The Tail Wagging the Brain

October 14, 2011

Our beloved dog Higgs died a few month ago. Higgs was a very special dog; full of life, full of love. Higgs and I had established an intimate body language connection for over ten years. He changed my brain.

My smiles were his tail wags; his tail wags were my smiles. Because of neuroplasticity, the ability for our brains to adapt and adjust, we were able to fuse semiotically across species lines.

This communication across species lines is analogous to people and software interpreting signals across the internet. We have invented new forms of punctuation to make up for a lack of physical expression in emails and text chats. I would say the same is true for 3D games and virtual worlds. But avatars, no matter how awesome-looking, are terribly clunky as instruments for realtime expression.

Meanwhile, new forms of punctuation have been invented: small, packaged symbols. They are quick to create, and they travel efficiently across the internet. Smileys and emoticons have more currency and emotional leverage than avatars, because they live in typographical soil: an ecosystem that is still much more established and pervasive than virtual worlds. Perhaps text will continue to become more electric, dynamic, intelligent, and integrated with graphical interfaces, such that smileys will evolve into avatars.

The internet is accelerating our posthuman evolution. We will come to have a deeper understanding of our animal cousins – because the primal affordances of the biosphere will be better-understood. Wha? you might say.  Jaron Lanier has already been talking about this kind of stuff for a long time – this idea that (with virtual reality) we will be able to “become” lobsters or snakes or cloud-sized creatures. I mention Jaron in a previous post, and the ways in which our bodymaps adjust to posthuman communication.

It’s not just about imagination: it’s about communicating and having a form of body language that is compatible with the internet. More and more of our communication is migrating to the internet. And since living languages evolve (including body languages) the new ecology of the internet will fertilize new forms of gesture, sound, moving text, and other dynamical forms.

What does this have to do with tails and brains?

Me and Higgs had established a body language bond. New kinds of body language bonds are emerging as we interact through the internet. Our brains are adapting.

Micha Cardenas became a Dragon in Second Life for 365 hours straight. What happened to her brain? I can imagine that people who spend large portions of their lives as Furries with animated tails have dreams of expressing with their tails and ears, like the Na’viThese ideas are covered more thoroughly in The Tail Wagging the Brain.

Speaking Dolphin

Researchers from Aberdeen University and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia found that dolphins use discrete units of body language as they swim together near the surface of water. They observed efficiency in these signals, similar to what occurs in frequently-used words in human verbal language.

As human natural language goes online, and as our body language gets processed, data-compressed, and alphabetized for efficient traversal over the internet, we may start to see more patterns of our embodied language that resemble those created by dolphins, and many other social species besides. The background communicative buzz of the biosphere may start to make more sense in the process of whittling our own communicative energy down to its essential features, and being able to analyze it digitally. With a universal body language alphabet, we might someday be able to animate our skin like cephalopods, or speak “dolphin”, using our tails, as we lope across the virtual waves.

Without a Body, Our Conversations Bifurcate

August 23, 2011

While talking on the phone or texting with a friend, it is impossible to give your friend visual signals that indicate understanding, affirmation, confusion, or levels of attention. These indicators are typically provided by head motions, facial expressions, hand movements, and posturing. In natural face-to-face interaction, these signals happen in real time, and they are coverbal; they are often tightly-synchronized with the words being exchanged.

You may have had the following experience: you are exchanging texts in an online chat with a friend. There is a long period of no response after you send a text. Did you annoy your friend? Maybe your friend has gone to the bathroom? Is your friend still thinking about what you said? One problem that ensues is cross-dialog: during the silent period, you may change the subject by issuing a new text, but unknowingly, your friend had been writing some text as a response to your last text on the previous topic. You get that text, and – relieved that you didn’t annoy your friend – you quickly switch to the previous topic. Meanwhile, your friend has just begun to respond to your text on the new topic. The conversation bifurcates – simply due to a lack of nonverbal signaling.

Like frogs in boiling water, most of us are not aware that our bodies are slowly dissolving as we engage increasingly in text-based communication, which is often asynchronous (or at least running at lower than conversation-rates). My theory: new forms of body language are emerging in the absence of our real bodies. Smart design of visual/interactive interfaces can adapt to this natural evolution. I don’t see it as a choice. It’s simply a part of our evolution – our adaptability.

Jill Chivers, in the blog, “I’m Listening – the Power and Magic of Listening in Everyday Lives“, makes a great case for reaching for the phone when repeated email pings are not getting through to someone, or for going face-to-face, when phone calls are left unanswered.

Call her old-fashioned, call her a Luddite. But she is simply suggesting that we all need to stay connected in ways that maximize our body language. It’s not an anti-technology stance. In fact, I would argue that we need more technology and smarter technology – just that it has to be the kind of technology that manifests embodiment over the internet – in whatever forms it takes. Without bodies, virtual or otherwise, and without the synchrony of realtime bodies, voices, and some stream of co-presence, we tend to fragment into text-like pieces.

Some people like deconstructing themselves into textual fragments. Sometimes I like it – I can hide behind my well-crafted words. But I don’t like the fact that I like it. I don’t want to like it anymore than I do. I would prefer to like connecting with people more in realtime, like I used to – before the world was wired.

Finally, here’s a relevant piece by Si Dawson

Watch Out – That Gesture Might be Owned by a Company

June 19, 2011

A friend pointed me to an article by Annalee Newitz: Ten Physical Gestures That Have Been Patented.

Aside from the micro-gestures used on specific widgets for touch screens (like the Apple iPad/iPhone “slide to unlock” gesture), there are some pretty crazy ones. Ready for this?

Shaking your mobile device
Annalee sez, “Ever get pissed off at your phone and shake it up and down until it reboots? You could be benefitting from a patent infringement! Intellectual Ventures owns a very broad patent on moving your mobile device around (basically, shaking your phone). If any company dares to create a product which relies on somebody shaking a mobile device to reboot, they’d better cough up some cash to license this gesture from Intellectual Ventures.”

Other examples include: Making hand gestures to move icons around on your phone, Flicking your pen at something, and Moving 3D objects in a virtual environment

Many of these have never been challenged in court. But here’s a thought: multi-touch screens, virtual worlds, avatars, gestural interfaces, etc., are creating a rich environment for human visual language to grow in new directions, in big ways.

Our body language vocabulary has always been very rich, but now we have technologies that will allow us to discover and invent entirely new expressions. Will these patent-hungry companies try to gobble up as many potential physical expressions as possible, thereby owning the space of future gestural expression before it has time to mature and settle into the scope of Natural Language?

The answer is not easy because the technology must evolve along with its use.

Here’s one more example that Annalee gives:

Two-handed motions
“Here’s a seriously weird one. A company called GestureTek owns several patents on optical systems for sensing gestures, but the most bizarre is their insanely broad patent on a device that tracks two-handed motions. If you want to make a device that detects two-handed movement (charmingly called “bimanual movements” in the patent), you should be paying a licensing fee to GestureTek every time you do jazz hands.”

Body Language and Web Site Design

January 19, 2011

“Body language” and “web site design” are two phrases we don’t often see in the same sentence. But I believe body language literacy is desperately needed in the world of web design. Let me explain.

But first, I need to get something off my chest….

I am cosmically frustrated, annoyed and cynical about the current state of web design. Sending a message to my doctor REALLY COULD be easy and intuitive. Booking an airline ticket REALLY DOESN’T have to involve sighing and grumbling and scrolling through absolute nonsense in search of the right button to click – if there is one.

Here, Tommy Oddo points out How a Bad User Experience Hurts a Healthy Brand.

Too many companies are skimping on genuine customer service and putting up web sites as if to say, “talk to the hand”.

The “hand” is not doing its job. A generation of socially-illiterate, visually-illiterate, and literally illiterate geeks are determining the way we interact with each other, how we shop, how we manage our finances….just about everything we do these days. The situation is dire, and I believe that far too many people don’t care or don’t notice. They are like the proverbial frogs in the pot of water, slowly being brought to boil: they don’t realize the negative effect it is having on the quality of their lives – that is, until their insides explode.

If you don’t think that the following web site (the main page for GoDaddy) is a miserable mess…

…then you should take a little stroll. Breathe deep. Feel, listen, and watch the natural world for a spell. Nature speaks to us in a language simple and pure, yet amazingly complex and expressive. Nature can be our best teacher in gaining clarity in these situations. I trust that you agree with me at least a little bit. If you don’t agree with me, then you are a frog.

Thank God we don’t see much of this kind of thing anymore…

Getting to my Point

So, what does body language have to do with making better web pages? Lots. Not only are web sites graphical compositions that rely on nonverbal communication (like all forms of graphic design), they are also interactive. Web sites are conversational agents. They are clicked-through, scrolled-through, talked to, and read-from. Body language is the Music that carries human communication through time. Good interaction design relies on this soundtrack.


“Affordance” – another one of those great idea-words that is sometimes diluted from over-use, causing people to think it is something less than it really is. Donald Norman reminds us to remember the original meaning:

The word “affordance” was originally invented by the perceptual psychologist J. J. Gibson (1977, 1979) to refer to the actionable properties between the world and an actor (a person or animal). To Gibson, affordances are a relationship. They are a part of nature: they do not have to be visible, known, or desirable. Some affordances are yet to be discovered. Some are dangerous. I suspect that none of us know all the affordances of even everyday objects.

This is a subtle and important concept. And when Donald Norman says that we may not know all the affordances of everyday objects, I think he would agree that web sites are everyday objects.

What Joe Sez

Joe Gillespie addresses this question of body language in web site design:

Many pages I see communicate ineptness, even from large companies who should know better. The pages may be technically perfect, but they have been produced by people without any visual communications skills. They are like the karaoke artist who can’t sing. They are like the person talking to you with their head bowed down, they don’t know that they are sending the wrong signals, they are not in control of their communication.

Then there are the sites like the glitzy wine label, trying to fool people that they are something that they are not. They are trying too hard, shouting every trick in the book at the top of their voices – animation, sound, flashing, blinking waving their hands in the air. They are making noise, not communicating, and wasting a lot of bandwidth for all their efforts.

Okay, do you think this web page is nicely designed? …. Well, that’s what I thought when I saw the screenshot…until I visited the site. Just go there, and you’ll see what I mean. Roll around on the blue buttons and watch your retinas curdle.



Communicating with a Body and Getting Good At It

Some people are really good at body language. They know how to make themselves clear. They know how to use their voice, eye contact, and gesture to get the message across, or to show you that they understand with you are saying. What happens when we are remote and have to rely on computers for communication? Online communication is in a crisis. Without our real bodies involved, we have to use other means to generate meaning, understanding, and context. Web sites – increasingly the medium through which we do so many things – are terribly poor – on average – at delivering the all-important nonverbal channel of natural language.

I will conclude with FOUR rules of thumb for designing good web site body language:

1. Make Eye Contact

Did you know that a web page can look at you? Have you ever wondered where you are supposed to “go” in a web site in order to do what you want to do? A real body has a head and eyes – and we use this focal-point to direct attention and to quickly make a connection. (Hands are also used). Too many web sites are cluttered with a mangle of widgets without focus. At any given time, there are usually only a few things the user needs to do.  A smartly-designed web site knows how to make a good guess as to what the user may be looking for – and to pull the eye and clicking-cursor to a natural focus of attention. Cross-acknowledgement – and maintaining focus – are important in natural body language… as well as in interaction design.

2. Only Animate What Needs Attention

All I have to say is that animated ads make me crazy – like, when I land on a web site that has Las Vegas pixel-guns shooting at my eyeballs from several directions, I start making tunnels with my hands and looking through the hole. I’m not kidding.

3.  Keep Interactive Context

If you are a web designer who codes, look for ways to hold in the web site’s short-term memory the recent activities between the user and the web site. Even if you can’t code, there are still ways to find flow with the user’s actions (as extended through time). Imagine that you are simulating a natural conversation between two humans. You don’t want the user to be lost in an eternally cluttered, unchanging, undifferentiated wall of choices. This is subtle, hard to define, and best explored on a case-by-case basis. But I think it’s important and I suspect we’ll be hearing more about this over time.

4. Stop Geeking out!

If you are a web designer, go for a walk! Listen to the birds. Build a tower of blocks with a child. Hang out with a dog and exchange some canine body language. Feel the interactive energy that flows effortlessly in the natural world. The secret to good interaction design is not found in cutting-edge technology. It’s found in the bodies of creatures that have been interacting on Earth for several billions of years, and building lifestyles around each other’s affordances. The human body is the original user-interface. We have much to learn from watching how it works.

Do you Have any Fave Good Body-Language Web Sites?

I want to write a blog post that lists bad body language web sites and good body language web sites…and critique them using these four rules-of-thumb. I have a few in mind. Give me some of your own examples!

/nods /waves