Bruce Stirling's new undertaking, The Imaginary Gadgets Project, has re-inspired my thinking around the human factors of imaginary objects. Stirling describes his project as "a catalog of the weirdest things imaginable." Compared to real-life gadgets, imaginary ones include everything from "futuristic gadgets" (pictured above), to "radically impossible gadgets" and "gadgets of the fantastic and the occult (crystal balls, magic wands); the personal hardware of the saints and the gods", to name a few categories.
What interests me about such devices is not their obviously incredible and/or supernatural capabilities, but rather the more mundane aspects of how a user would interact with them. For no matter how complex, esoteric or unfathomable the capabilities of an imaginary object, there must be some connection between the user and the system, be it tangible, telepathic or otherwise.
I said I was re-inspired to look at this area because in 2007 I had looked at the human factors of nonobjects, nonobjects being branko Lucic's forthcoming design fiction book. For example, I examined the ergonomics of dialing the Tarati, a touch-less phone, pictured below, that has spaces instead of buttons (ergonomic issues included lack of tactile feedback and need to accommodate a range of finger diameters).
Curiously, the nonobjects book has yet to be published, making it something of an imaginary object itself.
So what's the value of this imaginary human factors & usability beyond intellectual curiosity? I think there are at least two relevant benefits. The first is inspiration - thinking about how people might interact with a crystal ball or time machine takes us outside of our everyday human-computer interaction thinking, and can give us ideas, if only metaphorical, about how to design a user experience. I don't have any proof, but there's a good chance that the Wii controller was influenced by light sabers.
The second benefit is more subtle, but perhaps more important - motivation. Consider that virtually every product a designer works on prior to its development and launch is an imaginary product. It's really just a question of degree. A new online form is not much different than an existing one that it might be replacing, but whatever small details need significant enough changes to require a designers input are imaginary until they are designed and realized. Similarly, determining the appropriate human factors for the controls on a new car is necessary because the controls for that car do not yet exist. In other words, the very nature of human factors design is making the imaginary concrete. Studying the hypothetical human factors for imaginary products is really just an extreme version of what we do as designers every day.
I plan to follow Bruce Stirling's thread and find out what practical ideas might come from these fantastic gadgets. Now there is the other side of the coin...an imaginary human factors - but that's for another discussion.