A speculative vision of the operating system, driven by humane design principles.

Nine months ago, I set out to invent a new way of interfacing with our devices, armed with only a single metaphor: Mercury.

Mercury, the elemental manifestation of fluid chrome.
Mercury, the Roman deity bridging the boundary between two worlds.
Mercury, the nearest planet to the sun.

Although  these versions of Mercury had little to do with interaction design,  they perfectly summarized how I wanted the experience of computation to feel. I wanted the experience to feel fluid. I wanted to create something that users could move through without friction or boundaries. I wanted to bring people closer to their North Stars with speed and elegance.

In  the months that followed, I devoured countless volumes of HCI  literature while pivoting from one prototype to the next. I tried  everything from a “smart-fidget-ring” concept that doubled as a  universal remote, to wondering if something as simple as a rubber-band  could serve as an interface. Although I was surprised that something so  illogical could inspire so many avenues for exploration, nothing seemed  to capture the feeling I had described in my poetic manifesto.

Messy, manic making. Bottom left sketch was done by my friend Marisa Lu during a particularly productive phone call exploring the mental model of “flows”

My  breakthrough came when I realized that I had been asking all the wrong  questions. I had spent months trying to invent new ways to navigate  existing systems — but what if those systems were fundamentally flawed?  What if the experience of Mercury required a radical re-invention of  everything I had been taking for granted?


Why?

In my article titled “The Desktop Metaphor Must Die,”  I described some fundamental issues with the Desktop metaphor and App  Sandboxes. My personal investment in the future of computation goes much  deeper than simply craving a better experience for experience’s sake.

Mercury  is designed, first and foremost, to be an experience inclusive of  people with limited executive function and cognitive load. People  living with ASD, ADHD, and other neurological differences who are  frequently overwhelmed by the flood of sensory information we have all  come to expect in conventional operating systems.

People like me.

Desktop or dumpster? You decide. (Image courtesy of my dear friend Lindo)

Research  has shown that people with limited executive function find it more  difficult to get things done when they are not in flow-state. We are  also more susceptible to interruptions and interstitial friction. These  interruptions include everything from the obvious (Notifications,  Alerts, etc) to the not-so-obvious (Photoshop asking you to name your  file AND choose where it will be saved). It is truly unfortunate that  friction has come to be accepted as an unavoidable part of everyday  computing.

For  people who already have trouble controlling their locus of attention,  the context switching required to deal with these interruptions can be  an incredibly draining experience that could take up to 15 minutes. For  comparison’s sake, the average neurotypical person is usually able to  switch gears in under 10 seconds.

This  is why the inherent modality of Applications and Windowing environments  is particularly frustrating to me. And while I understand that for some  people, the desktop metaphor is not broken enough to require any fixing  (where’s the data?, they ask), I stand by my words and my truth.

Why is this normal? Why should I have to expend my limited cognitive energy finessing…this?

On that note, let’s dive into what Mercury actually is.


Mercury is…

1. Fluid

Instead  of asking people to modify their thoughts and actions around the  arbitrary sandboxes of Apps, Mercury responds fluidly to the intentions  of its user, alleviating the risk of interstitial friction that all  multi-tool workflows carry.

2. Focused

The  clutter we take for granted in today’s operating systems can be  overwhelming, especially for folks sensitive to stimulation. Mercury is  respectful of limited bandwidths and attention spans, and rejects the  idea of “notification driven engagement.” Information will not be pushed  to the user unless they intentionally ask for it. Mercury’s  intention-as-context architecture vaccinates the user against the  unintentional consumption of information.

3. Familiar

Mercury introduces new ideas and metaphors through familiar interaction patterns on an existing device: Mercury is designed for multi-touch tablets with keyboard support —  a category often overlooked as awkward hybrids straddling two worlds.  Mercury leans into the playfulness afforded by multi-touch and the  efficiency made possible by the keyboard.

Mercury re-imagines the operating system as a fluid experience driven by human intent.

This is Mercury.

Architecture

On  the atomic level, Mercury is comprised of Modules. Modules are  combinations of content and actions assembled based on user intent.

Users  can create new modules that live adjacent to the starting module. A  horizontal row of Modules is called a Flow. This is true even if there  is only one module in the entire row.

A  Space is a contextual grouping of the different flows required to  fulfill an overarching intent. For example, if a user declares a “Review  Inbox” space, Mercury will populate it automatically with flows  containing the unread messages that the user will need to read in order  to fulfill their intention of reviewing their Inbox.

A  Space is generated every time a user declares an intention from the  empty state, and is generally named after said intention. Almost every  interaction in Mercury takes place within a Space.


Modules

Modules are the building blocks of Mercury. They are defined using combinations of nouns (items), verbs (actions) and modifiers.

Modules  generated by the system employ a Noun-Verb construction because it is  assumed that the content of the module will dictate the actions the user  will intend to take (if any).

User-defined  Modules can certainly follow the Noun-Verb model described above.  However, Verb-Noun construction is also supported so that users can ask  for Modules colloquially. This use case will be especially common when  Voice input is used.

Note  that Mercury will not produce a Module from a definition that does not  specify a Noun (e.g. “Play…”). Instead, it will suggest different nouns  to complete the definition.

The Power of Locus

Users  can redefine Modules at any time using its Locus (the action bar).  Locus combines the power of a Command-Line Interface with the  convenience of Natural Language Processing and the discoverability of  GUI.

Locus  recognizes complete sentences as Actions, and can even perform tasks  that involve multiple steps. Just activate the Locus by tapping on it,  or by toggling the Command key. As you type, Locus will offer  context-specific suggestions to help you discover its capabilities.

Users can denote an array by using commas.

Standardized Shortcuts

In  conventional operating systems, keyboard shortcuts are hard to remember  and a nuisance to find. Furthermore, different Apps may require  different shortcuts for the same function.

In  Mercury, shortcuts are standardized through Locus. To see which ones  are available, simply press and hold the Command key. Without letting go  of Command, start typing to progressively filter the list of actions  down to the one you want.

Responsive Modules

Contextual  modifiers (like conditional statements) can help automate more nuanced  tasks on demand, without the need to leave the current context.

Simultaneous Modules

Modules are able to exist in multiple Flows and Spaces simultaneously if the user chooses to create Mirrors.  Mirroring is fundamental to the architecture of Mercury, as it ensures  that all items and actions are immediately reachable regardless of what  Space (or context) the user is currently in. For example, mirrors of an  email from your professor can exist in your Inbox Space and your  Coursework Space at the same time.

Flows

In  conventional App-driven operating systems, functions are segregated  within different Apps. The process of moving from App to App generates  friction that takes you out of flow, and distracts you from your  intentions.

Mercury  is designed to help you enter and stay in flow. If you want to perform  an action while leaving your current module untouched, you can generate a  new module by tapping the Plus bubble adjacent to your current module,  or by pressing the Tab key on your keyboard.

An empty Module will be populated by actions and items Mercury thinks you may need given your context.

You  can also use continuous gestural input to generate Modules without  diverting your attention from the content you’re engaged in. Simply  highlight a chunk of text to get started. An empty Module containing  contextual suggestions will greet you where your finger left off so that  you can keep the momentum going.


Spaces

Everything  you do in Mercury is organized within Spaces. Spaces can be created  from scratch, built on top of a Blueprint (template Spaces for common  contexts and workflows), or generated for you by Mercury.

A  swipe up from the home screen reveals your chronological journey  through time and, ahem, Space. Can’t remember what you worked on last  Thursday? Just find it in the Timeline. Want to reflect on the amount of  time you spent Tweeting about Game of Thrones this weekend? To the  Timeline we go.

Entering  a Space from the Timeline feels like zooming into a different  dimension. The interface fades into the distance so you can focus on  getting into flow. While inside a Space, you will receive no  notifications unless you intentionally specify your availability in the  Rules of the Space. Nothing stands in between you and your intentions.

Within  a Space, flows represent the necessary steps that need to be taken in  order to accomplish the intention of the Space. The “Review Inbox”  intention, for example, includes all unread mail messages as well as  incoming direct messages aggregated from different, unrelated services.  In a conventional OS, one would have had to open multiple browser tabs  or Applications in order to accomplish the same intention of “Review  Inbox.”

By  isolating services from their wider ecosystems, Mercury helps prevent  potential avenues for distraction and unintentional content consumption.

Your Space, Your Rules

The  pinch gesture reveals a birds-eye view of every module inside the  space, as well as the rules and collaborators that define how the space  is generated.

Artificial Collaborators

In  a speculative future without Apps, corporations can continue to offer  services through AI assistants. Adding these assistants into a spaces  will add service-specific funtionality to the Modules in that space. For  example, you may enlist the help of several Virtual Shopping Assistants  on your quest to find the perfect pair of kicks.

You  can ask Collaborators to generate modules automatically, or restrict  their activity based on context. Collaborators will not have access to  any information outside of the modules directly affected by their input.  The sandboxing of Collaborators within Spaces protects your privacy  while preserving intentional access to services you may rely on.


Get Together

Plan  a trip to Vegas. Watch BLACKPINK’s comeback with your fandom. Share  documents, images, and work collaboratively in real time by inviting  others to join one of your Spaces.

You could even give your secretary permission to add and remove items from your Inbox — without sharing a single password.

Art Direction

Mercury’s  visual identity fuses the rational structures of Western Modernist  design with the East Asian instinct to seek tranquility in chaos.

Fog

Kiri  (霧), Japanese for “fog,” is the name of Mercury’s visual manifestation.  Kiri takes a judicious approach to contrast — bringing clarity only  where it is needed, while obfuscating extraneous noise under a soft  mist.

Choreography

Motion  is used throughout Mercury to maintain spatial consistency and to guide  the user’s locus of attention from one module to the next. Mercury’s  choreography was inspired by the Daoist Way of inexertion; the interface  moves without resistance to human input before easing into the  equilibrium of stillness.

Typography

Mercury  emphasizes contrast in type size to reinforce information hierarchy and  spatial consistency. The world of Mercury is set exclusively in Söhne  by Klim Type Foundry, a type family exuding elegance and softness, while  remaining uncompromising on clarity.

Where there’s light…

Kiri  retreats into the shadows when night falls. Modules are backlit with a  sublime incandesence inspired by the ethereal glow of moonlight.

You know I would never pass on a chance to design a dark mode ;)

What‘s Next?

The  one thing that has become blindingly clear to me throughout this nine  month process is how absurdly foolish I was in believing I could go  about doing this alone. This particular line of inquiry is so ambiguous,  so reliant on abstract ideas and metaphors that I found myself digging  rabbit holes for weeks and weeks only to lose my way in their murky  depths.

In  fact, almost all of the defining moments of Mercury have been a product  of inviting the brilliance of others into my isolation chamber for  feedback or collaboration. The feeling of bouncing ideas off exponential  collaborators and working towards a shared North Star is addictive; all  I can think about is how much I want to do this for the rest of my  life.

And that is exactly what I intend to do.

I  will be graduating from my BFA program at RISD in under a week, and my  current plan is to travel to the West Coast in search of exponential  collaborators and cybernetic thinkers who are also passionate about  exploring this domaine. And if I can’t find a team, I intend on building  one.

There  are so many questions I still need to answer, so many ambiguities I  need to explore, and so many loopholes I need to reexamine. Universal undo/redo is so needed, yet strangely absent in almost all operating systems today (Shake to undo is not a viable replacement).

And neither is my shameless rip off of Raskin’s Canon Cat keyboard.

And what about screens as a whole? Is the future of computation really just sliding fingers around slabs of glass?

Instead  of trying to resist the crushing gravity of curiosity, I am choosing to  commit myself to a life time of cybernetic thinking, question-asking,  and trouble-making. Hopefully, I won’t be alone.

So, what’s next? I have no clue.

All I know is that I must keep going.

Your’s truly,

Jason Yuan

Humane Interface Designer and Advocate

Creator of Mercury OS

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Acknowledgements

Mercury  would not have been possible without the generous feedback and  encouragement from my wonderful peers, mentors, and friends.

My  most heartfelt thank you’s to Danny Trinh, Phill Ryu, Thomas Buffet,  Mark Laughlin, Dandan Luo, Katie McIntyre, Jonathan Lee, Bob Burrough,  Ed Kim, Marc Reisen, Ja Yoon Lee, Advait Kalakkad, Evan Rodgers, Gabby  Widjaja, Cameron Burgess, Sharon Wei, Laurent Del Rey, Newar Choukeir,  Victoria Wang, Aiden Fisher, Alex Schneidman, Devin Fan, Mac Wang, Eliza  Chen, Sumaia Masoom, Theia Flynn, James Goggin, Sofia Soto, Evelyn Ma,  Jennifer Joung, Vivian Wang, Lucas Ochoa, Kristina Selinski, SueSan  Chen, and Gray Crawford.

Special thanks to:
Marisa Lu for bringing brilliance to the darkest tunnels of this journey,
Jodi Leo for keeping me afloat and for making the world feel less alone,
Paul Soulellis for your guidance and unwavering faith,
Lindsey Weiss for your profound insights and for siblinghood,
Kris Sowersby for trusting me with bringing your characters to life.
Pam Daniels and Brandon Williams for introducing me to the world of design,
David Catlin and TBD for the gift of storytelling and the strength to speak up,

And to Dennis Jin for being the epitome of an exponential collaborator.
For  helping shoulder the weight of Mercury, for your technical expertise,  and for all the hours you poured into this. Truly incredible.

And thank you, dear reader, for participating in this conversation and for making it this far. Thank you for your curiosity.

Source : https://uxdesign.cc/introducing-mercury-os-f4de45a04289