TAT co-founder on how technology turns us all into replicants

Hampus Jakobsson is no Luddite. As a co-founder of interface design firm The Astonishing Tribe (TAT), which was acquired last year by RIM, he has worked on some of the most cutting-edge, mobile interface technology. Yet he says that technology, as it exists now, is turning us into replicants by forcing us to interact according to its rules.

In the film Blade Runner, a replicant was a biorobotic being which was virtually identical to a human but lacked emotion and empathy. I talked to Jakobsson about the future of interfaces and how they should use “the human APIs”.

“We see people and machines interacting in a very dumbed down way” he says. Jakobsson complains that 90 percent of the status updates in his Facebook stream are from Foursquare, Runkeeper or Gowalla.”The interface through which we are talking to each other is GPS coordinates, how many kilometers I have been running and songs shared on Spotify. We are using the APIs of a machine instead of the human APIs like voice and feelings and movement”.

Jakobsson sees a possible future in which our lives become cluttered with ever-fancier screens (see TAT’s future of screens video below), augmented reality and other machine-driven interfaces. “It’s not augmented reality, it’s dumbed down reality” he comments. “We come from an era where everything is clickable. Now we are saying, everything that is clickable in real life, let’s put a red tag on it, which is talking technology language. You are forcing people to become robots.” His alternative is to make interfaces more human and he sees designers as crucial to that process. “How do we create people to machine to people interfaces which make that interaction natural?”

Jakobsson is Swedish and he uses the analogy of cross-country skiing to explain the role of the designer. There is a huge difference between the effort required to ski on virgin snow and on a pre-defined track. The traditional role of the user interface designer was to make tracks that users can follow. While one of the designer’s jobs should still be “to create highway tracks”, Jakobsson would also like to see a process where users are allowed to ski around on a metaphorical open field and the tracks they create can be used by others. He describes this a more heuristic way to create a user interface.

Just as importantly, Jakobsson thinks that the designers role is not just to make a product pretty, something he regards as “lipstick on a pig” design. “Designers should be in the depth of engineering and even before engineering.” A large part of the designer’s task is to identify the specific niches or use cases which a product should address. “The question is really ‘Should we build a church or a monastery?’ Right now we are building holy places.” he explains. In other words, most technology products, and mobile phones in particular, address too broad an audience and set of uses.

“I think we will see much more of people having text and talk phones, in a sense. Simplifying but not dumbing down.” he says. “The problem today is that there are really just two phone categories: a smartphone with bells and whistles and no battery life or an old phone like a Nokia series 40″.

Every handset manufacturer is finding it hard to escape the trap of building an iPhone copy. Jakobsson cites INQ mobile as an exception to this trend. INQ makes phones designed for specific niches like social networking. “Let’s build this phone which has built-in Spotify and built-in Facebook. It doesn’t even look like an iPhone. I think INQ is going to be really successful” he says.

I asked Jakobsson for some examples of user interface technologies he likes. “I like gesture interfaces because that’s a very human approach. Gestures are very much more tactile.” But he also thinks that more natural interfaces introduce new problems. “The minute you do direct manipulation, for example using touch, it needs to be perfectly responsive. We are getting into the concept of the uncanny valley (when robots look and act almost, but not quite, like humans and actual humans are repulsed) for interfaces when you add physics engines, gestures, etc. because we are manipulating human to human interactions. When they are ten percent off, it’s just going to feel weird.”

He’s also not a big fan of haptics. “Haptics for me is like voice recognition. It’s the best idea in the world but it just doesn’t work. In 5 to 10 years they will both work.” The ideal for Jakobsson is that technology starts to disappear. “The device you are holding in your hand will become thinner and thinner, not physically necessarily, but conceptually. You are going to think that you are not even holding a device.”

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