to the surface.

With most phones, the model is all about layers – at the top layer, you decide what you want to do, then one or more layers later, you get to that activity. That’s time-consuming and requires full attention. A new – ‘calmer’ – model proposes that relevant activities and information can sit on the surface, require minimal attention and that the majority of interactions (in terms of time spent, rather than functions) can be done without leaving the surface layer.

That journey to glanceable, low-maintenance interfaces is by no means over but the Windows Phone paradigm interests me because it seems a step in the right direction. Many people prefer a more technical, computer dashboard on their phone, with lots of layers and more controls than a 747, I’m sure. But I really don’t believe that’s the path to greater productivity or better relationships in the long term.