The Lab

Why are Shaders Critical for Natural User Interfaces?    July 31, 2013

At YOUi Labs, we use shaders to help create stunning visual effects in our natural user interfaces and provide the “wow” factor for users. Many of these effects wouldn’t be possible without shaders, but their value is not well understood. I regularly find myself explaining to clients why customized shaders are important and when you would want to use them.

Let’s start with why shaders are important. Shaders are a necessary part of modern device graphics, and must be used for any graphics output. They can be optimized to give visual beauty to something that would otherwise look unappealing or visually flat. Their added value comes from when you want to present a visual treatment live, in real‑time, particularly for dynamic objects that users interact with. Shaders can be costly from a performance point of view, but the visual impact they provide in return more than makes up for that cost.

The best way to understand the visual impact of shaders is to see them live. Check out the demo in the Shaders Lab Talk where I show a few simulations of turning a page in a book. The user experience is vastly different when customized shaders are used.

So why are shaders particularly important for natural user interface design?

Let’s say you want to show one of these natural effects. The traditional approach is to apply effects at design time, using tools such as Photoshop. This might produce an adequate visual, but it will be static, and cannot be dynamically changed once created. Users won’t be able to interact with it because animations have to be pre‑canned sequences. For purposes like gaming, video animations and flat images might be OK because function or performance is more important than visual beauty. A user focused on playing a game probably doesn’t care whether all the onscreen visuals are true‑to‑life.

Natural user interface design is different. Really great natural user interfaces make users feel that they’re actually interacting with physical objects, and there’s no room for visual interruptions or learning sequences that break the sense of a real-life interaction.

Shaders can take the visual to a new level, making the simulation on the device look real while the user interacts with it in real-time. In the Shaders Lab Talk, I show how shaders manipulate shape and lighting in real-time to simulate the bending of a page corner and folding of the page as it turns over. The natural motion provides the visual nuances that give depth and realism.

Shaders are a very powerful way of creating natural effects with high visual impact. What you can achieve when programming shaders depends on who you’re working with. At YOUi Labs, our expertise with shaders specifically for natural user interfaces allows us to produce visually stunning effects that may not be possible otherwise.

Our approach is from the design side, not the engineering side. Engineering often limits a design based on requirements to make it functional. Too often, seemingly unimportant design elements get pushed to the end of the project, and then usually dropped, because they’re too time-consuming, expensive, or complex to implement.

We talk with the designers to understand why a feature is needed, and what value it adds to the user experience. If the value is high, then we’ll find a way to make it a reality. Leaving a feature out isn’t an option when it’s critical to a fun, interactive, and real-life look-and-feel for the user experience.

Tell us your vision. We’ll make sure the natural user interface gives the experience and beauty that you really want for your customers.

Stu