WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointers) has been the way we interface with our computers for the best part of 30 years. All PCs, tablets and smartphones follow this paradigm of user interface design, introduced to the public with the Apple Macintosh in 1984. But could it be about to disappear.
As the venerable Register notes today, Google is building voice control into the Chrome web browser. And as I referenced in my look ahead to 2013 and the recent presentation I did for the ICAEW, gesture controls — much more sensitive than the motion controls we have today — are on their way.
If you are talking to a computer or it is reading your hand gestures, then a display system designed with the keyboard and mouse (and more recently the touchscreen) in mind is probably no longer optimal. What will we see in its place?
Games Consoles not for WIMPs
Games consoles offer perhaps the most evolved version of the classic WIMP, particularly the Xbox360 that has been subtly redesigned over time to take account of the Kinect voice and motion interface. Icons remain but really as an efficient means of graphically conveying the contents of a menu. Windows and drop-down menus are done away with — everything you do is full screen, important at a ten foot remove but possibly less so when up close. But beyond the limited voice commands you still control everything with a pointer — it’s just controlled by your hand. Something completely new is needed if we are to do away with the WIMP altogether.
Games consoles have a relatively low-bandwidth interface between person and machine. Even if I am executing the most complex manoeuvre in Halo it is only ever a combination of left, right, up, down, jump and fire. If I wanted to convey the complexity of language I’d either have to speak to the machine (and rely on it to understand me) or learn how to represent the alphabet in a combination of button presses. This would be a long learning process compared to the very intuitive keyboard, where whatever I press appears on the screen.
Speaking to a machine has its own problems. If you are in your car or house, or even walking down the street alone, there’s no issue with speaking to your computer, whether you are telling it to call your mum, give you directions to the nearest pizza joint, or dictating a text. But as soon as you are sat on a train, or in an open plan office, it starts to get a little problematic. You can’t dictate a sensitive email or do your lunchtime holiday searches when everyone around you can hear what you are doing. And if everyone on a packed train carriage is yammering away to their devices, both people and machines are going to have a hard time focusing.
Gesture control may be a more private means of interaction with your device, but it’s hard to see how this will be as intuitive as the keyboard and mouse. And how it is going to be sufficiently high bandwidth without us overcoming the same learning curve issue as we might have with keying button presses on a gamepad or something like a chorded keyboard.
There’s little doubting that the WIMP paradigm and the hardware that supports it is on the way out. But it is far from clear yet what will replace it. The next few years should see some fascinating innovation from hardware and software designers alike — perhaps on a par with that original Macintosh (and the Xerox Alto that preceded it).