There are only a few virtual worlds in working environments today and they all suffer from the flaws of less-engaging computer systems. Designed with little consideration for the way people really behave, these worlds are ergonomically unsound.

In computer systems, consistency is a big problem. We have grown to expect different programs to do things in different ways. Type ALT-F, X to exit from one program, CTRL-Q to leave another. If cars were as inconsistent, renting one in a strange city could be a problem: “This new ergonomic model has the brake pedal on the right, and the accelerator is operated with your left elbow. Just initial in these 11 places, and sign here — sir? Where’d he go?” Out to the taxi stand.

Disregard for the human shape is another problem. Consider the standard computer keyboard. The arrangement of the keys was designed in the 19th century to slow down typists and keep them from typing another letter before the previous key had a chance to fall. Moreover, keyboards are smaller, while hand sizes have grown. And keys are not positioned to meet naturally placed human fingers. The outdated design is still working, letting thousands of orthopedists send their children through college by creating a whole branch of the repetitive-stress-injury market. To add insult to injury, most computer systems are not fun to learn or use; they are arcane drudgery.

We need to think about human interfaces to computer systems in general, and virtual worlds in particular, in a new way. A good place to start the revolution is with terminology. “Pezonomics” is my replacement for “ergonomics.”

Ergonomics comes from two Greek words that mean “work” and “law”— “the law of work,” in other words. Too austere! The most popular, easy-to-learn computer systems in the world are video games, prime examples of successful application of pezonomics — “the law of play.” We should capture the essence of play and calibrate computer systems to its cadences.

One of my friends designs systems according to the “principle of minimal astonishment.” He said customers or users should always know what is going to happen next and have some control over the event. This is a wise approach, but, as in marriage, complete predictability can lead to boredom. To maintain interest, we need controlled surprise; flowers and romantic greeting cards without a birthday or anniversary, unplanned acts of warmth and kindness. Good programs and virtual worlds should have an unending stream of unexpected pleasant surprises.

Rhythm is important in pezonomics. Humans are complex systems — too complex to have simple natural frequencies. But certain frequencies do “resonate.” For example, low-frequency sound pulses at or near a person’s heart rate seem to cause the human system to “lock in” to the sound generator’s frequency. Once this happens, changes in the frequency cause changes in the person’s heart rate as well as in other physical functions.

The most popular video games don’t necessarily have the best graphics. What they do have is an audible heartbeat-rate low-frequency pulse that accelerates as the game progresses. This auditory entrainment causes the player’s heart rate to speed up, along with the production of adrenaline and endorphins. By the end of the game, the player is “hyped” and wants more. (Article is to be continued in next month’s column.) — 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