Just Because It’s Visual Doesn’t Mean It’s Better

May 24, 2012

I’ve been renting a lot of cars lately because my own car died. And so I get to see a lot of the interiors of American cars. Car design is generally more user-friendly than computer interfaces – for the simple reason that when you make a mistake on a computer interface and the computer crashes, you will not die.

As cars become increasingly computerized, the “body language” starts to get wonky, even in aspects that are purely mechanical.

In a car I recently rented, I was looking for the emergency brake. The body language of most of the cars I’ve used offers an emergency brake just to the right of my seat in the form of a lever that I pull up. Body language between human bodies is mostly unconscious. If a human-manufactured tool is designed well, its body langage is also mostly-unconscious: it is natural. Anyway…I could not find an emergency brake in the usual place in this particular car. So I looked in the next logical place: near the floor to the left of the foot pedals. There I saw the following THING:

I wanted to check to make sure it was the brake, so that I wouldn’t inadvertently pop open the hood or the cap of the gas tank. So I peered more closely at the symbol on this particular THING, and I asked myself the following question:

What the F?

Once I realized that this was indeed the emergency brake, I decided that a simple word would have sufficed.

In some cars, the “required action” is written on the brake:

Illiterate Icon Artists

I was reminded of an episode in one of the companies I was working for, where an “icon artist” was hired to build the visual symbols for several buttons on a computer interface. He had devised a series of icons that were meant to provide visual language counterparts to basic actions that we typically do on computer interfaces. He came up with novel and aesthetic symbols. But….UN-READABLE.

I suggested he just put the words on the icons, because the majority of computer users know English, and if they don’t know English, they could always open up a dictionary. Basically, this guy’s clever icons had no counterpart to the rest of the world. They were his own invention – they were UNDISCOVERABLE.

Moral of the story:

Designed body language should corresponds to “natural affordances”;  the expectations and readability of the natural world. If that is not possible, use historical conventions (by now there is plenty of reference material on visual symbols, and I would suspect that by now there are ways to check for the relative “universality” of certain symbols).

In both cases, whether using words or visuals, literacy is needed.

Put in another way:

It is impossible to invent a visual langage from scratch. Because the only one who can visually “read” it is the creator. If it does not commute, it is not language. This applies to visual icons as much as it does to words.

As technology becomes more and more computerized (like cars) we have less and less opportunity to take advantage of natural affordances. Eventually, it will be possible to set the emergency brake by touching a tiny red button, or by uttering a message into a microphone. Thankfully, emergency brakes are still very physical, and I get to FEEL the pressure of that brake as I push it in, or pop it off….

that is…if I can ever find the damn thing.

Voice as Puppeteer

May 5, 2012

(This blog post is re-published from an earlier blog of mine called “avatar puppetry” – the nonverbal internet. I’ll be phasing out that earlier blog, so I’m migrating a few of those earlier posts here before I trash it).


According to Gestural Theory, verbal language emerged from the primal energy of the body, from physical and vocal gestures.


The human mind is at home in a world of abstract symbols – a virtual world separated from the gestural origins of those symbols. An evolution from the analog to the digital continues today with the flood of the internet over earth’s geocortex. Our thoughts are awash in the alphabet: a digital artifact that arose from a gestural past. It’s hard to imagine that the mind could have created the concepts of Self, God, Logic, and Math: belief structures so deep in our wiring – generated over millions of years of genetic, cultural, and neural evolution. I’m not even sure if I fully believe that these structures are non-eternal and human-fabricated. Since the Copernican Revolution yanked humans out from the center of the universe, it continues to progressively kick down the pedestals of hubris. But, being humans, we cannot stop this trajectory of virtuality, even as we become more aware of it as such.

I’ve observed something about the birth of online virtual worlds, and the foundational technologies involved. One of the earliest online virtual worlds was Onlive Traveler, which used realtime voice.


My colleague, Steve DiPaola invented some techniques for Traveler which cause the voice to animate the floating faces that served as avatars.

But as online virtual worlds started to proliferate, they incorporated the technology of chat rooms – textual conversations. One quirky side-effect of this was the collision of computergraphical humanoid 3D models with text-chat. These are strange bedfellows indeed – occupying vastly different cognitive dimensions.


Many of us worked our craft to make these bedfellows not so strange, such as the techniques that I invented with Chuck Clanton at There.com, called Avatar Centric Communication.

Later, voice was introduced to There.com. I invented a technique for There.com voice chat, and later re-implemented a variation for Second Life, for voice-triggered gesticulation.

Imagine the uncanny valley of hearing real voices coming from avatars with no associated animation. When I first witnessed this in a demo, the avatars came across as propped-up corpses with telephone speakers attached to their heads. Being so tuned-in to body language as I am, I got up on the gesticulation soap box and started a campaign to add voice-triggered animation. As an added visual aid, I created the sound wave animation that appears above avatar heads for both There and SL…


Gesticulation is the physical-visual counterpart to vocal energy – we gesticulate when we speak – moving our eyebrows, head, hands, etc. – and it’s almost entirely unconscious. Since humans are so verbally-oriented, and since we expect our bodies to produce natural body language to correspond to our spoken communications, we should expect the same of our avatars. This is the rationale for avatar gesticulation.

I think that a new form of puppeteering is on the horizon. It will use the voice. And it won’t just take sound signal amplitudes as input, as I did with voice-triggered gesticulation. It will parse the actual words and generate gestural emblems as well as gesticulations. And just as we will be able to layer filters onto our voices to mask our identities or role-play as certain characters, we will also be able to filter our body language to mimic the physical idiolects of Egyptians, Native Americans, Sicilians, four-year-old Chinese girls, and 90-year old Ethiopian men.

Digital-alphabetic-technological humanity reaches down to the gestural underbelly and invokes the primal energy of communication. It’s a reversal of the gesture-to-words vector of Gestural Theory.

And it’s the only choice we have for transmitting natural language over the geocortex, because we are sitting on top of a thousands-year-old heap of alphabetic evolution.