This week Microsoft Research is hosting its sixth annual Techfest -- it's a big internal tradeshow where we're bringing in 155 demos representing the best work from all five of our labs, and sharing it with the rest of the company. (we also do 24 lectures, since not everything worth sharing is best shown as a demo)
Since this really represents our crown jewels, we are careful to limit it to fulltime Microsoft employees and a small handful of outside visitors who sign nondisclosure agreements. But every year we try to pick a very small number of demos and share them with the press, to give them an idea of the kind of work we do and why Microsoft employees are so passionate about technology and software.
One of the projects we showed is called "StepUI" -- and in the last 24 hours it's been reported, and re-reported, and re-re-reported, to the point where what's being said now has a very loose connection with the truth (go look at the Slashdot article for an example of this, and no, I'm not surprised at the treatment this got on Slashdot). I personally think the ridicule is unwarranted. So let me see if I can rewind this a bit and share with you what this research is really about and why it's cool and interesting.
Here's the starting point: today when we drive a car, ride a bicycle, play a piano, or use a sewing machine, we use both our hands and our feet. It turns out that people in general are pretty good at doing that. But we don't do that when we use a computer -- which raises the general questions of whether the interface would be improved if we could use our feet for some things, and beyond that if that would make using a computer less sedentary (and perhaps more healthy?)
A good researcher will take a problem space like that and decompose it into some fundamental questions. The first one is: what set of computer operations are actually possible and comfortable for people to do with their feet? So the researchers took that on, and designed an experiment to see for themselves. Since they're software people, not hardware people, they took the path of least resistance and used an off-the-shelf dance pad so they could focus on software and the experiment itself. They designed two prototypes for browsing and navigating with your feet: one for email, and one for photos. And they ran tests with people to see how well they could use it.
Here's what they found (in a nutshell):
1. People didn't have any trouble doing basic browsing and navigating with their feet. It's probably better for short, simple operations than for long, repetitive ones, and alone it certainly isn't more efficient than using a mouse, but it works. And there may be some cases where it is more efficient, such as when I donít want to repeatedly move my hand back and forth between the keyboard and the mouse (Excel drives me crazy when I need to do that).
2. It's raised people's activity level vs. keyboard and mouse, and even measurably raised their heart rate.
3. It's fun and engaging.
They also found some other things along the way. My favorite, which we mentioned to the press, relates to the command that the researchers used for "delete." They were being good UI designers and wanted to make it difficult to accidentally delete an email or photo, so they made the "delete" command "stomp with two feet." Well, it turns out that people REALLY liked stomping to delete email, and especially spam. They found it very therapeutic.
So now armed with this information, the researchers can apply the learnings back to email and photo applications and experiment with how to combine feet in with keyboard, mouse, and other input devices. They aren't suggesting that people would throw away their desktop keyboard and mouse, but that foot operations might be very good complements. There are existing Bluetooth or RF devices that you could clip on to your shoes which would provide the equivalent data to the pad (in fact, much better data), so you wouldn't even need to have a pad under your desk. Though they are also thinking of contexts where feet might be helpful on their own; say for example in an airport or shopping mall when your arms are full.
So there you go... not as silly as it seems. And it's a really great example of the research process in action; frame a question, design an experiment, analyze your data, reach conclusions, and iterate with the next logical step.
Look for a few more press articles on technologies from Techfest over the next few days... and thanks to the reporters who got the StepUI story right -- including Mary Jo, who I criticized a while back for getting one wrong. Thanks Mary Jo!
(and by the way, I prefer to be behind the scenes for press conferences and such -- the researchers are really the rock stars and they're the ones who deserve the spotlight. In this case, our senior managers were all otherwise occupied with other meetings or called out of town, so I was asked to help. While I've been told that I was on the local evening news last night and the morning news today, I couldn't bear to watch it)