Cognitive engineering of mixed reality


iOS 11: user-adaptable control centre, with application and function shortcuts in the lock screen.
iOS 11: user-adaptable control centre, with application and function shortcuts in the lock screen.

In the 1970s and 1980s the concept ‘cognitive engineering’ was used in the industry labs to describe an approach trying to apply cognitive science lessons to the design and engineering fields. There were people like Donald A. Norman, who wanted to devise systems that are not only easy, or powerful, but most importantly pleasant and even fun to use.

One of the classical challenges of making technology suit humans, is that humans change and evolve, and differ greatly in motivations and abilities, while technological systems tend to stay put. Machines are created in a certain manner, and are mostly locked within the strict walls of material and functional specifications they are based on, and (if correctly manufactured) operate reliably within those parameters. Humans, however, are fallible and changeable, but also capable of learning.

In his 1986 article, Norman uses the example of a novice and experienced sailor, who greatly differ in their abilities to take the information from compass, and translate that into a desirable boat movement (through the use of tiller, and rudder). There have been significant advances in multiple industries in making increasingly clear and simple systems, that are easy to use by almost anyone, and this in turn has translated into increasingly ubiquitous or pervasive application of information and communication technologies in all areas of life. The televisions in our living rooms are computing systems (often equipped with apps of various kinds), our cars are filled with online-connected computers and assistive technologies, and in our pockets we carry powerful terminals into information, entertainment, and into the ebb and flows of social networks.

There is, however, also an alternative interpretation of what ‘cognitive engineering’ could be, in this dawning era of pervasive computing and mixed reality. Rather than only limited to engineering products that attempt to adapt to the innate operations, tendencies and limitations of human cognition and psychology, engineering systems that are actively used by large numbers of people also means designing and affecting the spaces, within which our cognitive and learning processes will then evolve, fit in, and adapt into. Cognitive engineering does not only mean designing and manufacturing certain kinds of machines, but it also translates into an impact that is made into the human element of this dialogical relationship.

Graeme Kirkpatrick (2013) has written about the ‘streamlined self’ of the gamer. There are social theorists who argue that living in a society based on computers and information networks produces new difficulties for people. Social, cultural, technological and economic transitions linked with the life in late modern, capitalist societies involve movements from projects to new projects, and associated necessity for constant re-training. There is necessarily no “connecting theme” in life, or even sense of personal progression. Following Boltanski and Chiapello (2005), Kirkpatrick analyses the subjective condition where life in contradiction – between exigency of adaptation and demand for authenticity – means that the rational course in this kind of systemic reality is to “focus on playing the game well today”. As Kirkpatrick writes, “Playing well means maintaining popularity levels on Facebook, or establishing new connections on LinkedIn, while being no less intensely focused on the details of the project I am currently engaged in. It is permissible to enjoy the work but necessary to appear to be enjoying it and to share this feeling with other involved parties. That is the key to success in the game.” (Kirkpatrick 2013, 25.)

One of the key theoretical trajectories of cognitive science has been focused on what has been called “distributed cognition”: our thinking is not only situated within our individual brains, but it is in complex and important ways also embodied and situated within our environments, and our artefacts, in social, cultural and technological means. Gaming is one example of an activity where people can be witnessed to construct a sense of self and its functional parameters out of resources that they are familiar with, and which they can freely exploit and explore in their everyday lives. Such technologically framed play is also increasingly common in working life, and our schools can similarly be approached as complex, designed and evolving systems that are constituted by institutions, (implicit, as well as explicit) social rules and several layers of historically sedimented technologies.

Beyond all hype of new commercial technologies related to virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality technologies of various kinds, lies the fact that we have always already lived in complex substrate of mixed realities: a mixture of ideas, values, myths and concepts of various kinds, that are intermixed and communicated within different physical and immaterial expressive forms and media. Cognitive engineering of mixed reality in this, more comprehensive sense, involves involvement in dialogical cycles of design, analysis and interpretation, where practices of adaptation and adoption of technology are also forming the shapes these technologies are realized within. Within the context of game studies, Kirkpatrick (2013, 27) formulates this as follows: “What we see here, then, is an interplay between the social imaginary of the networked society, with its distinctive limitations, and the development of gaming as a practice partly in response to those limitations. […] Ironically, gaming practices are a key driver for the development of the very situation that produces the need for recuperation.” There are multiple other areas of technology-intertwined lives where similar double bind relationships are currently surfacing: in social use of mobile media, in organisational ICT, in so-called smart homes, and smart traffic design and user culture processes. – A summary? We live in interesting times.

– Boltanski, Luc, ja Eve Chiapello (2005) The New Spirit of Capitalism. London & New York: Verso.
– Kirkpatrick, Graeme (2013) Computer Games and the Social Imaginary. Cambridge: Polity.
– Norman, Donald A. (1986) Cognitive engineering. User Centered System Design31(61).

Apple TV, 4th generation

Apple has been developing their television offerings in multiple fronts: in one sense, much television content and viewers have already moved into Apple (and Google) platforms, as online video and streaming media keeps on growing in popularity. According to one market research report, in 18-24 age group (in America), between 2011 and 2016, traditional television viewing has dropped by almost 40 %. At the same time, subscriptions to streaming video services (like Netflix) are growing. Particularly among the young people, some reports already suggest that they are spending more time watching streaming video as contrasted to watching live television programs. Just in the period from 2012 to 2014, mobile video views increased by 400 %.

Still, the television set remains as the centrepiece of most Western living rooms. Apple TV is designed to adapt games, music, photos and movies from the Apple ecosystem to the big screen. After some problems with the old, second generation Apple TV, I got today the new, 4th generation Apple TV. It has more powerful processor, more memory, a new remote control that has a small touch surface, and runs a new version of tvOS. The most important aspect regarding expansions into new services is the ability to download and install apps and games from thousands that are available in the App Store for tvOS.

After some quick testing, I think that I will prefer using the Remote app in my iPhone 6 Plus, rather than navigating with the small physical remote, which feels a bit finicky. Also, for games the dedicated video game controller (Steelseries Nimbus) would definitely provide a better sense of control. The Nimbus should also play nice with iPhone and iPad games, in addition to Apple TV ones.

Setup of the system was simple enough, and was most easily handled via another Apple device – iCloud was utilized to access Wi-Fi and other registered home settings automatically. Apart from the bit tricky touch controls, the user experience is excellent. Even the default screensavers of the new system are this time high-definition video clips, which are great to behold in themselves. This is not a 4k system, though, so if you have already upgraded the living room television into 4k version, the new Apple TV does not support that. Ours is still a Full HD Sony Bravia, so no problem for us. Compared to some other competing streaming media boxes (like Roku 4, Amazon Fire TV, Nvidia Shield Android TV), the feature set of Apple TV in comparison to its price might seem a bit lacklustre. The entire Apple ecosystem has its own benefits (as well as downsides) though.

Surfacing experiences

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I have been testing the Surface Pro 4 mobile device / two-in-one Windows 10 computer recently – here are some first impressions:

Windows 10 “Hello” feature with its biometric (camera) login is fast and more convenient way to log in to a mobile device that is constantly closed and opened than e.g. passwords or even a fingerprint reader – you just start the tablet and look at it, and it recognizes you and unlocks (the first times it does this feel almost magical).

After installing few essential pieces of software (and updates to the Windows 10 OS), the next thing one notices is fan noise: the process of Dropbox downloading my data from the cloud heated the system so much that the small vents were really pushing air out; on the other hand, after some OS updates, in regular use Surface Pro 4 seems to be mostly rather quiet and cool device.

The touch-screen pen that attaches to the sides of device with snappy magnets is well designed and functional; however, it takes some time to realise that the Surface Pen works in different way than most other such pointing devices. You cannot navigate, flip or scroll web pages using the pen, for example. Microsoft has decided to disable that functionality, which frankly feels pretty weird. The pen selects and draws, but you need to use your fingers to scroll through pages, that is the Surface way. Changing hands to do such basic things requires some learning. There seems to be also some inconsistency in how the pen works in different applications and OS screens, but I need to experiment further to make sure.

2016-02-26 18.09.46The most essential accessory (apart from Surface Pen) is the Type Cover, which is a pretty good keyboard & touchpad combo. It is not perfect (there is some flex, and a flappy cover is never a solid part of device like a real clamshell laptop keyboard is), but it is much better than many other keyboard covers for mobile devices. Keys have slightly rubbery feel and I cannot get as high typing speed as e.g. with a good ThinkPad keyboard or Logitech K810, for example, but with this keyboard Microsoft is almost there. The touchpad is a smooth glass thing that reacts precisely, is large enough and can handle multitouch (five simultaneous touch points), so gestures work fine. (The double-tap and select actions do not always register, however, as the touchpad is affected if Surface Pro is used in uneven or soft surfaces.) The trick is to develop the necessary skills where you automatically put your hands for some tasks to the touchscreen of Surface display, and for some to the touchpad – and then do some elements in multitasking with keyboard combos (Win-Tab, Ctrl-Tab, Alt-Tab etc.) and even then some tasks with the pen. The form factor of Surface also changes depending whether you use it with the keyboard or not, in landscape or vertical orientation, or whether the OS is in Windows 10 desktop mode or tablet mode (the “Metro” user interface that was introduced in Win 8).

This leads to the key lesson derived from testing Surface Pro 4 so far: it is essentially a “Pro” thing, rather than a casual entertainment and surf board. The lack of really high quality, polished and well-designed apps for Win10 tablet mode emphasises that the key use case still lies at the PC desktop side of things. And there is nothing wrong with that: most professionals will benefit from a fully-powered laptop that can also double as a crisp and sharp tablet for those presentation, negotiation or demo events, for example. Ability to use multiple interaction modalities and control techniques, coupled with flexibility and extensive range of different software (communications, office tools, games, media, arts, design tools, etc.) also means that the scope of uses Surface Pro 4 can handle is really great – but that the entire experience also involves its fair share of complexity. While using an iPad, for example, is so straightforward that you can hand one to your grandma and expect her to manage on her own (mostly), Surface Pro has a mixture of elements that are useful and well designed, but can at least initially confuse even a power user.

Where Microsoft cannot get full points is software finish, however. Particularly the display driver of Surface Pro appears to be still half-finished and buggy: e.g. it is now clear that one should not use the default Windows 10 Edge browser with Surface Pro 4, as entering sleep mode with the Edge open will most likely crash the display driver, and the OS even. It is common to see completely blurred, unreadable text rendered in Edge. Giving up on Edge and using Google Chrome fixes that. Another buggy thing is the way sleep mode is implemented in general. There seems to be quite a lot of Windows software that either stops Surface Pro 4 from entering the sleep mode altogether, or which keeps some processes running so intensely, that the fans keep pushing hot air out even while device is supposed to be “sleeping”, and the battery will run out quickly. (I had to uninstall Skype immediately, and Lync/Skype for Business was as bad.) The battery life is a key interest to any mobile worker, and Microsoft really needs to work on this even more. There are multiple different results in the reviews, done with wildly different settings and processor loads: some claim to get 10+ hours from Surface Pro 4, some say that in heavy use three hours is closer to reality. I still have to test this, but I would say that for typical office use, Surface Pro 4’s battery and the way Windows 10 and its current generation of drivers operate, a full working day (I mean a long working day) is probably too much to ask. This is disappointing, but I think about five hours of real-time use with moderate load and multitasking is all it can do. There might be some battery saving techniques, tweaks to the display brightness etc. that will have an effect, but most users will probably not try anything like that, and just try hunting for a power outlet throughout the day – and that is not a good thing for a cutting edge, professional device that is designed primarily for mobile use in 2016. Making a tablet that is also a PC, capable of running fully powered versions of standard productivity software is not that easy feat.

I think that Surface Pro is still “work in progress”, and there are new system software updates coming out every now and then, fixing the worst bugs (at least sometimes), but much work still remains to be done. But even in its current form, Surface Pro 4 might be the optimal compromise for some – most probably for some experienced Windows power users that have need for all that flexibility and multiple use cases that Surface Pro 4 affords, and who are also willing to find solutions and work-arounds for bugs, and to learn new ways of working and handling their tools, in order to get the most out of this “mobile workstation”.

More information: (Microsoft’s marketing pages for Surface Pro).

Edit: I have now (29 Feb, 2016) been using SP4 for a few full work days, and while using Chrome and avoiding installing any more sleep-messing software (Skype, Lync, Win10 ‘Messaging/Skype Video’ app), the situation has been much better than initially, the battery life remains as the main bottleneck. Perhaps bit over a half of regular, intensive work day, and you need to find the power brick. But what this tool delivers, I love: it is light enough (though more hefty and solid than an iPad, of course), and capable enough to run whatever text, media, graphics software I have thrown at it. Game testing is the next in line, and while I do not have spectacular expectations (this has no powerful discrete graphics card), it should manage some DOTA, Minecraft etc. We’ll see.

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