Interface Studies is an emerging area of research within Digital Media Studies, which looks, specifically, at human computer interfaces, from a variety of humanistic perspectives, further informed by artistic and design research perspective.
It is also a new research group which is comprised of researchers and PhD students from the University of Amsterdam, the Technical Universities of Eindhoven and Delft and Northumbria University in Newcastle.
Why is there a need for a new research area? There are two types of answers to this question: institutional and substantial.
Institutional reasons for a new area of study
On the institutional side, there is already an ongoing process of specialisation within media studies. Digital Media Studies have separated out of traditional Media Studies already at the beginning of the century, but this process didn’t end there and then.
Over the last decade we have seen the emergence of several sub-disciplines that attend to specific aspects of Digital Media. Some of them deal with the function or content aspects of media such as Cybertext, Videogame and Network studies, and some with the structural levels of new media such as Software Studies and Platform Studies. However, a side effect of this process of specialisation is that the question of interface seems to be somewhat neglected, because of institutional developments, precisely at a time when it seems to us to become urgent. The emerging area of Software Studies, for example, intentionally covers only the software aspect of human-computer interface, but has nothing much to say about the hardware which connects users to computers: input devices such as sensors, keyboards and joysticks, as well as feedback or output devices such as screens, loudspeakers and tactile feedback devices.
The same type of interface is also neglected by the common understanding of human-computer interfaces by most media scholars in other sub-disciplines (some, but certainly not all - do have a look at the links section to find other researchers working in the same vein). Most new media scholars routinely consider only the software handles as constituting the user interface. The root of this misconception is quite simple to understand – until recently, and for more than a quarter of a century, the personal computer in the desktop or laptop variety has been the main portal to the virtual worlds of digital data. We only knew one general type of hardware that connects users to hardware - the PC.
The PC's hardware configuration of screen, keyboard, mouse (and sometimes speakers and a microphone) and the software configuration of the GUI (graphical user interface), the so-called WIMP interface (WIMP stands for 'windows, icons, menus and pointers', with optional 'system sounds'), has been so common that it became a sort of obvious background noise, something taken for granted in most other sub-disciplines, and for this reason it has hardly been theorised within Digital Media studies and its various new branches.
Substantial reasons for a new area of study
The main substantial reason for launching a sub-discipline of Digital Media Studies dedicated to the study of human computer interfaces is that for a while now, and increasingly in the second decade of the 21st century, new hardware devices have been coming out of labs and into the market, and therefore into popular culture, which are very different from the traditional PC.
For this first substantial reason, we need a new sub-discipline that will take seriously and critically human computer interfaces as they expand from the stable format of WIMP into the new terrains that those new devices and their hardware and software configurations are exploring.
Furthermore, it is already apparent that these new devices expand the significance and functionality of computing beyond what we’ve gotten used to, and will continue to do so whenever newer devices continue to pour out of labs. The new devices are becoming sensitive to the location, movements and more nuanced behaviours of their users and their environment. New mobile and wireless devices and new forms of ubiquitous, ambient and pervasive computing also begin taking into account the whereabouts, purposes, habits, moods etc. of the users, thus putting the bodily presence and affective states of users at the centre. Haptic and tactile interfaces such as multitouch screens, but also tilt and force feedback and other sensors, especially when they are driven by new software techniques such as voice, face or gesture recognition, AI and Affective Computing, are transforming human-computer interaction from a mainly optical and cognitive operation into a bodily and affective experience.
Our research will therefore examine how human computer interfaces organise, enhance or constrain the interactions between human users and computers and how they affect culture through the various ways in which they reconfigure subjectivity, privacy, agency and experience.
For instance, during the PC era, the computer was largely conceived as either a productivity tool or an entertainment/communication medium. As such, we were used to regarding computer-use as largely an extension of human volition, intentionality and agency. But with the incorporation of our body language, a different picture seems to emerge: computers can now access and interpret also our unintended bodily-expressive behaviours, and use our body language, including aspects of it that we do not intentionally control, as input for their software. This and other physical input may be used by software to track our mood or alertness and this may, for instance, be useful to alert drivers before they nod off in front of the wheel. But there may also be more sinister uses too, and in either case - can we still maintain the illusion that we are in control of our communication with our computers? What does this say about agency, ours and theirs? And why is this happening? In whose particular interest is it that computers can now not only know what we tell them, but also what we don’t mean to tell them? Do we need to think about regulating these technological developments somehow?
The same types of question may be asked about another emerging interface paradigm: that of groupware, such as the Microsoft Surface computer. What this paradigm does, for example, is to shift from personal computing, in which there is one user, usually represented in the old paradigm by the single-dot, mouse-operated cursor, to a group paradigm. Instead of a personal computer, with a personal interface, we now have a shared interface for a group of users, who are no longer using a single mouse or keyboard, but instead are working on this surface concurrently, and using gestures to directly manipulate images. And again one question that may be asked is – what brings about and even pushes this cultural change? Do we want machines in our workplaces and schools that, on the one hand, can greatly encourage collaborative work but on the other hand can read our moods?
We claimed above that human computer interfaces have generally not been getting specific attention within Digital Media Studies. This is not to say that nobody studies interfaces at all. Some very interesting and pioneering work on interfaces has historically come from artists, such as Myron Kruger (already in the 1960's) or David Rokeby. Some of our research effort is also going to be devoted to exploring these histories, as well as current cultural developments such as open hardware and gadget art.
Besides artists, there is of course a wealth of practical and scientific knowledge about interfaces outside the humanities, created in the labs that invent, develop, test, apply, design and redesign those new types of interfaces that we now see around us. Most of the finished devices arrive from industry, but a lot of interesting research and development has been going on in universities, and a lot of public research money has been allocated to such research and development. However, those who have been studying interfaces in these contexts have mainly been approaching the issue from the strictly utilitarian perspective of usability, which is mainly interested in enhancing performance, productivity and efficiency. However, also within design and engineering disciplines, there have been, and are, those who see a need for a humanistic framework that can provide a context in which new interface technologies can be evaluated on their cultural, societal, political or aesthetic merits.
Recognising both the variety of sources of relevant knowledge and mindful of the usually rather short-sighted utilitarianism in most current research, the Interface Studies research group is an interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers with a variety of backgrounds working in both the humanities and in industrial or media design, for a better theoretical and critical understanding of interfaces, which will hopefully help to design better technologies.
We invite other researchers, artists and designers to join us and exchange ideas and experiences.