January 17, 2010

Those who can't, kibitz

I had a great time Saturday working with the guys from the Phenix Design Group, who provided driving and flight simulators for Otronicon.

You may recall that last year I wrote about my pretty dismal flight record. So I found it amusing when Lynn, an Orlando Science Center staff member, asked me to work at the Cessna Skyhawk flight simulator.

She asked whether I minded doing something kind of technical. Then she laughed and said, "Well, it's all technology, so I guess you wouldn't be here if you did mind it." Which is true.

Lynn introduced me to Ron, of the Phenix Design Group, who asked whether I'm familiar with flight simulators.

"Yes," I said, "I've crashed several of them."

He was fine with that, and proceeded to show me how the HotSeat Flight Sim works. A few menus and key commands later, and I was running the show.

The HotSeat is a lightweight bucket seat mounted, as one guest discovered by laying on the floor and looking underneath, on "big gimbals." (Yes, that's the kind of guest we get at the science center, and we like it that way. Actually, I saw two people do this.) As you steer left or right, up or down, the chair tilts accordingly. The simulation is driven by a PC, with the video displayed on a large LCD TV.

Usually I gave the guests a quick overview of the controls--which button or lever does what--but only the ones they needed. So several buttons, levers and pedals went unused. To keep things simple and the line moving, Ron was running a limited simulation of an approach and landing at Orlando International Airport.

So yeah, there's me, telling other people how to land a plane.

After I'd been doing this for an hour and a half or so, I noticed that some guests would only touch the buttons I pointed out to them, while others would, at some point in their roughly two-minute approach, push every button and flip every switch to see what each one would do. I also noticed that there was a greater proportion of young people (which is to say, people younger than me) in the latter group, and a greater proportion of people older than me in the former.

First I must point out that my OSC sample is disproportionately skewed to the youth. Nevertheless, this observation is in line with one I've made at the office, where people younger than me, when trying to accomplish something new with a computer, usually start clicking through menus and dialog boxes until they get what they need. People older than me usually call me for help. It's as if they're afraid they'll break it if they push the wrong button. Although there are times, in a production environment, when a computer error could bungle things up rather badly, generally speaking, clicking the wrong button isn't a disaster.

So I began wondering whether this willingness to experiment with the controls at hand is more prevalent in those who've grown up with high-tech gadgetry. Familiarity breeding confidence. I asked my teenager, and he concurs. Young people use trial-and-error, he says, because it's often the faster way to learn something than reading the manuals.

Perhaps the techno-timid of all ages should spend more time in environments like the science center, where trial-and-error learning can be practiced without danger to life, limb, or data.

And for the record, after my volunteer shift was over and I was able to try the HotSeat for my self, I had a lovely approach but pranged on touchdown.

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