Posting It All Together

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During the creation of a Web site, the initial and most crucial step - dreaming up unique and creative ideas - often entails messy shuffling of paperwork as designers brainstorm and scatter through drafts of ideas.

Through the use of Post-It notes and a giant television screen, however, a team of UC Berkeley computer scientists have created an "electronic whiteboard" that allows Web site designers the possibility of organizing and recording their ideas with interactive feedback.

The Designer's Outpost is a tangible user interface designed by the Group for User Interface Research stationed at UC Berkeley's Soda Hall.

UC Berkeley computer science graduate student Scott Klemmer, a member of the team, said he has always been fascinated with the relationship between the art and science communities.

"I have a foot in both art and the computer world," said Klemmer, whose background includes undergraduate studies at Brown University where he earned two degrees - one in computer science and another in Art Semiotics, the study of visual signs and their representations.

Working with his advisor, James Landay, Klemmer initially became involved with the interface research team at UC Berkeley one year ago, when he began his doctorate work in the department of computer science.

The idea for the Designer's Outpost first sprouted as a class project by Klemmer and Newman and grew from there. At the time, Mark Newman, also a graduate student of computer science, had finished a study of web design practice that piqued Klemmer's interest.

Surprisingly, the two colleagues discovered that web designers do not use computers until nearly the completion of the developmental phase.

Instead, most of their time is spent brainstorming with massive piles of Post-It notes could cause quite a mess. Designers often have to arrange and rearrange the "sitemaps" all over the wall.

"The site design and page design, consisting of the sitemap, storyboards, sketches, and schematics, take up most of the time in designing the web page," Klemmer said. "The computer portion comes last, at the very end."

Early in the project's research, an ethnographic study was conducted where 11 professional Web site designers from five different companies were observed and analyzed while operating the system.

The study enabled the researchers to construct a system that would optimally support current Web design practices.

Combining the tangibility of Post-It notes and electronic interface for group work, the Designer's Outpost allows the best of both worlds to interact with convenience and efficiency.

The interface uses paper and pen to bring the physical world in contact with a giant, 43-inch by 57-inch touch-sensitive SMART board, which is powered by a computer.

A pivotal feature of the Designer's Outpost is its size, enabling it to serve groups of people who are collaboratively working together, instead of just individuals gathered around a computer monitor.

The system's input consists of two cameras - a still camera located behind the screen and a digital video camera mounted on the ceiling facing the system - and a pen that can communicate with the computer through the screen.

Using the special pen, called a board stylus, the Web designers can create links between the pieces of paper with arrowheads pointing from one to the other, organizing the groups into hierarchies.

Designers are then able to group their related ideas and thoughts together according to the proximity in which they place their Post-Its, which represent the individual Web pages of each Web site.

Along with detecting spatially arranged batches of notes together as groups, the system is also able to display freehand electronic ink from the pen.

Groups of Post-Its are appointed descriptive labels to increase group cohesion. When a label for each group is designated, the system highlights and borders the Post-It label.

Once a Post-It note has been used, the designer can utilize a generic Post-It frame, a thin, clear piece of note-sized Plexiglas that can be maneuvered around the screen. This allows the designer to discard the paper Post-Its while retaining the virtual information from the original note.

Klemmer notes that some crucial components of the system that make it efficient and practical include the scale of the wall, the physical motion of the designers, the support that it provides for groups of people and the easier transitions that are provided for tools.

For instance, if a designer should prefer an earlier idea that arose previously in the evolution of the work, the computer is able to retrieve earlier versions.

Working with partners from distant locations is also more convenient with the Designer's Outpost, because of the advanced collaboration technology involved.

"The system provides the opportunity for remote participants across large distances, for instance, if designers wanted to communicate with partners in New York and San Francisco, they could," said Klemmer.

Amidst the excitement of creating a virtual reality in a physical setting, challenges of many kinds face the eager innovators as they venture into a world that has never before met an interactive interface comprised of Post-Its and a giant computer monitor-like wall.

"There is a big gap between the idea and making it happen," Klemmer said. "The day-to-day system-building is a very different intellectual task than when we sit back and reflect on design process."

Despite parallel advances in tangible user interfaces that are presently being researched at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and Xerox PARC, no earlier prototypes of a project such as the Designer's Outpost have ever existed before.

The three research groups, however, far from being in competition, have been both inspiring and motivational to the Berkeley team's work, said Klemmer.

This past summer, Klemmer completed the first prototype of the system with Ryan Farrell.

Jason Hong and Jimmy Lim, also graduate students in computer science at UC Berkeley, and Newman created a high-level information design project called DENIM, which functions hand-in-hand with the Designer's Outpost by providing a system for storyboards and sketches.

Already, the system has been modified from a digital desk modeled after an architecture drawing board to the current model that is able to support more users and Post-Its.

Above all, Klemmer said he appreciates his company and considers collaborating with his team the highlight of his experience so far.

"Working with my colleagues, Mark Newman and Ryan Farrell, is the most exciting part of working on this project. I enjoy doing science where I'm part of a group of people figuring something out," he said.

The experience of bringing in professional Web site designers to try out the current prototype of the Designer's Outpost also especially interested Klemmer.

A few weeks ago, 15 professional Web designers arrived at the laboratory in Soda Hall to test the interactive system, spending around one hour working on the board. Their "design sessions" were videotaped and proved extremely helpful to the development and improvement of the system.

Klemmer envisions a future for projects like the Designer's Outpost involving everyday purposes, where an interface can collaborate with the physical world.

"Wherever you see people working on walls now, you may see them working on electronic walls in the future," said Klemmer. "Over the next year, we'll be redefining and developing Outpost with the goal of deploying both Outpost and DENIM at a Bay Area Web design firm."


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