Interactive Software, Usability Top Innovations at Oredev

Innovation can come from anywhere. Contributor Matthew Heusser learned this in a recent trip to a developer conference in Sweden, where a game of Asteroids you play with your eyes and lessons from Hollywood on user experience caught his attention.

This year's Øredev Developer Conference was in Malmö, Sweden, but in order to get there, I flew into Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, separated from Malmö by the Baltic Sea.

That was no matter. A train crosses the Øresundesmotorejen Bridge that links the Scandinavian countries. The third stop is the heart of Malmö, a modest city of 250,000 in the midst of transforming its economy from manufacturing to knowledge work.

Malmo, Sweden at Night
Downtown Malmo at night—which, in November, starts around 4 p.m.

Sweden's cities predate the industrial era, so they are compact. Most people bike or walk to work. The train station is one block from the hotel, which is across the street from the conference center. I spent the entire week in the city and never hired a taxi or got in a car.

That's fine. I wasn't there to see the sights, but, rather, to learn about software development in Northern Europe. What I saw and heard was unexpected, unique and worth sharing.

Lean Coffee: An Unconference With Topics Picked on the Spot

Before the first keynote and before the first tutorial, I attend a lean coffee session, organized by Lisa Crispin, at the local coffee house. Lean coffee was not on the conference brochure, and it was early enough in the morning that the few people who came were the motivated few.

The meeting had no preplanned theme. Instead, we used a democratic process to figure out what the topics should be and shuffled through them with eight minutes per topic. First, each attendee wrote on a sticky note what he or she wanted to talk about. Once we did this, we "dotted" the notes, with each getting three dots, or votes. Next, we sorted the topics, giving eight minutes to each. When time was up, the facilitator (Crispin, in this case) took a vote&mdash thumbs up and we talked about it for another five minutes, thumbs down and we moved on.

Lean Coffee
Lean Coffee before Øredev, facilitated by Lisa Crispin.

We start with a discussion loosely titled "How to keep focus without estimation and burndown." The person who suggested the topic is moving to a Kanban Process, in the process dropping iteration boundaries. His concern is that iterations provide some incentive for programmers (and testers) to finish, to get work done. Without the commitment to finish by a certain date, programmers may slow down or gold-plate the software. One suggestion: Measuring cycle time, which is the average time for a piece of work to move from analysis to ready-for-production, can provide some amount of visibility that can be managed.

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Note that lean coffee is an unconference format, meaning that attendees design the program. Unlike other unconferences I've attended lately, though, this is a one-hour event with topics discussed eight minutes at a time.

More traditional conferences overwhelm me. I find myself meeting people, watching talks, talking to vendors and taking extensive notes all at the same time. I skip sessions; I take naps. This time around, I skipped the attendees-only sauna trip and skinny-dip in the Baltic, too. I always find time for lean coffee, though—and there's a reason for that. Bigger, more scripted conferences don't offer the intimacy and casual networking opportunities of smaller conferences.

Now Empowered, Techies Can Afford to be Rebellious

After coffee, I head to the main theater&mdashin Swedish, teater for the opening keynote. Here David Rowan, editor of Wired.co.uk, set the theme of rebellion for the week.

Rowan says techies and software developers are at an unprecedented place in history. Not only can they build the solutions, but people realize they are needed to build the solutions. And the technology has become so cheap and ubiquitous that developers can build great things without the backing of a Fortune 500 company or a government institution. Programmers don't need "systems," Rowan says; they can rent a CPU from Amazon and just hack. They don't even need day jobs—a good programmer can make a decent living waiting tables in a major city by day and hacking by night.

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Rowan's examples include Khan Academy, where a single person on YouTube created a disruptive model for education that threatens to unseat the traditional university model, and Elon Musk, whose SpaceX ventures sent a private ship to the International Space Station when government-funded programs were failing and shutting down.

After stripping away the myth that "the boss" is getting us down or we need money to change things, or the idea that institutions run everything and individuals have no power, Rowan asked questions that remind me of the great philosopher Hillel: "If not you, who? If not now, when?" I can't help but notice that most of Rowan's examples come from privilege—the part-time IT pro saving the world with spare change doesn't quite hold—but we are nonetheless closer to that now than to any other time in history.

David Rowan suggests that nerds won the war, and asks us what we will do next, from Øredev Conference on Vimeo.

Software Development For Your Senses

After Rowan's keynote, I head to the vendor area to find out what's new in software development. I am overwhelmed by software for the senses: The human eye as an input device and the table-sized Microsoft Surface are two, but I also meet a team building 3D printer software.

First, there's EyeAsteroids, a video game developed by Sweden's Tobii Software. EyeAsteroids is your typical Asteroids game, circa 1997. The graphics are better than the Atari 2600, but it's essentially the same game: Your ship is in the middle of the screen, and you have to shoot the asteroids before they damage your ship.

The key difference: You don't point the joystick to aim. Just look at the asteroids and they blow up.

EyeAsteroids
In EyeAsteroids by Tobii Software, you shoot the asteroids just by looking at them.

I find that Tobii makes a physical device, along with an SDK, which lets companies build applications that interface through eye movements. Beyond the obvious benefits for the disabled, the features remind me a bit of a science fiction novel in which the screen is projected onto the lenses of a user's glasses and the user "scrolls" with eye movements. It turns out that technology isn't that far away.

Next to EyeAsteroids is a large table-like surface with a screen on it. It turns out to be Microsoft Surface. (Yes, the large touchscreens have the same name as the Microsoft Surface tablet PCs that debuted this year.) The device is a table big enough to eat on, but it is also touch-sensitive.

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The first application I see comes with small curling rocks, weighing a couple of ounces each. Players slide them across the table, which has been transformed into a shuffleboard of sorts. I snap a picture of the device, wondering how companies might use it as a conversation piece, for say, people waiting for lunch.

Microsoft Surface Table
The table-sized version of Microsoft Surface in action as a 21st-century curling venue.

However, my stomach is rumbling, so I join the line of people waiting for lunch. That's where I meet Jenny Olsson and Calle Hakansson, who work for Stockholm-based Arcam. The company takes AutoCAD drawings and prints them, in full 3-D. Olsson pulled several samples from her backpack, including a Star Wars clone.

Star Wars Drone
Generating this on-demand used to be the stuff of science fiction. Today, with the right equipment, it's a two-minute print job.

It doesn't take long to imagine how this could change the way we do work, but the old challenges of software are still there. The company is currently extending its software with a better front-end, and Olsson and Hakansson are working on testing that interface, especially for user experience. (I don't know the equivalent for a 3-D printer of a DVD player constantly flashing 12:00PM, but I suspect it isn't good.)

Software Usability Lessons From Iron Man

Talking to Olsson and Hakansson had me interested in the user experience, so I checked the program and snuck in the back of the room for Scott Barnes' presentation on usability—specifically, getting beyond our old thinking about grids and trees and inventing entirely new ways of doing user experience.

In his talk, "Design Eye For The Developer Person," Barnes suggests that some of the best new thinking about displaying information is actually coming from Hollywood movies. He points to the hexagonal display in Iron Man as an alternative to traditional grids, and the widgets in Iron Man's heads-up display as ways to display multiple values—speed, distance and acceleration in this case—at the same time. It's something we might apply directly to the way we show clients dashboards.

The talk is so good, I recommend you watch it in its entirety:

A Design eye for the Developer Person from Øredev Conference on Vimeo.

Before leaving, I attended one last lean coffee session and chat with Johnan Atting about his cross-team testing process. After that, it's time to get the train to Copenhagen, jump on a plane, head home and start typing away.

The large Microsoft Surface, 3-D printing, the software driven by the human eye—this is all new to me. My biggest takeaway? I have to get to Europe more often.

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