The Environmental User Interface: A Quantum Leap Forward

Now that people are getting their first look at an environmental user interface, I am often asked “do we really need this?” Or “how is this actually useful?” (If you haven’t seen the initial environmental UI demo, see here.)

An environmental user interface takes information from a device’s surroundings and uses it to render physically-accurate things on the screen. It appears as if the lights around you are shining on the things on the screen. If the lighting in your room is bright, then the things on your screen are brightly lit. They can even take on complex characteristics like mother-of-pearl or opal.

Now, this doesn’t mean you have to hold a flashlight over your phone to read the web in bed. What it means is, designers are empowered to use the design language of the physical world to design their interfaces. Gloss, glitter, glow-in-the-dark, or any other visual quality may be used. In the case of reading a website in a darkened room, the web designer may apply elegant backlighting or glow-in-the-dark treatments to maintain legibility. This is far superior to today’s method of making your phone act like a spotlight that shines in your face.

Picture yourself with your current, non-environmentally-lit phone. You’re at the movie theater. You’re enjoying the show when your phone gently nudges you. It’s a text. You carefully peek at your phone to see who it is. As soon as you do, your phone shines a gleaming blast of light in your face. There can be no doubt who looked at their phone during the movie. Your phone is telling on you. “This is them! Here’s the one!” You can feel everyone in the theater staring at the back of your head.

Now imagine the same scenario, but with an interface that is environmentally-lit. You’re enjoying the show when your phone gently nudges you. You carefully peek at your phone and see a text that subtly glows-in-the-dark. The keyboard is rendered with soft, almost imperceptible lighting, but you can still see the keys clearly. You interrupt no one because the phone is putting out just the right amount of light for you to see it. Turns out, the text is from an old friend. They want to know if you’d like to get together later. You reply “Sure! Love to.” Everyone continues enjoying the movie. The movie ends on a high note, and everyone has had a great time. You can’t wait to recommend it to your friend.

In this way, the environmental user interface represents a quantum leap over current interface paradigms. The method for designing any interface is aligned to the physiological nature of the person using it. It categorically improves human-computer interaction in ways never before possible.

Also: Common Questions About Environmentally-Lit Interfaces

Bob Burrough
January 7, 2019