Session D ~ O Brave NUI World!: Exploring the Implications of Embodied Computing for Digital Rhetoric and Writing

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Review by Brent Simoneaux

Panelists
David Blakesley, Clemson University
Douglas Eyman, George Mason University
David M. Rieder, North Carolina State University
Sarah J. Arroyo, California State University Long Beach
Ben McCorkle, The Ohio State University

As people filtered into the room, Tom Cruise was manipulating information with the gesture of his hands. Standing in front of a large transparent screen, Cruise stretched his arms out in front of himself, moving his right hand closer to his left: the video zoomed in. He threw his arms to the left and the video disappeared off of the screen. Cruise’s body was at once choreographing and choreographed.

We were watching Minority Report (2002), Steven Spielberg’s futuristic film that, in many ways, popularized Natural User Interfaces (NUIs) for its audiences. Part of the third generation of human-computer interaction (preceded by command line interfaces and, more recently, graphical user interfaces), NUIs promise a more embodied style of interaction. As David Blakesly (Clemson University) demonstrated through various Microsoft Kinect commercials, NUIs foreground the body as the input device, removing the mediation of peripherals such as the game controller. A rhetoric of immediacy and immersion is employed by the commercials: the body is the controller; the gamer is in the game. While we may still be a long way off from the fluid and seamless interaction that Cruise demonstrates in Minority Report, commercial efforts such as the Kinect are bringing NUIs into the realm of possibility. This particular type of interaction—or at least something akin to it—may indeed be a significant part of our brave new world.

Acknowledging this potential, Doug Eyman (George Mason University) argued that we need to begin thinking about the scholarly implications of NUIs: How do NUIs connect to the work that we do in our field? Eyman outlined several implications. First, as digital objects are brought closer to the “real” world, they have the potential to complicate how we think about the digital/analog divide. Second, as the body increasingly becomes an interface, the inherent rhetoric of design is foregrounded. We must, in other words, continue to design texts for interaction, but these issues arguably become more interesting and complicated when the body is foregrounded. Third, we must continue to critically engage the politics of the interface as it shifts onto the body. By foregrounding these implications, Eyman identifies not only how NUIs might inform the work of scholars, but also how scholars might inform the design of NUIs.

While the Kinect is typically thought of as a commercial gaming device, David Rieder (NC State University) suggested that we see its potential as a relatively inexpensive sensor. For Rieder, the value of NUIs lies in their potential to help us tap into a wild and uncivil space. Indeed, there is no reason why we have to use NUIs for their intended purposes. As Rieder spoke, his body was sensible to a stripped-down Kinect, its casing removed, its wires and components laid bare. His body was projected onto the screen, estranged and foreign, a series of depth values. By feedbacking the Kinect’s raw and highly fungible depth data in this way, we can recreate what a body is. The possibilities are, indeed, endless.

Sarah J. Arroyo (California State University Long Beach) explored the potentials of NUIs, placing one of its primary gestures—the swipe—at the center of our attention. Through a multimedia composition entitled ‘The Choric Swipe,’ Arroyo drew attention to the gesture’s instigation of creative processes. As Arroyo suggested, the potential of the gesture may be lost if we confine it to tablets and tables, the body arguably focusing in on the device instead of looking through to the possibilities that can emerge. Moving the gesture outward to windows and glass exposes the potentials for choric invention, literally bringing the body, the world, and movement together. It is at this nexus that Arroyo sees the potential for the swipe in choric invention.

As we face this potential brave new world, we might draw upon where we have been in order to  understand where we are going. Tracing shifting understandings of delivery through particular historical moments, Ben McCorkle (The Ohio State University) demonstrated that the discipline of rhetoric has always been faced with the introduction of new interfaces for writing technologies. By examining these historical moments, we are better able to see technologies and interfaces as uncertain and malleable. As technologies shift toward NUIs, McCorkle argued that we stand at a particularly important moment to see the interface and identify sites of potential resistance. We must therefore play with new interfaces in such a way that enables us to become conscious agents of our tools.

Brent Simoneaux is a Ph.D. student in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media at NC State University.

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