The Human Operating System
3rd March 11
Author: David Bryant (@davidbryant), Google Creative Lab, NYC
Disclaimer: David’s opinions are not necessarily those of Google Inc (editor’s note: BBH does advertising work on behalf of various Google products).
Human beings have spent around 2 million years working with physical objects in physical space. We are hard-wired to enjoy throwing things into the air, at animals and at each other because mastery of these skills has given us a huge evolutionary advantage.
We understand the inter-relationships between weight, inertia, texture, tensile strength, brittleness, velocity and gravity so well, we’ve even given it another name. We call it instinct.
When we cross the road in front of a car, we are judging the speed of the car and the width of the road and performing fairly complex calculus in the process. Some would say that we are not really doing the calculations in this case – we are simply using instinct.
Calling this process ‘instinct’ isn’t very helpful because it doesn’t explain anything. We’re simply renaming the observation, rather than attempting to explain it.
The truth is the calculations do get done. We use a neural-based learning system rather than a set of solvable equations but the calculation does happen. It’s part of our operating system.
Only after Humans had being throwing things around for a couple of million years, could we get down to the slow business of developing useful abstract notions. Like a positional system of mathematics, time, complex numbers, algebra. These are all things that are not hardwired. On the contrary they are remarkably counter-intuitive to our operating system and have taken centuries of trial and error to grasp them.
With these abstract notions we created computers, and interestingly, computers have evolved towards us, in completely the opposite direction. They started life as deeply abstract calculation engines. Nowadays, with rich graphical interfaces, touch screens, large icons and finger control they are increasingly feeling like physical objects.
Systems that run on Human OS
We are hired-wired to respond to real-world physics. So it make sense that machines that run our software feel the most comfortable and the most intuitive to us.
Apple has a pretty good record of developing uniquely human products. A much discussed example of this is the iPhone. As with a number of Apple products, it includes a seemingly superfluous set of features, which were designed exclusively for the Human operating system. It had a display that could be touched, pinched, swiped and poked. An interface which ‘slid’ realistically left and right and simulated a real sliding object, with inertia and momentum. A display that righted itself.
For the first few days after buying an iPhone, most people simply couldn’t stop playing with them. The experience was undeniably satisfying because it tapped directly into our hardwired OS.
Another example is Google Earth. I remember being astounded when I first came across this technology in 2006. The mapping software was functionally very useful. But the user interface, for me, was the thing that made it great. The user could ‘spin’ a realistic globe, zoom in, pan, tilt and ‘fly’ across the earth. The inertia, perspective, texture and shadowing all added emotional realism to the rational experience of map browsing.
The move to Human OS cuts across many technologies
Take the example of video games. Back in the late 70’s people were astounded at the game of TV Pong. The way the square ball deflected of the player bat simulated a single basic law of physics (deflection of force). It felt good when we hit the ball – a little like a real game of Ping Pong. So we played and played.
Nowadays we have Call of Duty Modern Warfare Black Ops. The game basically involves shooting people and ducking. But the visceral effect on the player is staggering. This is because it simulates nearly every physical law I can think off. Namely gravity, inertia, texture, fluid dynamics, light and shadow, particles, smoke, fire, smoke, heat distortion, reflection, mature sex refraction, dynamic contrast (the way we see in bright light), coronas, disintegration, shear force, impact force and so on). It feels like a real world, because it simulates so much of what feels natural to us.
And it’s not just the games themselves. Hardware is increasingly seeking to simulate physics as realistically as possible. First the Wii, then the Kinect both seek to increasingly break down the barriers between the human and simulated physical worlds.
Now think about OS’s. In the beginning, OS’s like Unix were command and syntax-based. Then Xerox and Apple Mac simulated a 2d environment, where icons can be ‘picked up’, dragged and dropped, and the Mouse acts as a kind of proxy for the hand.
With every new version of every OS, more physics. Even Windows 7 has elements which fade in and out, cast shadows, scroll bars have inertia.
Apple’s iOS is interesting because it takes physical simulation further. Objects slide, spin and stop just like real objects. Recent prototypes like Bumptop try to take this on even further with a navigable 3d environment, files that act like game tiles with varying weights that can be picked, stacked and even toppled.
A great many technological movements fit this model. I’ve put some here, but I’m sure you can think of more.
Across the board, mass technology is trending towards more physical simulation as a way of becoming more compatible with the Human OS. As technologies move towards the Human OS, our intuitive grasp of them will also accelerate, and the need to ‘learn’ how to operate a computer system will simply disappear. It will feel so obvious and so coupled with the physical world, people will not even be aware they are operating one.
It also begs the question, as systems become more compatible with the Human OS, how will they change us? We have already seen evidence of advanced hand-eye coordination in gamers, increased evidence of ADD-like behavior in multitaskers who are empowered further by multitasking mobile devices.
The relationship that Humans have with their own technology is a symbiotic relationship. Both are mutually beneficial, but also mutually dynamic. In other words, we benefit but we also change. That is why it is so interesting.