In my column in the April 8, 2010, issue of Machine Design, I said that we need to think about human interfaces to computer systems in a new way, and a good place to start is with terminology. “Pezonomics” is my replacement for “ergonomics.” Ergonomics comes from Greek words that mean “work” and “law.” Too austere! We should capture the essence of play and calibrate computer systems to its cadences.

Consider, for example, video games. The best games don’t necessarily have top-notch graphics. Instead they have an audible heartbeat, a low-frequency pulse that accelerates as the game progresses. This auditory entrainment speeds players’ heart rates, with an accompanying production of adrenaline and endorphins. By the end of the game, players are “hyped” — and they want more.

Entrainment creates a deep sense of rapport. Good salespeople already know what neurolinguistic programmers have recently been writing about: You can establish rapport with someone by intentionally mirroring behaviors such as their posture or blink rate.

Proper pezonomics would also boost person-to-computer rapport or coupling. The computer is a general-purpose tool, something we use to do a job. We can increase our control with closer ties to the computer. Of course, this might give the computer too much control over the user, an undesirable outcome. Like the binding of a ski, control has to be both loose and tight. You do not want the ski to fall off while you are going down a slope, but you want it to come off easily should you fall.

Our goal is to get at our work, art, and play; the computer is only a means to an end. We crave enhanced access to our problems so we can solve them without apparent mediation, without the intrusion of the irrelevancies of the computer or our disabilities. Pezonomics can bring us closer to this goal.

For example, suppose your head-mounted display had a sensor that could detect your pulse. When you first put it on, the system would occasionally ask you about your mood and alertness and build a table with the corresponding heart rates. After a period of calibration, it could then sense your level of alertness, and alter it with rhythmic auditory and visual pulses. It might, for instance, flash a feature in your field of view, subtly, at the rate of your pulse, while making an unobtrusive but audible clicking sound. When it detected synchronization between your pulse rate and its beat, it could speed up the flashing and clicking, while checking that your pulse was entrained. Your increased heart rate would cause your body to generate endorphins and enkephalins, pain-blunting, pleasure-enhancing, morphinelike chemicals that could make you more effective.

Such a system could also make you less effective, if your work required a more contemplative mood. There is now evidence that overactivation of the “fight or flight” response causes stress and disease. For this reason, you had better be able to control what the system does to you. Rhythm can be a powerful ally or a formidable foe.

Pezonomics — the law of play — must be developed and applied to computer systems in general, and VR in particular, for these artificial environments to become hospitable for humans. Without playful interfaces, virtual worlds will be as arcane and inaccessible as Unix. The coming high-bandwidth infrastructure is making possible a shared multisensory space. We must intelligently pad its walls pezonomically or endanger the innocent.

Joel Orr

Joel Orr is Chief Visionary Emeritus of Cyon Research Corp. The views he expresses here are his own, not those of Cyon. Reach him at joel@joelorrcoaching.com.

Edited by Leslie Gordon