Welcome to The Continuum – Part Two

Earlier today, I began to explain The Continuum as an experiment in Social Brainstorming. But that is only half the story (actually, a third, but we will deal with that later).

Beyond this, The Continuum is meant as a demonstration of a Seamless User Experience.

The Continuum grew out of a very simple exercise in which I was brainstorming a new (for me) subject area. While reading about this topic, I was recording (short) thoughts on PostIt notes, and putting them randomly all over the whiteboards in my office. I was doing this in the hope that patterns would eventually emerge – patterns I would not otherwise see.

While I was doing this, someone came into my office, and over the course of our discussions, the question arose as to why I was not using some computer-based tool to do this (I am, after all, a nerd). The reality is, unfortunately, that no tools exist which would allow me to do this without the technology getting in the way. Any computer-based tool tends to make assumptions about how you work, or worse yet force a pattern of work on you. Or you spend more time playing with the tool than you do capturing ideas. This cognitive friction in software means that I tend to lose ideas while trying to capture them, or at least lose the flow of ideas.

It should all be as simple as scribbling on a PostIt note, and slapping it on a whiteboard.

But it isn’t.

We now live in a world dominated by mobile devices. That said, there are still a few (hundred million) PCs in use. Even more, there are now many large format displays offering rich multi-touch experiences, as well as other modes of interaction including gestures and voice recognition.

The question then arises “What constitutes a great user experience in this new world of multi-modal interactions?” This is often described in terms of a Natural User Interface (NUI), which is unfortunately defined somewhat circularly as an interface which feels natural (ok, not quite that obviously, but nearly).

While this is a question I have been pondering for some time, I do not have an answer, or at very least not the answer (if I did, I would be a lot richer and more famous than I am!)

One aspect of the new user experience that is key to The Continuum experiment is that the user experience should be seamless across all (or at least most) devices. Note that this does not mean that all devices should deliver all of the functionality of the solution. What it does mean is that the solution should exist on all devices, presenting those aspects of the functionality which is appropriate to the device format. Let’s call this Device Appropriateness.

In addition, the user interface should be as transparent as possible. As much as possible, the user should interact directly with content, rather than interacting with content through some artificial UI constructs. Buttons, menus, icons – these are all artificial UI constructs. In a perfect world the UI is completely disappears.

Device Appropriateness.

Cognitive Transparency.

This is The Continuum.

Welcome to The Continuum

So what is The Continuum? Well, at one point Continuum was what we called our solution because all of the names we really wanted to use were taken by other things.

Since I came up with the name, however, I have realized that Continuum really fits what I am trying to do better than any of the other names we had considered. Maybe it was just my subconscious trying to tell me something!

Firstly, The Continuum is an experiment in Social Brainstorming.

But wait, isn’t all brainstorming, by its very nature, social? It is, but in a very limited context. Generally, you and a few others are locked in a room for an hour, or an afternoon, or maybe a day, and asked to be spontaneous brilliant. Maybe there is a facilitator, and maybe even a process, or a game, or something else to help you be brilliant.

Unfortunately, this is not how the brain works. People are not brilliant-on-demand. Yes, some new and interesting ideas arise from these sessions. But more often than not, a few hours or days later, you come up with ideas you wish you had during the brainstorming session. Even if you email the facilitator with your new idea and make sure it gets in the results, you have lost that potential for your idea to trigger other ideas from your colleagues. The value of the group collaboration is lost. For this, and other reason, many thought leaders have come to conclude that group brainstorming is useless.

Enter The Continuum.

Imagine a brainstorming session that is not constrained to a short time-window, or a single location, or a small, defined group of people.

Imagine a whiteboard covered in sticky notes, but visible to users across the organization, or across the web.

Imagine being able to release a question or idea into the cloud (or at least a private cloud), and allow anyone, anywhere in the organization to contribute ideas, look at the collection of notes in a visually stimulating way, to analyse and cluster the notes and share those results.

Imagine being able to participate in this process from anywhere, at any time, using almost any device?

Imagine that all this is as simple as scribbling on a PostIt note and slapping in on a wall, or rearranging notes on a whiteboard?

This is The Continuum.

Samsung SUR40 for Microsoft Surface Receives Best of Innovations Award at CES

The Samsung SUR40 for Microsoft Surface (the Surface 2.0), which was announced at last year’s CES, has been awarded a “Best of Innovations 2012” award (http://blogs.msdn.com/b/surface/archive/2012/01/13/ces-award.aspx).

Compared to the Surface 1 unit we have in T4G’s Moncton office, this is a great step forward. The Surface is a computer vision based system for doing multitouch systems. In Surface 1.0 this meant that the solution relied on a DLP projector, and a set of cameras to detect touches by fingers or objects. This made the Surface 1 large, heavy (around 200 lbs), and limited deployment options (for example, the Surface had to be horizontal.

Surface 2 is still a computer vision based system, but uses a new technology called “PixelSense”, in which there is an IR sensor attached to every pixel. This allows the device to be much thinner than the original (about 4 inches), and weigh less than half as much. It also allows it to be deployed horizontally, vertically, or anywhere in between.

Other specifications have also been greatly improved. The Surface 2 is a FullHD 40 inch LCD, compared to the original unit’s 32 inch, 1024×768 DLP projection. The new Surface also has considerably more processing, video and memory capacity than the original (as it should – the original’s specs were from 2007!)

It is also made of Gorilla glass, making it say to deploy in “uncontrolled” environments. When it was announce last January, it was the largest piece of Gorilla Glass ever produced, but at CES 2012, Perceptive Pixel demonstrated an 82 inch touch display made of Gorilla Glass).

Also improved is the development model. While the original was programmed in .NET using either WPF or XNA, it extended those frameworks in a way very specific to the Surface. In the Surface 2.0 SDK, it builds upon the touch support designed into .NET 4.0, and allows applications to be built to run on either the Surface or Windows 7 touch devices with minimal code changes.

Keeping up to date on the New Brunswick Innovation Forum

I was just (re)visiting the site for the New Brunswick Innovation Forum coming November 2-3, 2011 in Fredericton, NB.

This looks like a very worthwhile event, and I hope to attend.

To that end, I thought I would sign up for updates (using the link on the event’s site). This where it became sadly amusing. The only channel for getting updates is via an email subscription, using a very “last millennium” looking form. It seems very ironic that an event entirely focused on technology, innovation, and the digital economy, does not use any social networking channels to promote itself?

Note that I am not criticizing the event, or those who spend (I am sure) a great deal of time organizing it and putting it on. I am just pointing out a little bit of irony!

Make Your SharePoint 2010 Master Page Extensible with Delegate Controls

I have been playing a lot the last little while with SharePoint 2010 Delegate Controls. I have known about them for a ling time, but have never really delved into them all that much.

Most of the examples I have looked at, and the usage ideas I have seen, involve using the existing delegate controls in V4.master to do things like:

  • Modify the Welcome Menu
  • Customize the Global Navigation
  • Add useful code to the page header

Last week, I used a delegate control for something a little different.

For a project I am working on, the client wanted some functionality displayed just below the Quick Launch, on every page in the site collection. I know there are lots of ways to do this (put a user control on the master page, put a web part on the master page, or just put links on the master page, since that’s all the content was in this case).

But then I thought of a little bit more elegant (to me) solution. Rather than explicitly putting the content on the master page, I added a delegate control of my own to the page, and placed it just below the Quick Launch, as shown below.

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Several things to note here:

  • I gave it a ControlID specific to my application;
  • I set AllowMultipleControls to true, which will be useful later
  • I included default content in the <Template_Controls> element, so that I could see it change when I activate a Feature with an appropriate control.
  • Next, I implemented a Feature in Visual Studio 2010, with a control to replace the default content. The details of how to do this are covered in other places (such as here), but to summarize:
  • I created an empty Visual Studio 2010 project;
  • I created a user control inside the project (this automatically mapped the ControlTemplates folder for me). It is a very simple user control, and simply displays “Hello, Delegate!”
  • I created an appropriate elements.xml file to map my control to the Delegate Control’s ControlID.

So, here we see the how the delegate looks before I deploy my feature:

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After I deploy my Feature, we see that the default content is replaced with the Feature’s control’s output:

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But wait, there’s more! Remember that I set AllowMultipleControls to true? That allows me to deploy multiple features with controls that map to my ControlId, and instead of only displaying the one with the lowest Sequence attribute, it will stack them all in order of Sequence number, as shown below.

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This means that I can add any number of  things to the area under the Quick Launch without further customizing the the Master Page.

Maybe I am just easily amused, but I thought that was pretty neat!

The source for this, including the master page, is available here.

If a phone is launched in the forest, does anyone hear it?

This is a bit of a rant (I do that a lot, don’t I?) Partly it is a rant about Microsoft and its Windows Phone 7 launch. It is also partly a rant about our local Bell Mobility retailer, and their complete lack of customer service or sales skills.

I am in the market for a new smart phone. My current phone is a 3 year old HTC touch, which I like, but it beginning to show its age. Over the past few weeks, I have been looking at both the iPhone 4 and the Samsung Galaxy S. I like the iPhone, but am pretty much anti-Apple because I do not really approve of either the undeserved hype around their products, or their obsessively controlling attitude towards developers and users alike. The Galaxy S looks like an interesting option, however.

For the sake of completeness, however, I wanted to wait and have a look at a Windows Phone 7 device. I am tied to Bell, so unfortunately my only choice would be the LG Optimus Quantum. I am not a fan of slide out keyboards, but I thought I would give it a chance.

I have been faithfully watching the Bell Mobility site for news of the launch. That was a waste of time. Even now, on launch day, there is no information, just a form to fill out to “get more information when it is available”. Last night (November 7) I did get an email from Bell saying the device would be available in their stores today.

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So today I go to my local Bell partner retailer (Sounds Fantastic in Moncton). Actually, I tried calling Sounds first to save myself a wasted trip, but three calls over the course of a couple hours all went unanswered. I figured they must be really busy. So, I decided to visit the store on my lunch break. Not busy at all – in fact, no one there. So I was able to very quickly get the attention of a helpful sales parson. After a brief sequence of questions and one-word, grunting responses, I learned the following.

They do not have any Windows Phone 7 devices.

He does not know when/if they are getting any.

No, he does not know if anyone else in the area is getting any.

No, the guy who might know if they are getting any is not in today.

Not very helpful. He could have maybe taken my name, or tried to find out the information I needed. But he was too busy (even with no other customers in the store).

So that is my rant about Sounds Fantastic. I was very disappointed by the service, but not surprised. It sort of matches all my other experiences there (on the mobility side, anyway – they seem to be completely different business).

Now to talk about Microsoft, and the Windows Phone 7 launch in general.

How can a major tech corporation manage to launch a major new product, and yet generate no hype whatsoever. I have commented on this before. It seems to me that Microsoft’s biggest weakness right now (and for most of the last decade) is its marketing department. Microsoft makes some very cool technology. In my opinion, they are at least as innovative as Apple, and probably more so (at least they are innovative across a much broader spectrum of technologies and solutions).

But lets looks at Microsoft’s marketing track record (especially marketing to the consumer market – their marketing to the enterprise seems pretty good).

  • Tablet PC: Microsoft launched the Tablet PC back in 2002. Since about 2005 it has been a viable platform. I have been using productively that entire time. And yet, even up to about a year ago, I would have people see me in airports, on airplanes, and many other places, ask me what they device was I was using, and be surprised that anything like that existed. Microsoft completely and utterly failed to communicate the existence of this technology outside of the hard-core techie community. And even within that community, they failed to communicate the power of the platform, or to entice developers to develop for it.
  • Windows Vista: Where to begin on Windows Vista? To be clear here, Windows Vista was far more of a marketing failure than a technology failure.  Yes, Vista had its problems. The vast majority of them (in my opinion) were due to third party driver and application updates or lack thereof – this is of course a marketing/product management issue as well. Vista’s biggest problem was public opinion, and failed marketing. For how long did Microsoft sit back and watch while a certain competitor raked them over the coals with very popular and effective TV commercials? When Microsoft marketing did respond, what was the best they could do? Seinfeld and Gates in obscure, bizarre skits? Please.
  • Microsoft Surface: Ok, this is not a consumer-oriented device (yet), but it is an example of Microsoft coming up with really cool technology and then actively hiding it from the world. Until a year ago, it was very difficult to get any information about it at all. Buying one was damn near impossible. Even now, people look at it and say “hey, that’s copying the iPad” – not knowing it has been around for 3 years.
  • Windows Phone 7: Major new launch, and no hype or energy at all, outside of hard core Microsoft circles. A few articles here and there. Even mobile service providers carrying the devices have almost nothing on their web sites about the devices, and then it is buried. And then I go to a store to look at one, and there are none.  Not “we had some but they are sold out”, just “we have none”. I realize I live in a backwater of the world, but it is amazing to me to see how little attention Microsoft has generated for this launch.

This to me is indicative of what truly ails Microsoft right now. In the enterprise market, they are very healthy. But in the consumer market, they cannot generate any hype. As everyone in this business (or any business) knows, you can have the best products and technology on the planet, but if you cannot get the word out, get people excited, and manage consumer perceptions of your products, you will fail!

Update: After my experience trying to look at a Windows Phone 7 device at Sounds Fantastic, I decided to reply to the above Bell email, asking why there were none at my local Bell dealer. Yes, I know it would bounce because that message was obviously form an auto-mailer. I did get an automated response, though:

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Good enough. I happily click through the l;ink to voice my concerns – only to see the following page:

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Just not my day for talking to Bell Sad smile