Interface issues: PC versus Console and the concept of 'Interface Bandwidth'

This afternoon I had some interesting chats over email with a friend about gaming. Actually I had some interesting chats about lots of different things, but what I want to talk about was gaming.

My friend is an Apple nut (or should that be core?), so inevitably he has an iPad. He's also pretty hot on all things webbie, so is keen on the new Onlive service that allows you to play games using a web service, rather than have to download or install games onto your computer locally. Our conversation was tangentially concerned with how I preferred playing games on the PC using a keyboard and mouse combination (at least as far as I remember - it's not something I have much time for anymore!), whereas he preferred the controller from a console.

At home later in the evening, I happened to start up Playstation Home on my PS3, more by accident than choice, which requires the use of a controller rather than keyboard, but by happy coincidence this did make me reflect on how I was using the device - and at the same time brought some interesting clarity to my earlier conversations, which is what I thought I would share here.

I struggle with a controller. For some reason it just doesn't offer the level of control over the virtuality that I want it to. I thought this was just a personal thing up to now, my lack of experience being the key factor, but I'm not so sure tonight. I think it's down to the device itself. I think it's down to the 'interface bandwidth'.

Expertise or inherent properties?
For many years I worked as a designer, using computers and software such as Photoshop, Quark, Pagemaker etc. to create graphics and documents. Fine control over mouse movements is critical in that work, as you're really trying to turn out pixel perfect products. You tended to get a bit obsessed about ensuring your mouse was clean, in the days when they used to have little trackballs inside rather than the optical mice we're all familiar with now.

That level of control became equally important playing games on the PC, as you use the mouse to move your view within the world in many first person perspective games, and aim your weapon in games that use them (which, let's be honest, is just about all of them!). Hence I became pretty good at using a keyboard and mouse combination to navigate myself through simulated virtual spaces.

But was it just being experienced with this interface combination that is the key, or is there something else going on? Is this down to my personal level of expertise, or are their inherent properties of the devices that are making the difference here? I believe there is a subtle and powerful reason why the keyboard mouse combination is inherently better than a controller, and it's down to that term 'interface bandwidth'.

'Interface bandwidth' explained
'Interface bandwidth' is a term I use to describe not how many megabytes of data might be heading up and down a cable between you and the computer, but instead how much human perceptual data is headed through the interface that you're using to interact with the simulation. The interface is the man-machine interface device, and the bandwidth is both the quantity and quality of perceptual information transmitted back and forth. This could cover not only instances such as this mouse versus controller situation, but everything from simply sitting in front of a television screen, to listening to an iPod. All Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) inherently require some form of interface, so all ICTs can in turn be measured in terms of their interface bandwidth.

In this case with the mouse versus controller, the mouse forms a natural extension of much of the hand, allowing a great deal of 2D plane control and some moderate finger activity to be extended through into the virtuality, and crucially maps some of the way the hand would naturally interact - the index finger, for example, holding a key role just as it would in reality, and the hand that would be holding a weapon swinging and moving to aim just as it would in real life.

The controller, on the other hand, expects the user to learn to transmit movement information into the virtuality using their thumbs, an odd way to to do things, with no mirror in reality. It's a testament to the adaptability of our species (or should that be genus or order?) that we can become so expert at this, but clearly an interface choice that is at odds with the more natural movement of a mouse.

Obviously I've simplified things a little, the mouse for example is severely constrained by it's 2D plane, and the controller also offers index fingers extra capacity to play a role more akin to that in reality. But nonetheless the two basis interface methods differ significantly in the interface bandwidth that they provide to their users. The mouse in particular allows a far greater amount of both quality and quantity of natural human perceptual capacity to flow back and forth between man and machine, and hence is inherently a better interface.

I hope I've shown how considering the interface bandwidth specifically when trying to understand how man-machine combinations are working, is a useful way of highlighting critical components of the interaction that otherwise might be missed. The concept of interface bandwidth is an important part of my PhD research into the use of technology within education, as it allows me to highlight and consequently isolate effects of the man-machine interface from possible pedagogical effects, something which I think is crucial in order to be able to understand the true value of ICTs to education.

P.S I started this post on my Chromebook, as I was inspired by events in my living room and needed to write quickly to get the basic form of the post written whilst it was fresh in my mind. The Chromebook is an ideal companion in this, as it works instantly, you simply open it and it is ready for you to start typing. I find the Chromebook more and more to be my computer of choice at home, and I think this highlights the fallacy that performance is the key to a device, or even how many apps you can install on it. Availability is more key in my experience, I want it to be there for me exactly when I need it.

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