Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Video Games as User Interface Fine Art

Flat design has been all the rage as a recent user interface. Normally it is only a hot topic in the web design industry, but rumors have been spreading that the next version of iOS will also incorporate flat design, and, for end users, this is a topic in which they should be interested as well.

“What constitutes ‘flat design’?” This topic has been thriving in blogs as of late. One obvious origin of flat design is the Xbox 360’s dashboard. For the average Japanese, the Xbox 360 is probably the only hardware with which they are unfamiliar, so it is unfortunate that hardly anyone has been able to experience the design.

The Xbox 360 dashboard, which was updated in Japan on December 6, 2012, is known as the “Metro User Interface”. There are rumors floating around that another update will be made soon, but I am quite fond of this current dashboard design. The Metro UI became the original design for things like Windows 8 and subsequent Windows phones, but as a result of Microsoft’s slight mismanagement, they are currently using the designated name “Modern User Interface”.

Skeuomorphic vs. Flat Design
There have been mixed reviews about flat design, but these are usually more about personal preference than anything else. The Repercussions of apple pressing forward with the overdone skeuomorphic design (a design that imitates reality) has flat design advocates complaining about the simplicity. On the other hand, because of its resemblance to real objects and equipment, advocates of the skeuomorphic design are complaining about its convenience and ease of use.

Since I am skeptical of the very idea of applying the cognitive science affordance argument to a computer UI, I just can't see how skeuomorphic design would make it more convenient. Additionally I describe below why, ultimately, I think that user interfaces of modern OS and applications do not solely exist for convenience and ease of use.

A lot of the flat design critics find fault with the “evilness of ease of use” but as a result, considering recent OS and applications that have skeuomorphic design, wouldn’t having ease of use be a good thing? This is a constant problem. For ease of use, I think that familiar icons and familiar user interfaces are ultimately a good addition.

Even if they had an excuse, like the skeumorphic design that Apple has pressed forward with was easy to use, etc., it seems to be the majority of this simple trend. Displaying an image like the condensed mic in the iPhone record application is, of course, fresh, but I have never felt that it is convenient. Taking advantage of the shadows and gradients in order to imitate this realistic feeling may have a chance to show artistry in the design, but honestly it still feels like its lacking.

I have a personal anecdote where I felt that the skeuomorphic design was out-of-date. Instagram, the popular camera application, had changed its icon. This update in 2011 changed Instagram’s icon from the calming brown flat design to the skeuomorphic design that was like a camera jumping out at you.

This change was probably the decision of the investors and the marketing department. Now when I look at it, personally I feel that this regressive change made it nerdy. The “photograph” application Instagram – the one that reinvented media in the smart phone era - is a marvelous thing I think, but the personal experience that Instagram gives me should have been a much more “light” and “flat” thing rather than the experience of photographing with an old, gaudy camera.

For me personally, in 2011, I lost interest in the skeumorphic design and at the same time I was charmed by the appearance of the Windows Phone user interface, and I am relatively optimistic for Windows 8 as well. Of course, when thinking of functionality I am probably unfamiliar with this part, but the new interface will provide a new experience. At any rate, using things such as personal smartphone devices and tablets for office use will be a fresh experience that I desire.

Video games dragging behind the UI trend. It is a very different story for video games, and there is a chance for the recent flat design to spread, but for now let’s take a look at this design on the Xbox 360. (While it is unfortunate, I cannot say that Windows phones have become popular.) Without being concerned with a daring flat design, the Xbox 360 was accepted by a lot of people probably because this was for games, and the user interface was for the sake of entertainment. The flat design in the Xbox seems to have become successful and as an entertainment platform it could produce a fresh experience that is beyond mere convenience.

Just as clothes do not exist solely for the purpose of convenience, OS and apps are also not created solely for the purpose of convenience. In the App Store, if you think about the quantity of games and entertainment applications, naturally people look less for convenience and more for entertainment and freshness. Moreover, video games are an art and even in applications like these there are extremely few restrictions where they can freely create whatever they want. Therefore from now on, video games will be an extremely important application for personal computers’ and mobile computers’ user interface.

Without being slaves to “functionality” and “convenience” we can freely experiment with user interface. Of course, I know while trying to incorporate common applications there are also a lot of stupid applications as well. Like in the high fashion world where fashion design influences commercial design, I think video game trends also influence user interface. User interface and web design have become unrestricted, and I think an age where people can decorate according to their own preferences is not far away.