Back to the Past: Bill Buxton Shows Off 35 Years of Tech Devices
Microsoft Research's Bill Buxton has unboxed, unearthed, and organized his personal collection of interactive tech devices gathered over the last 35 years. The collection will be on display at an international interaction design conference this week and could end up as a display in a museum.
VANCOUVER, B.C. – May 9, 2011 – Bill Buxton had no intention of creating a museum-quality collection of technological devices. But over the course of 35 years, that's just what happened.
Buxton has accumulated hundreds of items that struck him as interesting, unusual or important to the evolution of interactive devices – watches, keyboards, mice, an electronic drum set, a 60-year-old transistor radio whose design inspired the iPod, a Nintendo Power Glove, several Etch-A-Sketches, and even the first so-called "smart" phone – controlled by a touch-screen - first shown in 1993, 14 years before smart phones exploded onto the scene.
"I'm just bad at throwing stuff out," joked Buxton last week, as the movers came by to transport his entire collection to Vancouver, British Columbia, for display at the 2011 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) this week.
"A lot of people, even people working in the field, have no idea these objects exist," said Buxton, a principal researcher for Microsoft Research. "Those of us in the Internet Age with the most access to search engines have the least knowledge about our past. We're so obsessed with the future that we only look forwards. I've been collecting specifically to counter that – to show how deep the roots go."
A leading expert in human-computer interactions, Buxton frequently teaches, speaks and writes on the subject of natural user interface, or NUI, in which technology incorporates more human-friendly means of "input" such as touch, face- and voice-recognition, and movement sensors.
"One of the great things about Bill is the way he shares his enthusiasm for design and technology with other people," said Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research. "It's infectious. It also reflects his enthusiasm for teaching. Bill has been one of the most influential people in the field of design and human-computer interaction for many years, and the collection is really representative of his love and dedication to the field which he's impacted so much."
Visitors to Vancouver this week can see Buxton's collection in person at CHI 2011, or anyone can explore it online in an extensive visual database from Microsoft Research.
The collection has something for everyone, Buxton said, whether they're design-minded, technology-minded, or neither. But technology for the sake of technology doesn't interest Buxton, even when it comes to his own collection.
"It's really cool stuff, and it gets people excited, but it's not the objects that are exciting, it's the stories that go with them – the experiences," Buxton said. "I'm less interested in the technology than the design, and the statement that these objects make when it comes to designing things for people."
Buxton has won a number of awards and honors for his work, which advocates innovation, design, and "the appropriate consideration of human values and culture in the conception, implementation, and use of new technology." What interests Buxton, a longtime advocate of human-centric design, is when good design allows technology to take a more subordinate role.
"It's not about interface design, it's about 'out of your face' design," Buxton has said. "How do I get the technology out of my face so I can focus on the stuff that's of interest to me – the material I'm reading, the film I'm viewing, the person I'm talking to, the problem I'm trying to solve and doing so in a way that brings unexpected delight."
One thing that delights Buxton comes from his large selection of input devices, such as keyboards, mice, and stylus pens. Though the mouse was invented in 1965, it wasn't widely used until 1995 with the release of Windows 95. The collection shows the evolution of even something as simple as the mouse – there are mice with one button, mice with 20 buttons, mice with a scroll wheel, and others with a touch pad, joystick or even telephone built in.
"I find it somehow really encouraging, when it comes to the capacity for human creativity, that there's that much we can do with a mouse. Think of what we can do with more complex systems," Buxton said.
Buxton also has an Etch-a-Sketch in his collection, which is a toy but is also similar to a well-known computer graphics terminal made by Tektronix called the 4014, which had two wheels to control the cursor just like the toy.
"I just love showing stuff like that," Buxton said.
A couple of Buxton's favorite objects come from his collection of touch devices: a watch with touch character recognition, and the IBM/Bell South Simon Smartphone from 1993.
The watch, from 1984, is a calculator. Buxton can use his finger to write "one plus one" on the screen, and the watch will give him the answer: two. "That cost less than $100 in 1984, and it already had touch. That chip today would have more than 130,000 times the computing power," Buxton said.
The phone had only two buttons: on/off, and volume. All of its other features – including a note pad, address book, email, fax, calendar and games – were accessed through a film touch sensor that covered the display. Users could enter text with a graphical keyboard or a stylus. The one thing that it didn't have was a Web browser. But as Buxton said, "I guess that we can forgive them that, since the Web didn't exist when they did this fantastic work."
The phone shows that "aspects of touch have clearly evolved, in terms of the awareness of it and its potential and how broadly it's used," Buxton said. "But the sophistication of how it's being used is evolving much more slowly than it could or should be, based on how long our history is with it."
Buxton's collection also houses a variety of miscellaneous objects that demonstrate "experience design." He has a "normal-looking" chessboard with a robot inside and self-moving pieces so you can play chess with it; or it can play chess with itself. He has a globe that is the spherical version of a graphics tablet, as well as a Magic Cap from the company General Magic, an operating system with a 3-D interface.
"When you're trying to design something new, chances are there's a reference object already out there in the world if you know where to look," Buxton said. "The historian and researcher in me would say even something that seems new in our consciousness is probably old. A view that is really important for me to fight, primarily in North America, is the myth of the inventor as the lone genius who just makes something out of nothing."
Just as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Hendrix borrowed from musician Muddy Waters, and William Shakespeare borrowed from playwright Christopher Marlow, it's the same with technology, Buxton said.
Along with his passion for design he is also an avid historian, outdoorsman, equestrian and musician – as one Seattle Times writer called him, a "Renaissance Man." Technology is not separate, and not so different, than other aspects of culture.
"I hope this collection will help people realize that we should treat technology with the same type of critical discourse that we bring to cinema, sculpture, painting, music and more," Buxton said. "I would hope that's one of the things that comes out of this is that people start to look at digital things as not separate from other things in their cultural environment."
Buxton's collection will be on display this week at CHI 2011 in Room 201 of the Vancouver Convention Centre. Public visiting hours are 5:20 p.m. to 8 p.m. each day, and entry is $10, which includes access to a video showcase, interactivity, and posters. Each item has a Microsoft Tag, and visitors can scan objects to find out more about them.