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“We’re interested in an interface that adapts based on what the user is trying to accomplish,” says George Robertson, senior researcher with Microsoft’s user interface research group and formerly a principal scientist at Xerox PARC. “We try to build models of what the user is doing, but also to understand the nature of interruptions.” He notes that part of the problem now is that “Clippy tends to interrupt you when you’re in the middle of typing.” For instance, every time you type in the date in a Word file, it asks you if you need help formatting a letter. Microsoft is working toward solving that problem by building an inference engine that can anticipate your needs based on what you’re typing, as Clippy does, but won’t interrupt you. Rather, like a helpful personal servant, it will keep its observations to itself until you ask for help.

Conceivably, an inference engine can be made so intelligent that any change in the desktop metaphor itself becomes unnecessary: machines would automatically present information to you as you need it, eliminating the clutter and confusion that currently plague our computer desktops. If developers were able to build that degree of intelligence into our computers, they’d no longer need to overcome the high hurdle of educating all of us about how to use a new metaphor. Instead, we’d use the old one, but with far better results-much the way we use the same “interface” to drive automobiles today as in the days of the Model T. But behind that relatively unchanging interface, new tools such as antilock brakes, power steering, fuel injection systems and computerized warning systems aid us tremendously as we drive.

But that may be getting ahead of things. A nearer-term solution to the data glut and file loss perpetuated by the desktop metaphor will be to use 3-D graphics techniques, currently in vogue only in games and science and engineering software. “From our experience [with user groups], 3-D can make a real improvement,” Microsoft’s Robertson says. “It’s possible to pack a lot more information into the same screen space. You’re taking advantage of human perception and our ability to see depth relationships. You’re also taking advantage of human spatial memory. In the real world, if I put a piece of paper in a pile, I can remember where it is weeks later.”

One of Microsoft’s long-standing research projects to employ 3-D space is Data Mountain, which allows you to place files on what looks like a surface tilted at a 30-degree angle so that objects at the top of the screen appear smaller and farther away. Robertson found that spatial memory allowed participants in user studies to remember exactly where they had stored up to 800 images on the “mountain,” even after an absence of six months. “It works very well for storing things like photos or favorite Web sites because these things look different, and it’s very easy to spot the differences even when the images are small,” says Robertson. He concedes that Data Mountain works less well for documents; while thumbnail-sized images of pictures can be easily recognized, documents shrunk to that size all look more or less the same, making it very difficult to distinguish one from the other.

Another current research project at Microsoft that employs the virtues of 3-D is Task Gallery, where the metaphor is one of multiple rooms in which documents are “hung” until they are needed. By simply moving your mouse around the screen, you can “walk” from room to room in this virtual gallery, and hang the walls with miniature representations of your Word documents, Web pages, Adobe Acrobat files and so on. Conceivably, infinite “rooms” can be added, in which related documents and other files can be stored. However, Robertson admits that the project team has once again confronted the problem of people taking metaphors too literally. In user tests, for instance, participants balked at storing documents on the gallery’s virtual “floors” or “ceilings,” in effect reducing the usable space. Still, Robertson expects both Task Gallery and Data Mountain to become alternatives for organizing data in some Microsoft applications, most likely Explorer, in the next two years.

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