Is The Future Really Mystery Meat?

I’ve just been watching this video from Adaptive Path in response to Mozilla Lab’s call for participation. The video seems to be more of a PR play for Adaptive Path though, and not a serious attempt at design direction – which is a bit disappointing, but no matter.

There are a number of things that can be said about the concepts presented, but one thing in particular caught my attention: the appearance – stunningly – of mystery meat navigation. This time it was in the form of radial menus and clouds of anonymous icons that stay anonymous even after they achieve focus.

Mystery meat is something of a tradition in the presentation of interfaces of the future. Adaptive Path uphold this tradition, first laid down by the winking banks of lights and mysterious rows of switches on “computer dashboards” portrayed in B-movies of the 1950’s. The woman in the video somehow knows what the little dots on the radial menus mean before she clicks them, and can pinpoint a calendar in an amorphous cloud of tiny screen shots (a cloud which, we are told, will change over time).

However, I have a theory about this. On the face of it, given the rightly savage panning that such navigation has received over the years, for Adaptive Path to present it in the context of demonstrating a new UI is laughable. This is doubly so because they are supposed to be user experience and interaction designers. But what they are in fact doing is exercising their right to procrastinate. Somebody else will have the energy to think up what actually goes into those radial menus, or how the little icons (in the second video really tiny – perhaps 2mm square!) will differentiate. For these are just place holders. Content, AP are saying, is boring. Fill it in for yourselves while you marvel at our genius. Making these demos is hard enough work without having to think through all the tiny details.

So I am willing to forgive AP for this. Robbie the Robot knows what I’m talking about.

What of the rest of the video? 3D zooming cloud interfaces and data mashups have been doing the rounds in various ways for several years now, and to see it all corralled into a WIMP environment with (inevitably) more than a nod to MacOS X, was frankly a little depressing. Mind you, I can’t think of anything much better myself apart from saying a firm “no” to objects changing position over time – that’s just plain stupid. Voice control might be added to the mix I suppose, but it would have to be severely optional. I was vaguely expecting some kind of HUD or perhaps some vision about how people might use data beyond such a simple example. Data use is something that needs some thought about if we’re not to just start swimming in numbers for little purpose. I realise though that I didn’t actually understand the conversation in the video – what’s baseball got to do with rainfall and crops?

Incidentally, Aza Raskin’s answer to the call of mobile UI innovation was much more satisfying.