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July 2015

Magic at CHI 2015 (or how to hide your mobile device addiction)

Many people are addicted to their mobile devices and the constant flow of information. In social settings, such as work meetings, people know it's wrong and try to hide their device checking in many ways, including:

  • going to the bathroom
  • faking migraine headaches
  • hiding the device under a table or their clothing

Autodesk Research Deceptive Devices

The User Interface group at Autodesk Research conducted a survey of more than 200 people and 94% reported getting caught using a mobile device. Helping people to sneak a peak more easily seemed like a good challenge and the team looked towards magicians to see if they could learn things that could be applied to software and device design.

The team came up with some pretty cool gadgets including:

  • spyglasses
  • secret recorders that could play back the last few seconds of a meeting through a small earpiece to cover up that you weren't paying attention
  • a sensor for knowing when people are behind you
  • information embedded in audio tones that could be perceived as meeting reminders, email notifications or a ringing phone

The Phoney Phone

The Phoney Phone is an app that makes ones' phone look likes it's sleeping while letting the user see the results of their tapping on an alternate screen that could be hidden in the bottom of a coffee cup. To an observer, they may just look like they are fidgeting or contemplating the last sip of a drink.

Autodesk Research Phoney Phone

The Magput

The Magput hides sensors in a pencil and a notebook. What may appear to be random tapping or doodling could actually be be some serious work.

Autodesk Research Magput

You can see these gadgets in action and test how easy they are to tell when someone is using them in the following short video clip.

What does a Designer of Deceptive Devices Need to Know?

When designing for subtle interactions, designers should consider many of the same things magicians do:

  • User Customization: allow the user to customize their device. If they use a device that does not fit their environment or personality it could give them away
  • Modularity: allow the user to work with the system in pieces. Could a component of the system change location so that the user is not seen doing repetitive tasks?
  • Simulation and Dissimulation: Take advantage of existing devices that people obviously use. We know how most people type on a phone so if you can hide the interaction it, or make it appear inactive to observers, they will be less likely to suspect activity.
  • Separating Cause and Effect: Magicians introduce delays to misdirect the audience. This is counter-intuitive to traditional UI design so it requires special consideration.
  • User Training: Magicians practice and so should your users - so make it easy for them.

To take this magic further, Tovi covering for Fraser who was getting married at the time (congrats, Fraser!), added a magician to the presentation of this research at CHI 2015. The show is below.

Additional Uses for Subtle Interactions

Beyond helping people to sneak a peak at their devices, these techniques could be used to:

  • enhance presentations by giving presenters extra techniques to share their information in engaging ways
  • help with wearable device design and interactions where users cannot use a device in a traditional manner

For more details on the research and how some of these devices were made and controlled, please refer to the publication entitled Supporting Subtlety with Deceptive Devices and Illusory Interactions.


This Nucleus Simulation Shows How Your Brain is Like a Wad of Paper

Science Magazine recently published an article called Your Brain is like a Wad of Paper. When the team at Autodesk Research saw it Jos Stam recalled that it looks like a simulation Duncan Brinsmead from the Maya team had done with Nucleus a number of years ago.

Autodesk Research Brain Nucleus

From the article in Science Magazine:

Suzana Herculano-Houzel and Bruno Mota—a neuroscientist and physicist, respectively, at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil—have found a mathematical relation for folding in mammals' brains that appears to be universal.

It may sound complicated, but that universal relationship is the same one that describes crumpled wads of paper—as Herculano-Houzel showed by scrunching up sheets of paper of different sizes and thickness at her dining room table and measuring their surface areas. The relationship comes about because the bent-up paper settles into the configuration that minimizes its energy. So presumably, in folding, the cortex also simply settles into the configuration of least mechanical energy.

Duncan Brinsmead says, "The process of crumpling based on surface area in a confined space is what we are simulating. However there are a lot of subtle effects that probably make our result differ."

Jos Stam adds, "It is a qualitative demonstration of the theory described in the paper. The cool thing is that Nucleus is able to show the process and the resulting shape. The brain, like a walnut, is an emergent form from basic constraints. That is what Nucleus is all about."

Here's what the Nucleus simulation in Maya looks like:

You can read Nucleus: Towards a Unified Dynamics Solver for Computer Graphics to learn more about how the Nucleus solver works and watch the video associated with Physics-based Generative Design to see some other interesting uses of Nucleus like below.

Autodesk Research Nucleus Physics Generative Design