Researchers: Technologists often forget the human

Computer designers need to pay more closer attention to how the technologies they build will impact society and human values, researchers warned.

Computer designers need to pay closer attention to how the technologies they build will impact society and human values, a group of computer scientists and researchers warned.

The conclusion is one of many contained in the report, "Being Human: Human-Computer Interaction in the year 2020," released on Wednesday by Microsoft's Research division.

The report is a compilation of thoughts and observations of 45 researchers specializing in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), a field that looks at the usability of devices and the effect on users' behaviors.

The next wave of computing innovations need to focus on the consequences of technology and impact on humans rather than merely the features of the gadget, said Bill Buxton, a principal researcher with Microsoft.

"Without informed design, it [technology's advance] is likely to be more bad than good," said Buxton, whose research over the years has included multitouch systems.

Technology is often foisted on consumers, who are told exactly what to do with it, whether it be an entertainment gaming system or online networking Web site, said Bill Gaver, a professor at Goldsmiths College in London, who has researched interactive technologies for 20 years.

Technology used at work is almost the same used at home. And that's not necessarily good, he said. "We're risking turning the home into a sort of work place," Gaver said. "There's more to home."

One of the devices Gaver has worked on, the Drift Table, was on display at London's Science Museum during the launch of the report.

It's essentially a coffee table with a clear magnifying glass in the middle. Underneath is a flat-screen panel connected to a 1-T byte hard drive containing maps oriented to where the coffee table is. The table is weight-sensitive, and placing an object on the top causes the map to drift. There are no other instructions.

When people use it, the Drift Table incites a variety of lively discussion centered around locations and landmarks. The Drift Table is not as didactic as other devices or computers; "The fact that it is simple is part of the design," Gaver said.

The idea of engagement -- using technology to bring about discussions -- as well as incorporating commonly held human values should be brought into the design process, the researchers said.

The notion that a piece of technology can be simply be produced and plunked down in front of a person "is unlikely to move us forward," said Tom Rodden, a professor of interactive systems at the University of Nottingham.

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