McLuhan Studies : Issue 3

Home Page

Next Article

Previous Article

Table of Contents

Author Index

Title Index





With the development of computer technology, "digital being" has become a common fact in the field of communication as everybody can see. The growth of multimedia and network technology has in some degree reflected the trend of combining the two realities of being digital and being human. The appearance of a more humanistic computer interface is the natural extension of this trend. Humanistic interface is based on a combination of the subject's typical life experiences, the method of artistic creation, and the virtual living scene as the representation form.

There are four types of humanistic computer interface. First, pure virtual 3-dimensional space; second, live video put in the preset static space which creates a more human atmosphere and leads the user into closer interaction with the software; third, a flowing layout that integrates both abstract and realistic elements-related scenes like the Chinese ink and wash; fourth, multi-visual elements. A humanistic computer interface could help the user to achieve closer familiarity with the computer and the software-which means improved human / computer interaction.


Computer technology and the related technological methods have now been widely applied in communication. Abstraction and logic characterize them. In general, abstract digital methods cultivate a general talent for digital abstraction, while humanistic methods cultivate talents of a more particular and individual character. However, what society needs is an equal facility with both generality and individuality.

Modern scientific research shows that the left and right halves of the cerebrum have different functions. The left hemisphere takes charge of analysis and reasoning, which is the specialty of the computer; while the right hemisphere takes charge of artistic and creative sensibility, which is peculiarly human. How to develop both left and right cerebral hemispheres with the help of the computer is the essential research subject of communication.

The two concepts put forward by the great master of communication, a Canadian named Marshall McLuhan-"global village" and "the medium is the message,"-now have been well proven. The digital character of multimedia and network technology has brought great changes in both content and form. Being digital is the common challenge facing our generation in China, and perhaps everywhere.

However, while people delight in talking about being digital in communication, shouldn't we be considering the other principal part of communication-the communicator and the one to be communicated-the humanistic elements such as human nature, human sense, emotion, art, aesthetics and so on? As we know, the fundamental language of the computer is the digital language consisting of just the two numbers, 0 and 1. All computer languages from the most basic to the most highly developed, BASIC, PASICAL, FORTRAN, C, C++, VB, VC-all follow this rule without exception. This reveals that while 0 and 1 may be enough for one machine to interact with another, they are far from enough for people to interact with a machine, let alone with each other. In other words, it is necessary for the machine to draw closer to people's ways.

Looking at the hardware, the emergence and development of multimedia is an example of the digital approaching closer to the humanistic. Our cognitive process vis-a-vis the world not only depends on our visual sense and on texts, but also depends on image, sound, video and animation, and on combinations of senses such as hearing and touch. Sound cards, visual cards, touch-screens and developments drawn from these (including the transmission rate, storage and display definition)-all are the products of the computer conforming to humanity. As Microsoft president Bill Gates said in a speech given in Tsinghua at the end of 1997, the biggest new area of computer development in the 21st century will be that of discovering ways to interact more naturally with people. The network is also an extension of a human sense: it extends hearing, vision and touch. According to a newspaper report just last year, a female minister in Europe held an official videoconference from her home, over the network, discussing matters with colleagues hundreds miles away, which enabled her to handle both official business and housework simultaneously.

Thus, the omnipresent and omnipotent digital phenomenon in communication in fact keeps bringing up the matter of the human dimension. At the beginning of 1998, the multimedia magazine of China's National Information Center held the first-ever Multimedia CD-ROM Contest. From over 1500 titles published from 1993 through 1997, the publishers and CD-ROM production companies selected over 200 titles to enter into the competition. From them, 10 titles were selected as "best." What made these ten titles rise above the rest? Their designers had paid more attention to integrating acoustic, visual and psychological elements-that is, human elements. At the same time, they gave full play to multimedia technology.

Digital communication media offer a wide intersection and fusion of computer information science and human behavior science. The result is a fuller application of human elements. In recent years, such applications are embodied mainly in the increasing emergence of humanistic interface. By humanistic interface we mean the human / computer interface which is based on the life experience of the subject, the method of artistic creation, and the virtual living scene as the representation form. It is the 3rd generation of human / computer interface style developed from the textual command-based DOS interface and the Windows interface.

To a user unfamiliar with computers, the computer interface is in a sense the watershed between two distinct situations: in one, the user will fall in love with the program at first glance; in the other, the user will never again use the program. As with contacts with people, the first impression is of vital importance to the return rate. So the first task of the interface is to attract the interest of the user; the second, to let the user understand how the software functions, to know what to do, what not to do, and how to do.

By interface we mean the main are of computer / human interaction, in both the narrow sense and the broad sense. Broadly, the human / computer interface includes many elements, such as screen displays, keyboards, mouses, speakers, microphones, modems, voice recognition, etc. To the human, it involves at least the senses of vision, hearing and touch. Also, this human / computer interface especially includes the content displayed on the computer screen, mainly composed of visual images. By contrast, the narrow sense of human / computer interface has at least four forms, as follows.

First, pure virtual 3-dimension humanistic space, both real and virtual (VR, computer-generated 3D animation), which helps the user unconsciously become familiar with the computer and the software in both imagination and reality. This form is already present in computer games, whether of exploration, air-to-air fighting, racing or treasure seeking: besides excitement, thrill and fantasy, without exception the player seeks reality. So, 3D generated castles, cockpits, and all manner of fantastic indoor and outdoor spaces represent the first attempt of pure virtual human space. There is no doubt that such 3D virtual human interfaces demand large amounts of money not only to design, but also to creation. In mainland China, the price is calculated by frame and second. Thirty frames per second costs between RMB 2,000 and RMB 10,000. Generally, creating a 3D game is always a large-input project, which costs domestic companies several hundred thousand to several millions in RMB and overseas companies several hundred thousand to several million $US.

Secondly, a humanistic interface consists of a combination of live video and stills (live video and still 2D design). Live video images most closely approximate reality. Compared to 3D animation, live video interface has the advantages of lower cost and strong realness. However, it places a high demand on hardware and it is still difficult to interact with. These are their shortcomings. In the last few years, computer video technology has developed quickly. The popular configuration is a Pentium 586/166 with an MMX main board. The updating of video-decompress software has made the decompress card unnecessary. and a new kind of live video and still (2D) human interface is born. This kind of interface can put the live video in the preset still space and create a humanistic atmosphere which leads the user into interacting with the software.

When we see this kind of live video interface, we usually meet it in objects such as a TV set, monitor screen or cinema screen, while at the same time these objects are positioned in relation to office furniture, windows, doors, guides, etc. Too, the screen, furniture, doors and windows could all be made into interacting accesses. Some of the creatively designed programs break through the fixed arrangement of video and objects and find new ways to present video. For instance, I have seen such a multimedia program about agriculture. The main interface comprises a video display window that takes the shape of a map of China; cows, sheep, land, forest make up the secondary access scatter around the irregular video on a light green background. The land, shot from a plane, played in the video display window along with the cows, sheep and land around them: these formed a sufficiently realistic environment that the user never doubts that the program has some inner or direct connection with agriculture.

Thirdly, related scene, as in a long-scroll Chinese painting. A computer screen with 640 x 480 pixels is the basic space for information representation. Given a DOS command interface and Windows graphic interface, screen size is not a problem. While it is true that creativity takes the lead in representing the human interface, the available size of the screen has a direct impact on the creativity of the designer. The Western way to solve the problem of insufficient information space of a single screen is to switch screens, that is montage. Montage takes advantage of the user's imagination to accomplish the transition between two scenes. However, Chinese designers have found a solution in traditional Chinese painting techniques. The main feature of traditional Chinese painting is to describe objects and compose a picture by combining realism and abstract means of expression, and seeking for spiritual kinship between them. The vision of the view and the layout is broad, and not limited by the focus or by demands of perspective. For example, the Spring Outing Scene painted by Zhan Ziwen (about 550-617) of the Sui dynasty (AD 589-617), or the Scene on the Qing Ming Shang He painted by Zhang Zeduan (?1119) of the Song dynasty (AD 960-1279), etc. They each present related scene within the stream of false or true layout. In the film world, this is known as long lens technique. Several multimedia titles published last year have adopted this method.

Fourthly, multi-visual elements compose the human environment. The human environment of computer interface results from combining a variety of elements. Beginning with vision merely, then moving to pure virtual 3D human space, live and still human interface and related scene (as suggested by Chinese ink and wash scroll), we could find further human environments constructed by combining multi-visual elements.

As discussed earlier, in the digital process of communication, humanity is a substantial subject that is increasingly heeded. The application of human interface is in fact the concerto of two melodies in the digital symphony. In the above paragraphs, we discussed the application and effect of humanistic computer interface from the view of narrow concept, that is, visual point. The broad humanistic computer interface should also include various senses, hearing, touch, understanding, psychological feelings and other aspects related to humanness. Attending to hearing, we should pay more attention to developing and applying methods such as subject music, background music, sound effects, voice recognition, etc. Attending to the sense of touch, could we find interactive methods other than those of mouse and keyboard and touch-screen? Attending to understanding and psychological feeling of the user, we might unearth how to manage the deep connotation of all sorts of programs and thus discover profound forms of edutainment. But all of these researches call for us to think and research together.

In 1945, Vannevar Bush, US president Roosevelt's science consultant, envisioned a medium that assembled all other media and could be used as freely as people use natural languages and gestures. He presented this idea in his paper, "As We May Think," which is filled with other scientific predictions. More than fifty years have past; how could we see further than standing on the shoulders of this forerunner?


Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think," The Atlantic Monthly, July, 1945.
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man, New American Library, 1964.
Return to top of page