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form+zweck 22:
Tangibility of the Digital - Die Fühlbarkeit des Digitalen

 

Burkhard Schmitz | Jörg Petruschat

The Aesthetic Dimension of Acting

 

A conversation with Burkhard Schmitz

 

Many a person manages to reach very far into the future with the power of his imagination at a very early point in time. (Happy alignments of the stars may be part of this). When Burkhard Schmitz, who had studied product design at the Hochschule der Künste (College of the Arts) in Berlin, was considering a subject for his degree thesis in 1982, the uproar of the post-modernists who were clamouring outside was getting on his nerves and he thought of the cover of Time Magazine which depicted a computer as "Man of the Year". He asked himself what technology could release, if we were to free access to it from being narrowly controlled by command prompts and if we were to enhance it. And suddenly, the value which is gained by sensuality and the range of movement of our fingers and hands for a new relationship between Man and machine became clear to him. He designed solutions which are strikingly similar to the data tiles on today's interaction tables. He investigated how one could make a device out of the mouse, which would enable the user to act, not just neutrally on a surface, but also using spatial references.
In 1993, Burkhard Schmitz returned to what is the University of the Arts today as Professor of Interactive Systems and he has been there ever since.
Under his leadership, an important project team for Germany (the ID 5), was established and many who are now involved in determining the scene for tangible and graspable user interfaces or who represent this subject area as educators emerged from this group.
We spoke with Burkhard Schmitz, because his work on and with digital systems is characterised by his views as a product designer. We were interested in his "idea space" and the skills which emerged during his long years of work in the digital realm, if we look at it and think about it from the perspective of the analogue world. We were also interested in how constantly dealing with the possibilities of digital technology has a retroactive effect upon design in the analogue world, as, in addition to his function as Professor of interactive Systems, Burkhard Schmitz was also a co-founder of the 7.5 design studio where he has been designing and developing products for clients such as Wilkhahn, Rosenthal, Pohlschroeder, Wasa, Expo2000, Kempinski, Schering or Herman Miller for two decades in conjunction with others.
Burkhard Schmitz is Vice-president of the University of the Arts in Berlin.

PETRUSCHAT: You are a product designer and studied with Roericht, among others, in Berlin. How is it that you came from the rather "hard product design" world to shape a professorship in "interactive systems" at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK)?

 

SCHMITZ: You can't really say that "hard product design" was done with Roericht. First of all, you have to regard that as a kind of West Berlin course of study. At that time West Berlin was at a distance of at least 300 km away from everywhere... There was no industrial hinterland. You had to busy yourself with something other than real existing design, if you wanted to justify at all what you had done here in West Berlin.
More or less at the end of my course of study, thus around 1980 or 1981 the design world became interested in Memphis. At approximately the same time, on the cover of Time Magazine, there was a picture of a computer with the title "Man of the Year" and it really struck me suddenly how silly this profession of design really was: in hindsight, Memphis can simply be understood as a kind of PR activity by an Italian laminating company. Besides those who still want to sell old books, there is really nobody who would assert that that still has some meaning today. A short time later (1982) I began my Diplom (graduate degree) and decided on the subject of "Personal Computer Concepts". After that I really wanted to go to Moggridge, but Roericht asked me as an afterthought, whether I wanted to come to Ulm and to do a show on the subject of "Computers". He convinced me. The show did not materialize and then, somehow, „I found myself in Roericht's office again. One of his clients at that time was NCR. They had already been providing personal computers in Germany prior to IBM. At that time, that was still something quite new. The term "personal computer" began to become accepted for the first time. Overnight, the machine began to become important and economical, also. In this connection, I travelled twice or three times to the United States, where NCR designers met. At those meetings, I was completely appalled by what designers were discussing on the subject of "computers".

 

PETRUSCHAT: Why were you appalled?

 

SCHMITZ: Before the IBM PC was issued, IBM sent it to competitors who wanted to manufacture IBM compatible computers, with the result that they all copied the IBM PC. It was the IBM "AT" - we called it just the "Antique Technology" among ourselves. The only creative feature on the thing was its front panel. This was created by designers. I remember that inside this panel, there was a screw, which obviously had no function. To my (admittedly) naive question, as to whether in the "conversion" of the IBM PC into an NCR machine we could at least dispense with this screw, I received the response: "Young man, IBM put that screw in there and they know what they are doing!" It was depressing for me to see the part played by this industry which simply followed behind IBM. And it was depressing to see, as time went on, how Germany was losing more and more access to these developments.

 

PETRUSCHAT: To what could this reticence be attributed?

 

SCHMITZ: At that time, the structures were absurd. If someone had developed a new board then the delay in issuing the certificate of approval for the board lasted twice as long as the development of the board had taken. Thus people worked systematically to have us lose access.

 

PETRUSCHAT: But nevertheless you became involved exactly in this area.

 

SCHMITZ: However, the people from NCR presented us in 1984 with the first Mac and commented: "That is certainly a wonderful thing, but they have no chance on the market. They will never survive." If we look at the situation today, then IBM and NCR vanished off the PC market and Apple is more brilliant than ever.

 

PETRUSCHAT: You had taken the step to the design of interactions, to interactive systems, years before, already.

 

SCHMITZ: Yes. Since I have understood what software is, what it can do, it was not clear to me that the design of the object is shifted to the action. And I'm convinced of this up until today. In the meantime, then I've become angry now and again about the lack of judgement in this development. As, for a while, it was called "graphical user interface", although that never had anything to do with graphics at all, the interface discussion was very impure, conceptually and poorly thought out. As what was now usually used as an interface, these are at least three operating systems which have nothing to do with each other, but were simply thrown together. One enables us to control the mouse and the cursor with direct manipulation. Then there are windows as a simulation of several screens. And then menus, which for their part have nothing to do with the windows. When it came out, the most exciting things about the Macintosh were the trash can and the spray can. The trash can, that was simply the symbolic action. You take the thing and just get into it. From the first moment on that had an aesthetic quality for me, which I hadn't seen in other things and which is on the same level for me, as a Mercedes door where it is a question of a sensuous haptic quality and really all the same, whether we see it as being two or three-dimensional. It had a "tangible quality". On the other hand, the spray can permit us to take the economy of a hand (in a certain way) into the computer. I was completely convinced that the mouse could only be the first step. It was a classic misjudgement. At that time I thought that the mouse, would quickly acquire a kind of orientation to be able to rotate something. And I proceeded upon the assumption that we would immediately go to multi-touch, and that we could place several stones in relationship with one another in one area for more complex control processes. That was obvious to me. Therefore, I completely underestimated the fact that there were absolutely no technical developments in these areas. Then something actually happened with Apple, which was a sheer dilution of what happened at Xerox some time before. Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Centre) had been closed for a long time when Apple turned the concepts which had been researched there into applications. Up to now, it has been thought that all of the groundbreaking developments at Xerox (the object-orientated programming language - Smalltalk, windows which could open on top of one another, laser printing, the Ethernet, the network client and server principal, desktop publishing) were a financial loss for Xerox, which of course, is not the case at all. Xerox PARC devoted ten years to it, thus all of the seventies, and they received six million dollars in development funding per year - that is 60 million dollars throughout the whole period of its existence. And with laser printers and copiers alone which were also developed there, Xerox earned 6 billion dollars. That is a 1:100 "reissue" and a dream for any research body. Of course, that they lost out on 600 billion dollars cannot be laid at the door of the research department. (After careful estimates, that would be the accumulation of all of Xerox PARC's inventions in subsequent developments), That is (as always, I have to say) the incompetence of management, because, as we put it so nicely in German: "Wer nur etwas von Wirtschaft versteht, versteht auch davon nichts." ("He, who understands something about business, also understands nothing about it".) Up to now, it has been a great deficiency that appraisals of the many faceted effects of technology have been so poorly developed.

 

PETRUSCHAT: When you talk about action, then you obviously mean something different or something more specific than what is understood as a "user process", true?

 

SCHMITZ: I think that the main difference is that I recognised relatively early that we really have to take this bull by the horns. Of course there have been these discussions about practical value in design for a long time. But, on the one hand, that is something which would be described as overbuilding in a classical sense. What I find worse is the fact that the aesthetic quality of these processes is not discussed. For me it's a question of operating aesthetics and not of the ticking of ergonomic check boxes. I prefer to ask myself: What functions so well in action? There are many activities that we like to do. Long before there was this fashionable word "flow", activities which led to what was later described as "flow" interested me. I was interested in the conditions which permitted one to come in under the kind of circumstances in which it simply "runs" smoothly and with pleasant feedback which strengthens the process. We can only understand feedback at all actually, if we have experienced those kinds of circumstances, sliding between the activity and the responses which it generates.

PETRUSCHAT: These are situations with feedback.

 

SCHMITZ: Exactly. And of course, that also exists in object-centred design. Thus, I still don't understand, when people say, that what you do (under the heading "Interactive Systems), has nothing to do with product design. The office chair which we developed for Herman Miller can only be understood, if you have sat in it. I don't want to think that we had the goal of making an "office chair". We only ever had one aesthetic conception and that was how sitting should be. And not how it should "look". That was not without importance, but with equal importance as the means to the end, to achieve a certain physical feeling or better: to create it. Therefore, at Studio 7.5 also (apart from two or three exceptions) we only make things which move. Movement means that there are at least two states - and thus an infinite number of moments between these. And that is the requirement that I have, before I can speak of interaction at all.

 

PETRUSCHAT: If we look at last year's discussions in the area of tangible user interfaces, then there is less and less talk of "interface" (TUI) and more and more of "interaction" (TEI or simply only TI). Is that a trend, of late, to see the whole picture and not just, as earlier, the interface? Or are rather self-contained areas of responsibility differentiating themselves here from one another depending on specific competency areas?

 

SCHMITZ: If I have no concept of how interaction should be, then I don't need to sit down to "paint" an interface. I really think that the orientation towards interaction is the higher standard, even if it is often only very difficult to meet. This standard is not to be realised without a higher complexity in design-relevant factors. And at the same time, that is then also the greatest weakness, if you have this higher standard, as you also need very many more people. If an electronic device is being developed today, then there is usually the engineer and then the component catalogue and a "roadmap" and (as so often) the designer comes after and then has to clean up the worst messes. The only people who understood it differently (not always well, but just as the only thing); those are the people from Apple, who also process the whole chain. True to Alan Kay's famous statement "People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware". But, not everyone can work for Apple. That I have an interaction-orientated and not an interface-orientated perspective is due to the fact that I come from product design. I notice in everyone who comes from product design a system of coordinates which goes beyond the graphic.
At first I knew "tangible interfaces" as "graspable interfaces" and "graspable" also has the double meaning in English that the German word "begreifen" has. On the one hand it means "to understand" and on the other hand "to take hold of". We can only understand things, if and when we touch them or catch hold of them. For me, there is great wisdom in this. In our office we set great store by building models ourselves by hand insofar and as often as that is possible. We wouldn't want to do without the experiences which result from this. This relationship between the head and the hand is not well documented in the West.

 

PETRUSCHAT: Designers are often in the position of bringing the complexity of which the devices are capable down to a simple, so to speak "intuitive" manageable form, if they are working on the operability of digitally based and interactive systems,. That is mostly the case if they are at the "end of the pipe". If designers are seen at the beginning of the design process for interactive systems, then they should initiate and bring about developments in software and hardware, then they research the operating dimensions in order to allow them become culturally effective, isn't that right?

 

SCHMITZ: Once again, I must go back thirty years. In my work for NCR, there were some studies, one of which was called "Thinking Is A Game Of Skill". During that time I only dealt with input methods. Although in English there is no linguistic difference between what we call "Tastatur" (computer keyboard) and "Klavier" (piano keyboard) in German (both are called "keyboard") you cannot, however, do with one, namely the computer keyboard what you can do with the other, namely, play the piano, simply because the computer keyboard is not pressure sensitive. So, I started early to learn about musical instruments and I am still of the opinion today that the aesthetic dimension of actions is revealed very clearly in musical instruments and can be read. Nobody would come up with the idea of speaking of ergonomics in this context, because that is really the wrong idea. That is exactly the same as the people from the Usability Front whom I merely call the Hezbollah. I call them the Hezbollah because they also emerged only relatively late in the process, are radical and are clueless. However, as a designer, when you formulate a concept of how something should be, then it is always a holistic design. But nobody asks the designers about that or challenges them to do something like that in a holistic way. What we must also accomplish is to train them to be authors. Therefore, my students must be able to do some programming and some soldering unfortunately and also to tinker somewhat. As the only way of making oneself heard somewhat is to go to other people and with the statement "I think such a thing" to be able to demonstrate this "thing". Based loosely on Lauri Anderson's statement about Wittgenstein: "If you can't talk about it, (Ludwig), point to it."(United States I-IV). Presently, here in Berlin, we have almost eliminated ourselves once again from this tangible interface history, as we were concentrating so intently on the problem of materialisation: how do physical objects come into being? What possibilities do I have to bring this process more and more into a "feedback" process (as you said a little while ago) using simulations and interactions in simulation and production? We bought ourselves a very simple CNC milling cutter to investigate this subject. It has the advantage that students can program it, in an uncomplicated manner, using "processing". One of the most recent projects associated with this consisted of our simply projecting on the table of the milling cutter outlines which should then be cut out of the plate. The exceptional thing here is that we can also manipulate, modify and arrange these outlines manually and what then emerges is cut out of the plate by the milling cutter 1:1. What we are doing is something which Norman would call "natural mapping". As it is just that: In order to make a process controllable, to be able to juggle things, I need real-time, if not even instantaneous feedback. In almost all digitally supported processes, particularly in manufacturing, the processes between input and output are stretched out very far away from one another, are mostly still combined with a division of labour where the process is finished by people other than those who started it. Then, at the end, something emerges, that only has something tenuous to do with the input data - like in the game of "Chinese Whispers", in which the joke is also that the word which the last player has is completely different from the one which was whispered by the first player into the second player's ear. Of course, when we are manufacturing products we want to avoid something like that as much as possible. Therefore the point for us was that (like under a teleoptic lens) you could push all levels which were staggered one after the other in time into one another at the same time and in such a way, that the problem of data modification due to "relaying" can no longer exist.

 

PETRUSCHAT: You don't reduce "noise", as it exists around the information as an effect of the channel but "noise" as it can arise in the process, as a degeneration of input, as a consequence of interpretations in man-machine interactions...

 

SCHMITZ: When I discuss this with students at the beginning of their course of study, what actually constitutes an interactive system, what interaction can be, successful and less successful, then the example of a gas stove and an electric stove is often very helpful to me. I turn on the electric stove and nothing happens at first Only due to the time lag, (which is quite easy to understand in itself) uncertainty enters into the interaction still quite independently of how well or how badly the procedure itself is presented. If we want to make a hierarchy of criteria which must be taken into consideration, when designing interactions, then fast feedback would be the most important one of all. If that is missing, then absolutely nothing is happening. But there is a further dimension to this feedback. Thus, today, CAD systems are overwhelmingly expert systems, which are supposed to give us just an idea also of structural properties and weight, etc. And, if I may dream of something now, then it would be something like this: A bridge is designed and then I could take this virtual bridge in both hands, in order to be able to test it for torsion load by means of simply contra-rotating my hands and then I also notice: "Aha, I have torsion there." And: "Something is shifting there!" If I could create a system like that, then people who have absolutely no idea at all about structural calculations could develop a feel for how a beam must be provided, so that it gains rigidity.

 

PETRUSCHAT: If I may take over this dream, then two options appear to me to be possible, to make it come true. On the one hand, in a simulated world with inevitably minimal data density: any force-feedbacks, small motors in the vicinity of my fingertips, which exert small doses of pressure parallel to some kind of glimmers in data glasses which I wear on my head. Or, secondly, the option of a "real", "analogue" albeit exemplary world in which, structures are manufactured from materials which are monitored much more than the cardboard or the plastic from which models are still put together at the moment. An analogue world of very dense data, in which objects originate from rapid prototyping machines and convert the structural calculations of a CAD sketch or a CAD structure 1:1 (one would have to say more accurately which convert them 1:10 or 1:25) but which I can't just grasp and manipulate in my hands but which I can really take into my hands and turn in my field of vision, to be able to use all of my senses to examine and evaluate the object 1:1. Occasionally, I "fool" the senses by requiring them to pad out minimally dense data with material from experience, to a certain extent. At other times, I "fool" the senses, because they must make the dimensional leap and grasp and manipulate an object that they would never be able to grasp and manipulate in "real life". Occasionally, I operate the machine with the power of my imagination; I "warm up" the cool paucity of detail of the simulation with my experiences. At other times I feel empowered and sovereign.

 

SCHMITZ: Alan Kay has always spoken very positively of the "user illusion". The "user illusion" consists of acting as if the graphic element on the screen is a document and the trash can is a wastepaper basket into which I put something - which is definitely an illusion (I move the mouse for that). In order to work, this illusion must be plausible and it must be capable of being aligned with the parallel world which is being processed. I would see something similar here. There, exaggerations will be downright necessary. In order to really notice anything on this bridge, I will have to wiggle it in a way with my hands that no storm would ever do. We can compare that with animated cartoons: There, someone is standing behind a door. This door is slammed. And then we see how that person behind the door slides down the wall like a flat pancake. This is completely impossible as a physical reality, but anyone can immediately empathise with it very well. This is the kind of plausibility that I mean and which also belongs and must belong in the realm of exaggeration, because, otherwise, it can't be universally valid as well.

 

PETRUSCHAT: We must thereby make minimally dense data important, so that the little that is there is then overblown.

 

SCHMITZ: Yes, exactly. That is basically what any model "does". A model is always only one aspect of a design. In our physics classes we learnt: Each experiment is a question for Nature. And in the same way, for designers, models are questions for perception, for our feel for solidness, etc. and therein they are inherently exaggerated.
(The interview was conducted by Jörg Petruschat)