At one point or another, every user has struggled with a help button to try and figure out how to get their applications and desktops to do what they need it to do. A new idea from Ubuntu Linux vendor Canonical could help solve that problem.
Canonical is trying out a concept known as a Heads Up Display (HUD), a tool employed by fighter jet pilots to give them the tactical information they need with their “heads-up” during flight. In the software context, the HUD provides a dialogue box through which the user can interact with applications and the underlying system.
The HUD isn't just a new version of Microsoft’s hated Bob interface or contextual search, according to Canonical.
"The goal is to go further and get more understanding about all the different things that applications can possibly do," John Lea, Ubuntu Desktop User Experience Lead at Canonical, told InternetNews.com. "The system will also include a way for matching an application's capabilities to the way that a user would express their need."
Rather than searching for something, with a HUD the user can just say they need, for example, a two-by-four-inch table; HUD understands that, and shows the correct options.
The idea behind having an intelligent interface that helps users express their intent about what they want to do with an application or a desktop is one that has been tried before, without much success. Browser vendor Mozilla had a failed effort known as Ubiquity that attempted a similar kind of concept. The Ubiquity project was terminated in 2010.
Lea noted that Canonical enjoys a critical advantage with the Ubuntu HUD that Mozilla did not with Ubiquity. Namely, Ubuntu is an operating system and not just a browser; thus the HUD will have more applicability across the broad range of applications that can run on the platform.
“So we're not limited to one or two applications or to a small scope and we can take this and have a standard systemwide approach for providing the interface," Lea said.
Ubuntu HUD in its initial phase will “just work” with existing applications that run on Ubuntu Linux, Lea explained.
“As long as the application works with Ubuntu's global menus, it will work with the HUD, there is nothing additional you need to do," he said. "Moving forward we do want to extend the reach a lot deeper into application functionality."
The other element on the longer term roadmap for the HUD is integration of a speech-driven interface. Lea noted that speech alone is likely not ideal, as touch and keyboard interactions are more precise for certain types of application functionality.
“Speech is a brilliant way of issuing commands, but it's a bad way of giving focus," Lea said. "By using a mouse or trackpad in combination with speech you can direct focus and commands together, and we think that's a promising area."
The Ubuntu HUD is currently being developed as an open source project and could become generally available as part of the Ubuntu 12.04 release in April of this year.