Spaced Epiphanies Essay

The Windows operating system is a case in point. According to Gary McGraw, chief technology officer at the software consultant Cigital, the 2000 version of Windows had 20 million lines of source code. XP, released in 2001, had 40 million -- a doubling in less than two years. Critics of such complexity have offered myriad solutions. Writing about the ''threshold of frustration,'' Bill Buxton, a former chief scientist at the graphics software maker Alias who now runs a consulting firm, called for engineers to focus less on technology and more on who, what, when, where, why -- that is, how it's being used. He promotes the idea of information appliances, or machines tailored to a specific task, rather than general-use PC's. Others have criticized the industry for an obsession with beauty and technology at the expense of user-centered design.

Dr. Maeda says the solution is not better design or better technology but a better partnership between the two. Hence the Simplicity Design Workshop, which could leverage the lab's understanding of emerging technologies and the real-world experience of the designers into a series of concrete, well tested principles.

In January Mr. Moggridge of Ideo met with a Media Lab group led by Cynthia Breazeal, an assistant professor of media arts and sciences, to try to define simplicity. It was easy to embrace the concept, with its connotations of beauty and elegance and its promise of a better way, but what did it mean in practical terms?

They considered examples of simplicity: the iPod for its minimalist form and intuitive interface; Google for its straightforward, no-fuss approach to searching; the Screwpull wine-bottle opener for its mechanical elegance; Apple Keynote (rival to PowerPoint) for its subtle pop-up indicators that help you align and position elements like a pro. (Not to mention the Citroën 2CV for its, well, social engineering: a high roof to accommodate the hats of French farmers, and other details that helped the car blend seamlessly into its drivers' lives.)

The brainstorm suggested crucial elements: transparency, aesthetic appeal, restraint, just-in-time information. ''We started with the big picture: what does simplicity mean in the context of our work?'' said Dr. Breazeal, a pioneer of social robotics whose current project is building a learning companion robot called RoCo. ''But the real value is to see how Bill approaches the problem of design.''

''Our interaction with Bill introduced us to alternative techniques,'' she said. ''For instance, he shared Ideo's brainstorming cards, which will be a wonderful tool for thinking about how to incorporate human-interaction issues into the early stages of design.''

In a second collaboration, Mr. Gelman of Design Machine teamed up with a group developing OpenAtelier, a Web-based collection of software tools for drawing, painting, photography, video and text-editing. Specifically, he designed a series of interfaces that, through simple changes in the size of the icons or in the use of boxes to delineate options, were geared toward different users: adults, children, the elderly.

The principle seemed to be macro-personalization -- the equivalent of this newspaper's special Large Type Weekly edition for the sight-impaired -- rather than the micro-personalization offered by a My Yahoo page. It's easy to see the potential for, say, type-enlarged TurboTax forms for aging boomers.

From the first year's efforts, some tenets of simplicity have emerged:

1.Heed cultural patterns. The iPod, for instance, succeeded not just because of its sleek form, but because, in conjunction with iTunes, it solved so many of the problems of buying and storing music.

2.Be transparent. People like to have a mental model of how things work.

3.Edit. Simplicity hinges as much on cutting nonessential features as on adding helpful ones, the Newton MessagePad and the Palm Pilot being prime examples.

4.Prototype. Push beyond proof-of-technology demos and build prototypes that people can interact with.

Beyond principles, the project seems to have coalesced around specific emerging technologies that promise to be the pillars of simplicity. The first is visualization and the need for tools to display complex information in a meaningful way.

''Think of the sophistication of interacting with today's video games compared to working with an Excel spreadsheet,'' Dr. Maeda says. ''We need to bring dynamic, immersive, engaging visuals to a whole range of information-display problems, from handling messages in your e-mail in-box to mapping the genome.''

Another important research area is ambient intelligence. Wi-Fi, radio-frequency identification, and other wireless developments will allow people to obtain and transmit digital information through ordinary objects and surfaces. The mouse and keyboard won't be our only bridge to the digital world.

A third arm of research focuses on making computers smarter. One method, a new branch of artificial intelligence, aims to give computers common sense in the form of a vast database of mundane truths about the world (the sky is blue, coffee wakes you up). A second approach, affective computing, gathers information about the state of the user through a range of sensors, enabling the computer to adapt by, say, holding delivery of all but high-priority e-mail when it detects stress.

As the first year of the workshop ends, the most obvious conclusion is that it has barely scratched the surface. With every Consumer Electronics Show, we seem to wade deeper into the ''paradox of the digital age,'' in the words of the computer scientist and design critic Donald Norman: the very technologies that we hope will simplify life ultimately complicate it. But there is hope. As Mr. Moggridge says, ''Technology is the villain, as well as the exciting opportunity.''

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Is there any song in existence as instantly feel good as “Come On Eileen” by the Dexy’s Midnight Runners? What a way to start the episode. Hell, what an episode in general. It doesn’t seem like much of a reach to say that the sixth episode “Epiphanies” is Spaced‘s finest installment to date. It has everything that I love about this show: real and lived in dialogue, character moments that aren’t ever saccharine but instead earned, basic sight gags, smash cuts and more Mike!

The episode begins with one of my favorite cold opens with Brian at a pub, drinking to “Come On Eileen” and being pulled into dancing before accidentally knocking a fellow patron’s drink out of his hand and ending up decked out as a result. Brian tries so hard only to be knocked down in the end and it only makes his bewilderment at others all the more amusing.

I’m always left thinking “poor Brian”.

The real meat of the storyline begins when Tim’s friend Tyres (played by a phenomenal Michael Smiley who is uncontainable) stops by their flat to ask them if they’d like to go to a rave with them. Being in a bit of a sore spot the two of them agree, jumping at any chance to get out of the house.

Tim and Daisy aren’t getting along and it’s only made worse when Tim shows more affection to Mike and then even Twist than Daisy. Mike has had a bad day and Tim is cheering him up, like any good friend would, and he’s being courteous to Twist while treating Daisy normally. Like with most of the other things going on in her life, Daisy decides the problem can be fixed by focusing all of her energy on something else entirely. And who can blame her after seeing Tyres’s stellar moves to homeware appliances?

Daisy being Daisy goes all out, decking herself in head to foot black clothing while the rest of her friends take it less seriously (aside from Mike who cleans up nicely into a hot pink, tight tee-shirt). Otherwise they essentially just want to go and have a good time. Brian is only persuaded along after he realizes that if he didn’t he’d be stuck alone with Martha all night. Instead he decides to go and conquer his fear of dancing in public.

The rave scene is perfect. Don’t try and tell me otherwise. It’s easily one of my favorite TV sequences I’ve ever seen.

Ever.

I’m not necessarily an introvert (I’m far too loud) but call me crazy, I’ve never felt the inclination to go to a rave before or any other type of underground dance party. A lack of rhythmic confidence and general laziness is to blame. However, watching the Spaced gang have a blast even while taking part in the mundanities of coat checks made me want to go to one this very instant. I’d be even more inclined if I was able to keep similar company. Edgar Wright made so many smart decisions while filming this sequence. From shooting the characters from sobriety to getting increasingly more drunk, to making sure there was a constant haze of smoke hanging over head, to the fantastically hammy moments where the characters’ DJ names made the screen abruptly segway into a freeze frame.

To bring the episode full circle we get the charming moment when Brian cannot resist the music any longer and gets up to dance. Only two seconds into enjoying himself he knocks over a man’s drink and anticipates being hit again. This time however the man simply smiles and hugs him, eliminating Brian’s fear. I love the difference between pub culture and rave culture being shown here. One’s a little more antagonistic, one’s a little more free and fun loving. Either, due to what they were taking or the setting it’s nice to see that given focus.

Daisy and Tim get to have a heart to heart after being annoyed with one another for the majority of the episode and again, Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes nail dialogue between friends. Their drunken professions of love and encouragement and their far fetched plans for the future are things that I personally have either said or heard. It’s a nice moment in a more hectic scene where Pegg and Hynes get to utilize their strong but casual chemistry and just enjoy these characters’ friendship for a moment.

Of course this is all build up for when Tyrse drags the two of them back up onto the dance floor where Mike, decked out in a court jester hat, is leading the crowd in militant inspired dance moves. It’s yet another hilarious layer on the Mike character and the characters’ absolute enthusiasm to seeing him onstage is infectious.

The episode also wins best credit scene where Mike is still dancing in the living room of Daisy and Tims’ flat as the rest of the gang is passed out but still keeping beat. Just fantastic. I love this show.

Allyson Johnson is a twenty something writer and a lover of film and all things pop-culture. She’s a film and television enthusiast and critic over at TheYoungFolks.com who spends too much of her free time on Netflix. Her idols are Jo March, Illana Glazer, and Amy Poehler. Check her out at her twitter @AllysonAJ or at The Young Folks. 

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