loosen up computer interfaces
Ted Smalley Bowen,
Technology Research News
Wile E. Coyote misdirects the elastic force
of a giant slingshot; he plummets off a cliff, the inevitable boulder
looming palpably overhead. The appeal of Saturday morning cartoons, which
may have hit their peak with gems like Road Runner, stemmed in large part
from the animators’ knack for evoking an exaggerated sense of the laws
of physics at work.
Researchers at two universities in South Australia are looking to adapt
the mechanics of serious amusement to the minutiae of serious computer
work by adding cartoon animation effects to graphical user interfaces
The work is an attempt to lend substance and dynamism to the generally
flat and less-than-engaging graphical user interface, according to Bruce
H. Thomas, director of the wearable computer lab at the School of Computer
and Information Science at the University of South Australia.
With very few exceptions, today's GUIs are minimally responsive. When
users select and drag objects, or pull down menus, the screen elements
react with jumpy movements, hasty transitions, and an overall lack of
Although GUI animation has been an active field of research, its practical
uses have been limited by a lack of suitable programming tools and the
relative lack of computing power available to run applications, according
Although today's machines are about 100 times faster than the original
Apple Mac, applications like word processors are not proportionally faster
because system software has steadily claimed more of the computer’s raw
power. "The computers are fast, but when you add the system software the
entire system is [relatively] slow," said Thomas. In addition, "the animation
software tools have not been built into the user interface toolkits. Until
it is easy to add animation, programmers will be reluctant to do so.”
But as computing power increases, and as animation tools are added to
the GUI programmer’s palette, users could benefit from interfaces whose
elements seem more substantial and responsive, according to Thomas.
Several animation techniques can bring GUI elements to life: keeping the
cursor in contact with the object being manipulated, adding a sense of
resistance to the object, showing change in a continuous manner and presenting
a clear response for each action.
By warping, magnifying and shrinking objects, animators can give them
the appearance of existing in three-dimensional, physical space, according
To test the effectiveness of animated GUIs, the researchers created a
simple drawing application that used cartooning techniques to animate
screen elements as people moved and changed them.
The researchers measured peoples' reactions to animation feedback as they
moved objects on a screen. The researchers also measured how the feedback
They tested four types of visual cues: no visible feedback during the
move; handles added to a selected object; animation that showed the object
stretching in the direction of the cursor but resisting the move as if
rooted by gravity; and handles added to the animation effect.
Somewhat to the researchers’ surprise, the feedback types yielded almost
identical performance, leading them to speculate that the task was too
simple to reveal different levels of effectiveness, said Thomas.
“The first task was very simple and repetitive. The subjects quickly learned
to perform the task by rote learning,” Thomas said. “I feel the greatest
benefit is making the user's actions more understandable or legible. In
more complex tasks users could make more mistakes and the time savings
[would be] in the rectifying [of] those mistakes.”
Subjects rated the effects on a scale of 1 to 7, with one representing
strong affinity and 7 strong dislike. The animation-plus-handles feedback
was most popular, rating a mean score of 2.4 compared to a 3.1 for handles
only and 3.4 warping in the direction of the cursor, according to the
A second test gauged the users' preference for the degree of animation
by allowing them to adjust the strength of the effects, from 0 to 20,
with a slider control.
Most subjects played with the full range before composing with more than
one setting. The average setting was 3. The subjects generally preferred
animation, although there was no consensus that animation improved their
work, according to the study.
Making the best use of animation in GUIs, according to the research, means
showing subtle changes relating to the task at hand, and avoiding superfluous,
Indiscriminate animation of screen elements with exaggerated and sustained
effects, for example, can turn off users. If every sweep of the cursor
causes a dialog box, icon or block of text to move for no apparent reason,
the GUI becomes a hindrance.
For example, early animated desktop icons were distracting because they
were always running, said Thomas. "So you would have ten or twenty canned
animations going on simultaneously on the desktop. It was too much motion
on the screen, and distracted the user," he said.
The next step in the research is to add animation to computer-aided design
(CAD) and mapping applications to provide visual cues of the constraints
affecting objects, said Thomas. “Warping and animation effects can greatly
enhance the visualization of constraints, which are very prevalent in
both our mapping tool and CAD systems. We wish to provide animated visual
cues to highlight the large and varied set of constraints associated with
graph manipulation," he said.
Better support for graphics and animation in programming languages like
Java is likely to crop up over the next two years, and more animated user
interfaces will follow, said Thomas.
Thomas' research colleague was Paul Calder of Flinders University. A technical
paper on the study is slated for publication in the September 2001 issue
of ACM Transactions on Computer Human Interactions. The work was funded
by the University of South Australia.
Timeline: >2 years
Funding: nbsp; University
TRN Categories: Software Design and Engineering
Story Type: News
Related Elements: Technical paper, "Applying Cartoon Animation
Techniques to Graphical User Interfaces,” slated for publication in the
September 2001 issue of ACM Transactions on Computer Human Interactions.
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