Innovative menu tool strengthens NZ connection

US-based computer interface company Change Tools, which already has ties to New Zealand, has become a member of the Seattle-based Human Interface Technology (HIT) lab, a satellite of which is located in Christchurch.

US-based computer interface company Change Tools, which already has ties to New Zealand, has become a member of the Seattle-based Human Interface Technology (HIT) lab, a satellite of which is located in Christchurch.

According to chairman Fred Ordway, that could mean work in collaboration with the Christchurch lab.

Change Tools went to the US HIT lab “to seek validation of our product and the ability to do a proper user study”, Ordway says. He was in New Zealand partly for the opening of the Christchurch lab.

The product, Zenu, is a small, graphically presented selection menu. Clicking a button on the menu can open up a specialist menu at a deeper level, relabelling the buttons accordingly.

Zenu can be brought up on a PC screen by clicking, at the current position of the cursor, so menu choices are immediately at hand, in a similar, but more graphical style to some computer-aided design terminals and “right-click” menus on Windows.

But Ordway and Change Tools founder Joey Leavitt see the real future of the product as a stationary or “foldaway” selection tool on the screen of a mobile device like a cellphone or personal digital assistant, where display space is severely limited.

In this space, Wellington’s Parochus has provided the crucial link, with flexible middleware allowing the Zenu interface to be smoothly accommodated to new mobile devices (see 'Zen' floating menu gets NZ help).

For many day-to-day IT applications “we are leaving the era of the laptop and desktop”, Ordway says. “We need the power of a flexible interface on handheld devices”, including those out of the ICT mainstream such as the digital camera.

Working with the Christchurch lab would make economic sense, says Ordway, offering access to expertise on human-computer interfacing “at an economical rate”, close to a major collaborator and in a country where there is less bureaucracy shielding the innovator from potential clients and sources of investment capital.

Ordway likes New Zealand, in any case, having lived near Wellington for 20 years.

Besides making contact with the HIT Lab, Change Tools’ Zenu has aroused the interest of Clifford Nass, of Stanford University, a respected human interface technology researcher, who will act as an adviser to the company, Ordway says.

Nass promulgated the idea that people like to relate to their computer as though it were a person, a concept which led to positive developments, though he is perhaps unfairly blamed for having inspired Microsoft’s talking paperclip Personal Assistant.

Change Tools has retained another heavyweight, Rob Sterne, of legal practice Sterne Kessler Goldstein Fox (SKGF) to advise on protecting its intellectual property.

In these respects, the decline of IT stocks has worked to the advantage of small companies like Change Tools, which would have been crowded out during the dot-com boom, Ordway says.

“When the Nasdaq was riding at 5400, you wouldn’t have got near Nass or Sterne; there were too many demands on their time.”

At today’s 1200 levels, the small innovators can attract the eye of such figures.

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