Tampering with a winning user interface is a tricky thing. People don't generally like drastic user interface changes and yet, there are times early on in a new device cycle, where reinvention from within is necessary to keep the competition on the run and in a panic. Apple's iPhone user interface led the way in 2007 and the copycats do what they do best: they copied it. Well, Apple appears to be at it again and sending out signals that change is in the wind. Both in September and December of 2010, Apple hinted that they were considering the use of a new UI element called Spirals: An interesting UI that could be used for media, especially photos. Today, Apple introduces us to something they simply refer to as "Segmented Graphical Representations." It's a new Graphical User Interface element that presents one larger graphic, such as album art, and then segments it into a series of smart interactive tiles. The idea may begin with the iTunes Store, but Apple shows us that it could very well spill over to other iOS elements like the address book and beyond. Leaders lead and Apple is likely to take iOS to the next level sometime in the future. Until then, the competition will just have to sweat it out.
A Little Background
According to Apple, current portable electronic devices are limited in their ability to present information to users. They have limited interfaces for presenting users' music collections or for recommending songs for purchase. Today's handheld's like the iPod touch or iPhone display's music collections or recommendations using textual lists of songs for the most part. Moreover, the iTunes Store interfaces for handheld's may limit their recommendations to listing featured songs or to listing the most popular downloads.
Apple's Solution: Segmented Graphical Representations
It appears that Apple wants to reinvent the experience that we have with the iTunes Store on our handheld devices. In fact, the changes could apply to the way we'll recommend music to friends when talking to them on our iPhones.
As you'll see below, a handheld device GUI could consist of a segmented graphical representation of a seed element, such as a media element that is currently playing on your iPhone or an address book contact that you're currently on the phone with.
The segmented graphical representation may be an album cover as shown below in patent FIG. 3 or a picture of an artist or contact that you see in patent FIG. 5. In some embodiments, the graphical representation may be segmented into a number of tiles as shown in patent FIG. 4, or may include a mosaic.
The Proposed View of a Future Album Cover at the iTunes Store
In patent FIG. 3 Apple discusses a "now playing" view mode. The display screen may include an information region 320 for providing attributes about the playing song, which is referred to as "Song A" in this illustration. The attributes can include any suitable metadata associated with Song A such as the title, artist, and album. That's not much different than what we could see on our iPod touch or iPhone in landscape mode today when looking at our music library. You get the album and related metadata. The difference of course is that what Apple is proposing here applies to your Apple Store experience.
In the screenshot above, you're able to see Macy Gray's album art in a list format as seen today at the iTunes Store using an iPod touch. The proposed tiled graphic would enlarge and emphasize Marcy Gray's album art first and foremost (as seen in the right graphic). All the particulars about the album would either be placed on the flipside of the album art or on the individual tiles if you were viewing it on a larger iPad display. At the moment, the patent isn't clear on the change of formats. Meaning that the tiles may be the only option that they provide you with instead of fliping the album art over. We'll see in time how that all plays out.
A New Tiled UI Element
In patent FIG. 3, we're able to see the kind of changes that Apple wants to bring to the iTunes Store. The graphical representation 310 could include or be composed of a number of segments, including segments 312 and 314. The segments could be positioned like tiles in a grid so that each segment shows a portion of the album cover art or other graphic.
The graphical representation could include any suitable number of segments. For example, the graphical representation may be composed of a 5 x 5, 5 x 7, 7 x 7 or 10 x 10 grid depending on the size of your display, where each segment may have any suitable shape (e.g., square or rectangular). The segments may all be of equal or substantially equal size, or some of the segments may be larger than other segments. For example, in some embodiments, the center of the graphical representation may include fewer segments so that detailed artwork near the center of representation doesn't appear cut up.
In some embodiments, one or more of the segments in the graphical representation (e.g., segments 312 and 314) may each be associated with one or more other songs. The handheld device may identify these other songs using Song A as the seed song and may allow a user to interact with the display screen to view the songs associated with a segment. In some embodiments, the user will be able to use a "pinch in" motion directed over one or more segments on a multi-touch touch screen to view the songs associated with those segments. Or to simplify matters, Apple could duplicate what we see on our handhelds today when we're in landscape mode. There we hit the "i" button at the bottom right corner of the display and the album art automatically turns over to expose our list of tunes.
The tile idea sounds great for an iPad where there's a lot of display space to maneuver in. But for an iPod touch or iPhone, I think that the tiled idea would end up being more of a hassle than fun.
Update 3:08 PM MST: After looking at this all morning, I'm beginning to see some of the logic behind their segmented graphic implementation for the address book. It's almost like creating a "Following" Block that's found on a typical Twitter page. After a while your eyes begin to associate contacts by color, shapes, logos and facial expressions in an instant. And if you use Apple's own block counts that are listed above, then you'll be able to build different size blocks depending on the device that you're using (iPhone, iPad). Your contact blocks would range in numbers from 25 (5x5) to 100 (10x10). This could end up being a winning idea, especially for multi-touch devices.
A Sexier Graphic Format vs. A Boring List
Apple's patent FIG. 4 is an illustrative display screen that may be displayed by an iOS device responsive to a user selection of segment 314 from display screen 300 (FIG. 3). Display screen 400 could present you with cover art related to individual songs or albums. Basically you'll be given an interface with a sexier graphic vs. the list format of today. You'll tap on the cover art to get more information or play the tune.
The Tiled UI Element Could Extend to the Address Book
Apple appears to really like this new tiled UI element and is likely to take it beyond its use in the iTunes Store. In fact, Apple is thinking of extending it to other iOS elements and in patent FIG. 5 we see such an embodiment: A new Address Book format.
According to the patent, graphical representation 510 may be a photo or other representation of a seed address book contact. The photo may be divided into a grid of segments, where at least some of the segments are associated with another contact in the address book. Each segment, such as segments 512 and 514, may provide a photo of another address book contact as well as illustrate a portion of the seed contact's photo.
For example, graphical representation 510 may appear to be a grid of photos with a semi-transparent larger photo of the seed contact overlaid on top of the grid.
For those segments associated with an address book contact, the iOS device may take any suitable action with respect to the contact responsive to a user selection of a segment. For example, in response to a user selection of segment 514, the iOS device may call the associated contact, allow the user to text message the associated contact, or may display more detailed information about the associated contact (e.g., name, home address, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, call history, SMS information, a degree of affiliation the user has with the associated contact etc.).
Apple credits Taido Nakajima and Pareet Rahul as the inventors of patent application 20110071977, originally filed in Q3 2009.
Apple has given us a peek at a new iOS GUI element and other elements are likely to change when they implement this concept.
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