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September 2004

Entertaining research

HP Labs is making high-tech products more fun to use


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Our aim is to get people away from even realizing they are operating a device.

By Simon Firth

A small group of researchers at HP has been thinking a lot about fun lately.

They’re analyzing scary scenes from classic movies like Jaws, studying the intense concentration that video games inspire and examining the surprisingly emotional bonds we make with objects such as clothes, cars and cell phones.

The reason? Researchers want to know what makes these experiences fun – and then apply what they learn to creating new types of digital entertainment products for consumers.

HP Labs, HP’s advanced research arm, already has a significant effort focused on the area of user experience. For the last several years a team in Bristol, UK, has worked with artists, educators, broadcasters and even children to develop rich, digital experiences (see related article).

But now, as HP collaborates ever more closely with the entertainment industry – with DreamWorks, Warner Brothers and others – the lab is expanding its staff and knowledge in an area it sees as crucial to its future success.

Understanding people is critical

For most high-tech manufacturers, user experience is typically an afterthought, says Rakhi Rajani, an ethnographer in HP Labs.

“You need to build an understanding of the people you’re creating technologies for into the design process,” says Rajani, whose research is focused on understanding human behavior in the context of the everyday environment.

Rajani is a leading force behind the effort to offer researchers who are not experts in user experiences – computer scientists with expertise in software and distributed systems -- the chance to see how people in other fields think about designing compelling experiences.

New lab creating new experiences

“It’s really about culture change,” says Gary Herman, Director of HP’s new Consumer Applications & Systems Lab, which houses the user-experience research. “It’s about helping HP innovate in ways that make the company more successful.”

Created in September, the lab’s work involves not just understanding user needs, but also designing consumer applications and creating the systems and platforms capable of delivering new user experiences.

In today’s consumer-electronics markets, Herman says, there is little difference between competing products in terms of what they actually do. These days, he argues, “competitive advantage, and therefore sustainable profits, as often come from intangibles of the products – the experience they offer, or the symbolism of what they say about you.”

It’s in understanding these areas that HP Labs must now make a difference, Herman believes.

Hard fun and high tech

“Fun is not what you think,” video game-design consultant Nicole Lazzaro told a group of HP Labs computer scientists recently.

Video games, for example, fall into the category of what Lazzaro calls “hard fun” -- fun that’s both frustrating and challenging. Creating video games isn’t about designing a smooth user experience, she says. Indeed, in a good game, players should fail in what they are trying to do 80 percent of the time.

How could this insight be applied to high-tech products? For one thing, mastering high-tech could be a fun experience, rather than a frustrating one, suggests Lazzaro.

“You can inspire use, rather than requiring it,” she says. Video games bring people together to create experiences that have elements of competition, co-operation, performance and spectacle. Technologies designed to help people get together in these ways -- cell phones that allow multi-player gaming, for instance -- will also have considerable appeal, she adds.

Visual storytelling for new media

When it comes to watching movies, much of our enjoyment is determined by elements that appeal to us sub-consciously, producer and director Bruce Block told researchers.

According to Block, a professor at the USC School of Cinema-Television, elements such as music, visual design and adherence to the basic rules of storytelling all contribute powerfully to the movie-going experience, even though we rarely think about them as we watch.

Think of the music at the opening of Jaws. “It tells you something: there’s a shark coming and it is bad!” he jokes.

Factors like color, space, movement and texture provide cues to understanding what’s happening on the screen and shape the user experience. The techniques behind this kind of visual storytelling, Block says, can be applied to new media experiences.

Technology that matters

The computer scientists in the Consumer Systems & Applications Lab say they value the insights into user experiences.

“We all have a strong desire to understand the end customer and try to build things that matter,” says Jim Rowson, Lab Scientist, who is exploring software and systems for digital entertainment.

Besides expanding horizons for computer scientists, the lab is hiring more user-experience experts. The most recent addition is Abbe Don, a well-known interactive storyteller and interface designer.

Don is is collaborating with new-media designers at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, to create a new type of experience for ‘tweens,’ pre-teens and young teenagers generally between ages 9 and 12.

“Our goal in this lab is to align business strategy, user-experience design and technology solutions to create true innovation,” she says.

Experience is the product

HP’s new efforts in experience research build on work the lab pioneered five years ago, when a small team in the Bristol, UK, began creating a model for thinking about what people value in an experience.

Their initial model had three dimensions – the social experience of sharing something with others, the achievement experienced when completing a challenge like playing an instrument and the sensory pleasure of an experience like watching the sun go down or riding a roller coaster.

“In many cases experiences are not a means to an end but are the ends in themselves” says Phil Stenton, Director of the Technology & Lifestyle Integration group in Bristol.

When it comes to experiences enabled or created by the technologies HP produces, he argues, it’s important to think not so much about what any particular technology does, so much as the experience it allows users to have.

His team is now investigating ways to let people focus on the experience rather than the technology.

“Our aim,” Stenton says, “is to get people away from even realizing they are operating a device.”

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