Cartoons loosen up computer interfaces

By 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 (GUIs).

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 stimulating feedback.

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 to Thomas.

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 Thomas.

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 affected performance.

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 research.

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, distracting effects.

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.


July 18, 2001

Page One

HP maps molecular memory

Cartoons loosen up computer interfaces

Virtual view helps run tiny factory

Bioengineers aim to harness bacterial motion

Lasers spin electrons into motion


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