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Design Slam Puts Computer-Human Interaction to the Test

Many of the web developers and graphic artists who make up the user-interface design community are often attracted to the product design side, and vice-versa, as the virtual and physical sides long for each other's expertise and to play off one another.

For Center City-based industrial design and product development firm Bresslergroup, the two sides should ideally be complementary. So on Friday when the firm hosted the fifth annual PhillyCHI (Computer-Human Interaction) Design Slam, co-sponsored by the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), it took the opportunity to bring the user-interface and industrial sides together and see what hijinx--and efficiencies--ensued.

Six multi-disciplinary teams were charged with creating a next-generation interface concept for a high-tech toy known as the Airhog Hawkeye, a remote controlled aircraft with built-in video camera. The interface was to improve on current physical controls and allow multiple types of user interaction--like physical tools, touch screen control, gestural commands and voice commands. The interface was to provide control over speed, pitch (up and down), turns, and camera panning, tilting and zoom.

"The assignment was deceptively challenging," says Design Slam facilitator Rob Tannen, the director of research at Bresslergroup. He's also a member of PhillyCHI, the local chapter of the national interdisciplinary academic and professional group interested in human-computer interaction, user experience, usability and related disciplines.

"Industrial designers are designing physical interfaces. We wanted the teams to tackle all four of these, and we were interested in the approach as much as the results."

Each team had only about an hour to work and were judged on creativity, design quality and presentation. Tannen says he was surprised at how intense and serious the five teams of six design gurus were during those 60 minutes. The teams included mostly interface design folks from places like Comcast, Electronic Ink (Tannen's former employer) and smaller consutling companies.

"It's a rare chance for people in the design field to compete," Tannen says. "Typically you're judged by your clients and you really don't get to go against your peers."

The winning team of Dominic LeCava, Brett Boyd, Matt Ventre, Kevin Lee and Shawn Brevin utilized a handlebar-like controller to steer or accelerate the Airhog and a display that includes camera controls and a viewfinder. The team won an actual Airhog Hawkeye (which turned out to be pretty indestructible after bouncing off the ceiling a few times), some design books, and the opportunity to serve as judges for next year's competition.

"There's a world of design about style and aesthetics and a world about usability and making things simple and easy to learn or understand," says Tannen. "Both are important and ideally you meet both but you really need to start with the user, which is what we really were focusing on with this event."

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.

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