Co.Design

Optical Illusion: Make Your Computer's Download Progress Bar Dilate Time

progress bar
I just added a software upgrade to my Mac, and for the Nth time was suckered into one of my reluctant pastimes: staring at that progress bar. Yet it turns out that with a trick or two, that icon can make time seem like its flying.

We've got Chris Harrison, a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University and an expert in human-computer interaction, to thank for this little gem: According to Chris, with the slightest bunch of graphical tweaks, a download progress bar can be made to seem like it's moving 10% faster than it actually is. It's like a little optical timewarp, right on your desktop.

Chris set up an experiment with different designed download bars, each with slightly varied graphics but each lasting precisely five seconds. He then got volunteers to ogle the differing displays and indicate which ones they thought were shorted—in other words, he got them to reveal which display best cheated their brain's vision and temporal centers into thinking it was actually proceeding faster through time than it really took.

Jumping off some previous research that suggests rhythmic effects can distort a viewers perception of time, Harrison's team tried animating the progress bars differently: Some had plain color, others pulsated and swapped between pale and dark blue regularly, others had pulsating bands that sped either to the left or to the right.

The conclusions are clear: Pulsating bars that speed up as the "progress" nears completion fooled the viewers into thinking it was taking less time. A significant proportion of volunteers then indicated that left-moving undulations were much more effective at "time dilation" than right-moving ones.

If this all sounds a little familiar, it's because Apple uses pulsating bars that move to the left as its iconic Mac OSX progress bar graphic. However, Apple's pulsations move at a constant rate—and the UI team at Cupertino may want to reconsider this when they refresh OS X into its next version: Harrison's research suggested that this appeared slower to viewers than the animation in which left-crawling ripples slowed down as the "download" neared its end.

Is this a silly little story for your consumption on a Friday afternoon? Yes. But there's actually some important stuff going on here: Research like this really can push forward individual bits of the machinery that connects us human users to our powerful computers. The benefits of a tweak like this could be improved user satisfaction, and improved user-buy in to the way a UI works—exactly the sort of thing Apple loves to know.

To keep up with this news at whatever speed you choose to read at, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. That QR code on the left will take you to my Twitter feed too.

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