Monday, December 30, 2013

Apparently, the future is a pluperfect hell.

As part of an email conversation recently, I was directed to a video on YouTube, titled "The Future of CX". CX is apparently shorthand for "Customer Experience", and while the video purports to show how wonderful things will be in the future, it is in fact a vision of uncounted ways to get things horribly wrong. It begins poorly, and only gets worse from then on. But, before I viciously deconstruct precisely WHY it's horrendous, you ought to watch the video. Here it is, and below the jump I will unsheathe the claws.

Timestamp: 0:20 - we see that this device is operated without touching it. Right away, we've gone to the furthest point possible from good user interface. A no-touchy device is limited entirely to visual and auditory feedback, and must be profligate - which is to say ANNOYING - with both. It has no way to tell you you've activated a control other than by changing its display or by making a noise. Whereas, even with the touchscreens I despise, you have a very simple feedback loop that tells you whether or not you've activated a control: did you touch it? I generally prefer a mechanism which has sufficient moving parts to allow for control surface motion, which adds a little more effort to activating UI elements to make sure that you're doing what you want them to. Gesture controls - especially ones as subtle as those shown - are extremely prone to misinterpretation.

0:30 - by this point, it's become clear that the big scrolly wheel thing is a "do whatever I'm thinking of" control. It's either context-sensitive, or it reads minds. More likely, the people dreaming up this video don't have a clue how user interface works, and are merely throwing gesture directions at the actor in the hopes that something will appear to stick. Also, we've gone from a debatably portable device to a future!television, strategically placed such that nobody will ever want to watch it. Unfortunately, using a television for anything other than a television or the display for a games console has proven distinctly difficult to sell as a concept. People seem to prefer not to use the same screen for work and play. The problem of what happens when someone is actually watching TV and this fellow wants to wave at his wall planner is not addressed. Conveniently, he appears to live alone.

0:50 - leaving aside the blatant advertising, he's now using his television to manage his car, somehow. None of the people involved with this have ever attempted to persuade a smartphone and a car to communicate via Bluetooth - an order of magnitude easier, and actually designed for the job.

0:55 - oh, no, wait, he's arranging an oil change; one that the dealership already knew about. His car is phoning home. Now we're into Edward Snowden territory; sure, we don't know where HE was, but we know how fast his car was driven in such-and-such a period, how long it was parked, and there are only so many possibilities for where he might have gone that would generate that usage graph. It's OK, though, because he's got nothing to hide.

1:05 - wonderful, in what amounts to a phone call he's told someone where his no doubt fabulously expensive car will be at a given time, AND told them he won't be around to miss it. At this point, I have no sympathy for him. Maybe even now it's common for the idle rich to do such silly things, but I rather prefer the method I use, in which I telephone the shop for an appointment, drop my own car off, and it's then their responsibility to make sure it doesn't go walkabout before I come back.

1:25 - oh, that miracle tablet with the no-touchy interface is, when idle, a small sheet of glass. No backing. It's not opaque unless it's turned on. Why yes, I would like a hideously expensive thing that can a) completely wreck my life if lost and b) be lost merely by setting it down because you can't bloody SEE the thing.

1:30 - sure, let's lock our cars with a method that can be spoofed by a suitably-sized gummy bear. It becomes clear that either this person doesn't care at all about security, or he's had his hands implanted with some kind of ID chip. Either way, he doesn't care at ALL about privacy. And I have to take issue with the idea of leaving thumbprints on the window of your car being considered a GOOD thing.

1:45 - uh-oh. Now he's throwing screens into his line of sight as a driver. I cannot possibly imagine anyone would think this would be a good idea, and I cannot imagine it being LEGAL. And, let us note, it has been well-established that privacy is dead for this man. He should know this, yet is behaving in a reckless manner.

1:55 - technology has relieved him of the necessity of knowing his wife's clothing size - by keeping that information in a store's database. Presumably he never deals with his own mail, since the deluge of targeted advertising on any update of said information would break him. Or perhaps it's never updated; he's going to be picking out a dress which would have fitted her three years ago, but won't now.

2:10 - all that technology, but a manual gearbox.

2: 18 - I did mention that his wonder-tablet was essentially a sheet of glass. One of the notable things about glass is its capacity to be bent - almost none. Clearly, this man has never been jostled, and doesn't go anywhere crowded, since he's no fear of his expensive device being shattered.

2:45 - here we go. Leaving aside for a moment his not wearing his seatbelt, he's using the most unconvincing voice-response system I've ever seen. I do not exaggerate when I say that this year I have used voice-response systems which were more useful and required far less clarification than this system. The future with respect to voice recognition appears to have taken a large step backwards. Let's also note that apparently just about anyone can track him; he's broadcasting his location as a subchannel on his phone calls, it appears. We're back to the metadata, and it looks like his car's phoning home is a much smaller part of why this man cannot have any expectation of privacy.

3:36 - I doubt people will find glitches in the animation of their virtual conversation partners acceptable. Things like that, even more than the obviously canned responses and other inhuman phrasing, will throw this system deep enough into the uncanny valley that nobody will be willing to use it unless forced. And even then, as evidenced by the existence of websites which detail how to coerce automated telephone systems into putting a human on the line, people will find ways to avoid it.

4:20 - more thumbprint action, and an ID photo no agency in the world would accept.

4:38 - this thing holds every detail about him, yet somehow it doesn't have his frequent flyer number for this airline. And, rather than typing it in, he needs to hold his card up. Actually, this is not too far from what can be done now; the LA has been able to deposit cheques into our bank account by using her cellphone camera. Of course, the requirements for that are rather strict in terms of acceptable photos; attempting it from a moving vehicle won't work. As an aside, you may well have noticed re-use of footage; the driver has gone through the same intersection at least twice, and merged in behind a UPS truck about the same number of times. However, we're trying to focus on the horrible nature of the imagined technology here, rather than nitpicking the production itself.

We are, however, at the end of the meaningfully terrible parts of this video. For anyone who doesn't wish to have the government knowing every detail of their life, this is a vision of hell. For anyone who doesn't want to be made vulnerable to identity theft, this is a vision of hell. For anyone who dislikes the idea of telemarketers calling and knowing what you've bought, this is a vision of hell. For anyone who found the story a while ago about Target analysing their customer records, and on the strength of that sending coupons for diapers and baby clothes to women who were only planning to become pregnant, somewhat creepy, this is a vision of hell.

I am more determined than ever to keep my old Volvo from the jaws of the crusher.


  1. And now we know why you are playing in the Traditions campaign instead of the Technocracy one.

    1. Funnily enough, I have in the past contemplated dreadlocks... before realising it wouldn't be a good look for me, as none of my hats would fit.

  2. You are absolutely right about 'gestural' human-machine interfaces.

    I've experimented with them, and they are utterly useless for anything done for a long time or requiring precision.
    While they do work for simple navigation as long as you limit the commands to small enough number of rarely-used actions - next/last/ok/cancel is probably about the maximum - there are better and cheaper ways to do that!

    So they will never (and I do mean never) take off as a general-purpose interface.
    They are limited to 'casual gaming' and aren't going to go much further while humans remain human.
    (Leap Motion is the best implementation I've seen so far.)

    I've hired several cars that make a similar fundamental UI mistake - touchscreen radio/centre consoles are absolutely hideous to use, because you have to look at them.
    I'm driving! I do not want to look at a screen to retune the radio, or in some cases to adjust the volume!

    That said, the 'scrolly wheel thing' is actually based on a real and very usable HMI.
    It's used as a 'spin through options' dial with a Confirm action.
    As a physical 'clicky' wheel this works very well for navigating short lists and hierarchical tree structures, eg picking a radio station. It does need a Cancel/Up-one-level, which is oddly missing from the video.

    However, it's unusable as a free-space gestural control because you can't hit 'confirm' without changing the value!

    I also thought this was an advert for a car company.
    Turns out it's actually an advert for a creepy data mining company, better known as Oracle.


After some particularly vile spam showed up, I have disabled the ability to comment as a nonny-mouse.