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BumpTop Demonstrates An Alternate Interface

Is your physical desk "messy?" That might not be a bad thing. By Esther Schindler
I've long said that there are piles on my desk so tall that I expect to find coal at the bottom. Apparently, I'm not alone.

Although a desk can look "messy" to someone else, the owner of that paper stack usually has some sort of loose organization. One pile might be neatly stacked; another might have one page sticking out or folded over.

Now, researchers at the University of Toronto are expanding on that physical interface to reflect it in the computer universe. Anand Agarawala and Ravin Balakrishnan, whose paper Keepin' it Real: Pushing the Desktop Metaphor with Physics, Piles and the Pen (PDF) just appeared in the Proceedings of CHI 2006, the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, are demonstrating a new UI paradigm in which (to quote from their abstract) they "explore making virtual desktops behave in a more physically realistic manner by adding physics simulation and using piling instead of filing as the fundamental organizational structure."

You don't have to settle for the academic language, however. The BumpTop project page links to a video demonstrating the  user interface in some detail.

Using BumpTop, objects can be casually dragged and tossed around and are influenced by physical characteristics such as friction and mass. Crunch up some items (such as the "maybe I'll throw this out soon...") pile; group other items together loosely, to imply that they're somewhat related. "Our goal in adding physics to the desktop is to make the interaction feel more continuous and analog, rather than the discrete style imposed by digital computing," says the paper. "This potentially allows users to use the strategies they employ in the real world to both implicitly and explicitly convey information about the objects they own."
BumpTop relies heavily on a pen-based interface, where no keyboard is available, using a pressure-sensitive pen with a single barrel button operating on a TabletPC. Doing so enables users to toss or flick objects -- a rather hard thing to accomplish with a mouse. "We strive for fluid interaction including favoring crossing when applicable and exploiting the pressure sensing capabilities of the pen, while avoiding designs that are problematic for pen interaction such as small targets, and double clicking," write the researchers.

The UI also uses a "LassoMenu" that combines selection, command invocation, and parameter adjustment in one fluid stroke. Dragging objects includes a dampened spring (metaphorically speaking) to more closely reflect changing velocity. "The quicker the flick, the further and more forcefully the object will travel," they write.

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Esther Schindler has been writing about technology professionally since 1992, and her byline has appeared in dozens of IT publications. She's optimized compilers, owned a computer store, taught corporate training classes, moderated online communities, run computer user groups, and, in her spare time, written a few books. You can reach her at [email protected]
Related Keywords:piles, physics-based desktop, pen-based interfaces, bumptop, user interface, productivity applications, tablet pc, university of toronto, research


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