The Sixth Sense

We all know (and love) our five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Apparently, these senses are not enough. Science, psychology, and the arts have been on the hunt for a sixth sense since the time people knew they had senses.

Candidates for a sixth sense include:

  • intuition
  • emotion
  • intelligence
  • extra-sensory perception (ESP)
  • equilibrioception – the ability to balance

As a technical person, one of the candidates that I find particularly interesting is a device called, (what else?), the SixthSense.

The SixthSense is prototype information device you can wear. It consists of a computer, a pocket projector, a mirror, and a camera. The projector projects visual information onto any surface. The user wears colored markers on their fingertips. The camera recognizes and tracks the user’s hand gestures, kind of like in the film Minority Report.

There are many cool things that you can do with this device just by using your hands to virtually “draw” various shapes:

  • “draw” a magnifying glass to launch a map application
  • “draw” virtual shapes onto any surface
  • “draw” a frame to launch the camera
  • “draw” the ā€˜@ā€™ symbol to check your email
  • “draw” a circle on your wrist to project a watch onto it
  • use hand gestures to flick through photos you’ve taken

Most importantly, SixthSense can detect different types of physical objects and then project additional, meaningful information onto them.

Examples include projecting:

  • live video news or dynamic news updates onto a newspaper
  • current airline departure information onto an airline ticket.
  • nutritional information and recipes onto food packages you are looking at the supermarket
  • book reviews onto a book
  • a person’s favourite websites onto the person’s shirt (yes, it really can do that!)

This device is a glimpse of a future world awash in meta-information. It is currently a prototype, and not freely available. However, the documentation we create is. For this, there are valuable lessons.

First – all technical communicators do have a sixth sense – the sense of information. And not just any information, but clear and meaningful information. We know, or can find out, what the user needs to know. We know how to give that information to the user. The only thing we don’t know is what what we don’t know. But we know that we don’t know what we don’t know, you know?

To find out what we don’t know, we speak with the people who do know. These are the other people involved with the product you are documenting. Particularly important are the people who are working with the users who actually use the product. These are the salesmen, product analysts, business analysts and others who have direct contact with the end users.

Second – our documentation should be as helpful as a SixthSense device. It should:

  • “know” the user
  • know what the user needs to know
  • give them the information they need to know
  • tell them how to get more or different information
  • withhold information they do not need to know

Do you agree? If not, I’m not worried.

You’ll come to your senses…

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