Some reflections on Aurora, browser of the future

Let me say first that this is some amazing conceptual work. Coming up with something that is genuinely new (or, depending on your metaphysics, at least seems so) is difficult work. It is rare that something comes along in the world of desktop software in general and web browsers in particular that can be called revolutionary, but I think Aurora fits the bill. I don’t want to get all hyperbolic–Aurora isn’t going to change political systems or rid us of our oil dependency–but I think you have to give respect where it’s due, and the team at Adaptive Path have clearly done some top notch work on this project of coming up with the browser of the future.

Rather than try to explain it, here’s part one of the video (link rather than embed because Vimeo’s embed code isn’t valid XHTML).

What I like most about it is how it clearly demonstrates the power of the semantic web. Data tables, event listings and so on are all (presumably) marked up to be computer- and human-readable and Aurora is able combine them with data from other user-defined and automatically-generated relevant data sources.

The visual effects are undoubtedly sweet, but it’s the interaction design choices that really make the video interesting.

Some unorganized thoughts in no particular order:

The wheel at the bottom seems only to show a subset of the objects to which the user is actively connected, and IIRC in one scene the user scrolls through the list to find another object that is off-screen. To me, this mirrors the way tabs are setup in Firefox 2 and the problems that some people have raised with them, namely that past a certain point, they disappear from the user’s view, and you have to scroll to find them. Opera handles this differently, making them progressively smaller (which in a way just introduces another interaction difficulty in that you can no longer see the titles of the tabs), and it would be interesting to see from an IXD perspective which ways are better and for what reasons.

I have to wonder the same thing about the decision to hide the toolbar when browsing. Of course, if the team hadn’t made decisions like this there would have been nothing new to discuss and explore, so kudos for taking a bold step. Maybe what seems like a steep learning curve would pay off significantly in improved speed and simplicity of navigation.

The “spatial view” organizes “people, places, and things on the web” in a 3D environment in which the z-axis (depth) represents distance from the current point in time, in an OSX Leopard-esque fashion. While it looks cool, and may in fact be extremely powerful, from the first glance it just seems confusing. Maybe that’s because objects appear so small at the low video size/resolution, but it leaves me wondering how, e.g., my grandpa and people who may not have great eyesight and also may not have the most steady hand-eye coordination would be able to navigate the environment.

One thing that strikes me as a real strength of the interface is the balance it strikes between smooth and rough user experience, or in the language of Mark Weiser, to have a user experience with “beautiful seams” (I came across this term in an insightful piece by Adam Greenfield called On the ground running: Lessons from experience design). An entirely smooth or seamless user experience isn’t really desirable, because it’s the edges and seams onto which people insert their own functionality or bricolage (can that be a verb? bricolate?) and that are crucial to most good interactions. From the Aurora video, it seems like they’re definitely going in the right direction, with a wealth of well-informed machine-made decisions that are leverage and customized by the user.

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