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5 programs with an under appreciated interface

CLI vs. GUI

In the early days of the computer everything was done using a command line, also known as a Command Line Interface (CLI). The concept is simple: you type a command followed by carriage return (“enter”) and the computer ‘does’ something in response.

As development progressed computers became more capable of handling graphics and that eventually resulted in the ability to do most of our work on a computer in a graphical environment, also known as the Graphical User Interface (GUI). And just like the CLI the concept is simple, it usually evolves around pointing and clicking with a mouse. And, if you’re writing an article like this, with plenty of typing as well.

The interface dilemma

In general all interfaces share the same goal: making sure that the user has to take less effort as possible in order to reach their goal(s). The goal obviously depends on the program. It could be something simple like formatting a line of text in italic, viewing the other side of a 3D object right down to connecting virtual audio devices in a specific way. And as always some programs do this job better than others.

So here is a collection of 5 programs which I consider to be special where their interface is concerned.

5 – Blender

blender

Blender is 3D modeling program and provides a love/hate relation for me. In my opinion Blender is suffering from a severe design problem which can make a working session highly counter-productive. And trust me: I’m not merely talking about the fact that Blender uses the right mouse button instead of the left in order to select objects. Blenders learning curve is a steep one and a large part of that is caused by the sometimes illogical and contradictive interface. It seems to me that the interface is mostly driven from a programmers or engineering perspective, while totally ignoring the target audience: artists. To quote an introduction video from well known multimedia company: “Creators who follow instinct and inspiration. We will do anything to get the sound idea that’s in our head out…”.

But having said that I also think that the interface as a whole is still an impressive one. Basically every part of the screen is a section which you can either split vertically or horizontally and re-configure to display (or ‘do’) something else. The main 3D viewport is none other than a specific section called “3D View”. One click of the mouse button can change it into something else. Don’t like the way how your scene overview sits in the upper right corner by default? A mere drag and click can change that without much effort. Maybe you’re more interested in having 2 views at the same time, the default perspective view and a top view…

Basically it’s not that hard to change the default interface as shown above into a customized one like this:

blender_custom

For the record: Blender is not a program I particularly enjoy working with, in fact I usually avoid it (there is a reason why it uses a Hexagon theme up there). But that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate it for what it does and can provide us with.

4 – Microsoft Office

wordWhen Office 2008 came out many people got upset over the new ‘Ribbon interface’. Instead of relying on a pull down menu in combination with one (or many) toolbars (or icon bars) Office now used a new way to present the user with the most commonly used options. You no longer had to search through several (sometimes arcane) menu options or hover your mouse over a small icon because you had no clue what it could represent.

Instead the Ribbon contains several tabs which each show some large(r) icons which are also grouped together in specific (named) sections. This usually makes it a lot easier to find the functionality you’re looking for.

For example: to set up a table of contents all you have to do is keep in mind what you’re working on: a collection of references. As such you’re looking for the “References” (or “Verwijzingen” in Dutch) Ribbon tab. Here you’ll find several sections where the first is “Index” (“Inhoudsopgave” in Dutch).

Of course I’m not claiming that the new interface will be much easier on you no matter what. But it’s still my experience so far that the Ribbon is much easier to work with than the previous method of combining a pulldown menu with some toolbars. So definitely an improvement. And the best part: everything is fully customizable:

word_ribbon_custom

And don’t get me started on the amazing stuff you can do with Visual Basic for Applications (VBA)!

3 – Ableton Live

ableton_live

In a Digital Audio Workstation (“DAW”) you often work with a combination of audio and midi data which is laid out across tracks. Each track can generate a sound and when all those sounds are brought together you end up with the end result.

Traditionally these tracks are shown as a stacked amount of rows where each row presents a single track. All the material (audio or midi) is shown as blocks which all have a varying size, depending on the length (time which it’s played). But not in Ableton Live… By default Live uses a method known as the Session View where all tracks are represented as vertical columns, and where each column can contain a large variety of data. This allows for a very unique and specific workflow…

Normally you record a piece of material (sound or midi) which you can then play back by hitting play. Sounds easy enough. In Live however you can record your material in specific clips, each track can contain an almost endless amount of clips. This allows you to record several takes per track, which you can then use to try out different approaches while still working on a specific sound or idea.

Of course things don’t have to stop there… What about playing a track and then using clips to add specific sound snippets as some kind of (re)mix? The best part about Live, in my opinion obviously, is that you are in full control. And if you prefer to work in the more traditionally environment, in Live this is called the Arrangement View, then all you need to do is press the tab key and you’re there:

ableton_live_arrangement

Many people consider Live’s interface “simple”, but trust me when I say that Live provides (much) more than initially meets the eye.

2 – Reason

reason

If you think Ableton Live had a specific interface then Reason might really overwhelm or confuse you. The fun part is that it doesn’t really have a ‘specific’ interface type. In fact I think it’s fair to say that Reason actually has three interface types all rolled into one environment.

When looking at the picture you’ll probably notice the more traditional (and maybe familiar) sequencer look at the bottom: all tracks are represented as horizontal rows where all the recorded material is shown from left to right. However; a lot, if not most, of the work will be done in the interface shown above: a virtual 19” rack which can contain a large variety of devices which each represent a specific instrument or effect.

Working within Reason doesn’t only give you an impression of working with real hardware from its looks, it’s also because the provided interface tries really hard to enhance on those specific aspects such as turning a knob or checking a VU meter. And once you hit tab to turn the virtual rack around and check up on all the different connections which you can tweak and change to your hearts desire then you may very well find yourself lost within the world of Reason tweaking for a long time. And then you’ll come across the mixer panel Glimlach

reason_demo

Fun fact: Ableton Live combined with Reason is my favorite DAW environment where Reason actually enhances my workflow in Live.

1 – Daz Studio

daz_studio

Daz Studio is a ‘freemium’ program (the software itself is available free of charge, but in order to really start using it you’ll probably need to purchase some contents) and its fully aimed at 3D modeling. You can place figures and objects in the main environment (“3D viewport”), manipulate them anyway you see fit by changing their position or pose and then enhance on the scenery by adding specific viewpoints (cameras) and light sources to create your own unique 3D render.

The main thing I admire about Daz Studio is that its interface is as flexible as a string of elastic, almost literally! The interface you see in this picture is a layout you won’t find anywhere else because I fully customized it to my preferences.

Sure: I did set it up while using an already existing (default) layout as my starting point (the so called “Hollywood Blvd”). But all similarities completely end there. In Daz Studio you can change everything. The program can be truly molded into an environment in which you can do your work most optimally and (almost) nothing is carved out in stone here. Even the shown categories in the Smart content tab (I bet you don’t have a ‘Genesis’ section like I do Knipogende emoticon).

An example… My preferred workflow is to start by collecting my figures and props, optionally set up a  background environment, and while doing all that I also do some work on the poses (to get a rough impression of what I want). For this I use the “Actors and Props” activity tab (see the tabs right below the pull down menu); once selected all the available panes and the toolbar are fully aimed at this activity.

daz_studio_posing

Fun fact: in the above demo setup I only used freely available materials. The pose isn’t state of the art (obviously) because I didn’t spent much time on it (yet?). Maybe I should Knipogende emoticon

But anyway, as you can see my interface changed quite a bit. In my main window I no longer have that “cube thing” in the upper right corner, instead there’s a ball shape in the upper left corner. Also, the main window shows all the available controls in an icon (tool)bar at the top. As mentioned before: in this activity tab my interface is more aimed at setting up a pose and less at adding new figures or props (though these options are obviously still easily accessible). Next you’ll also notice the specific render panes at the top (settings, album and library).

I don’t use Daz Studio for animation, but sometimes I do use animation to set up something which I refer to as a “multipose”. So basically one file which contains two (or more) poses which are “linked” through an animation. That’s where the animation activity comes into play:

daz_studio_animation

As you can see this section has hardly anything in common with the previous two. The panes on the left have all disappeared, the main viewport shows the same posing setup as the previous activity and the other sections are pretty much static: a timeline at the bottom and the ‘puppeteer’ pane at the right.

Of course, as mentioned previously, Daz Studio doesn’t limit you into one specific interface. And to demonstrate I’ll also show you the above scenery but this time within the “City Limits” layout:

daz_studio_citylimits

In this layout we no longer have activity sections but everything is centered around one main interface, to some extend comparable to what Blender provides. Also notice all the different icon toolbars around the main window.

Concluding

Five programs, five specific interfaces, listed in my order of preference. In a way I believe that these different interfaces can really leave an impression and (to some extend) change the way in which we (can) work within those environments.

Credits and references

Did I make you curious or maybe you’d like to check some of these programs yourself? Either way it’s always my habit to give proper credits so here you go…

  • Blender – An open source project which is freely available for most environments (Windows, Linux, MacOS). Maintained and developed by the Blender foundation, their website can be found here.
  • Microsoft Office – A commercial office environment which is available in several versions. It usually consists of Word (word processor), Excel (spreadsheet), Powerpoint (presentation program) and OneNote (note processor). Although not free I personally think that this software is well worth the money because it provides a lot of functionality. See the Office website for more information.
    • Fun fact: There is also a free (open source) Office environment available called LibreOffice (basically the former OpenOffice). You can find the project website here.
  • Ableton Live is a commercial DAW, developed by Ableton. There are three different versions available: Intro, Live and Suite. There is also a free version which sometimes gets bundled with specific hardware. Although not free I honestly think that you get a lot of value for your money. Especially with the Suite version (Live 9) which includes additions such as Max for Live (visual programming environment) and the Ableton Orchestral Library Collection. You can find more information on the Ableton website.
  • Reason is also a commercial DAW, developed by Propellerhead Software. It is less expensive than Ableton Live but don’t let this fool you: when it comes to functionality then Reason can match Ableton Live quite well. It has a specific workflow, but truly tries to focus on creativity above anything else. Fun fact: before Reason version 6 it didn’t have any audio recording capabilities, which made many people approach this program with caution (or maybe even a little disdain). But as usual: seeing (or in this case hearing) is believing. And you can see more about Reason on the Propellerhead website.
  • Daz Studio is a free(mium) program which you can download and start using free of charge. Also in an honest way (they do prefer that you register on their website, but when you “purchase” free contents then providing payment information is not required). What makes this program special for me, apart from the interface, is its honest approach (as I call it). There’s nothing stopping me from exporting a base figure (Genesis for example), edit it using another program (such as Blender, which is fully free) and then using my new creation back in Daz Studio. Perfectly doable! Sure: Daz prefers that you buy yourself one (or more) starter or “professional” bundles (which are often well worth the money). Yet they still provide you with all the tools you might need to do things for free on your own. That is honest software for you, in my opinion of course. For more information please see the Daz website here.
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June 13, 2016 - Posted by | TechBlabber | , , , , , , , , , ,

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