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Controller Freak

Chad Sapieha leads you deep into the world of games, covering gaming trends

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A chat with Microsoft Principal Researcher Bill Buxton, Part I Add to ...

I've interviewed a lot of people over the last 15 years, but perhaps no one as engaging as 61-year-old Bill Buxton.

You've likely never heard of him, but he has almost certainly had an impact on your life. A principal researcher with Microsoft Research who commutes from his home in Toronto to Redmond, Washington one week out of every month, he conceives and develops innovations in user interfaces. He played a chief role on the team that invented the multi-touch user interface. That was in 1984. He was also co-recipient of an Oscar for scientific and technical achievement in film in 2003. And he's currently lending a hand developing an exciting consumer technology that he predicts will begin its march toward ubiquity in just three short years (no spoilers here-you'll have to read on to discover what it is).

A conversation with Mr. Buxton is filled with fascinating digressions about the history of current technologies and how decades-old innovations can be the foundations of some of the most stimulating modern gadgets. The interview I had with him in July was arranged so that we could discuss Kinect, Microsoft's new controller-less interface for the Xbox 360, but that ended up being just one part of our lengthy and enlightening discussion. That's why I've decided to transcribe the bulk of the conversation. To do anything less would deprive readers of his captivating tales of technology.

What follows is the first of a three part series.

When I chat with creative people they often talk about ways in which their personal experiences affect their work. Does your personal life intersect with your professional life?

Absolutely. That's a really good observation that most people miss. And there's a reason that's the case. We're going through an accelerated transition right now in the quality of the user experience. It's no longer acceptable to just make a product that works. It's essential, but it's not sufficient. It has to feel good and not wear you down. And I don't understand how anyone can be a competent and experienced designer and make products that offer a great experience if they have limited experience in their personal life.

I try to milk everything I do in my life, almost as if it's a mission to collect experiences. Whether it's a canoe, ice climbing axes, a bicycle, anything, I always ask myself: Why do I love this? Why does it feel so good? What insights can I learn from it that I can apply to an e-book reader or a word processer? How does this affect what I do? How does it apply to products and devices?

Jimi Hendrix asked the right question when he said, "Are you experienced?" It was a different context, but it's the fundamental question.

I once read an interview with you in which you talked about a quarter-century old touch-screen watch that still fascinates you today.

I love technology but I also recognize what it's worth, which is nothing unless it's doing something useful. But you'll find that people, in the same way they collect experiences, also collect devices and objects that are just curious or interesting. They can't quite say why, but they surround themselves with these things.

So the watch you mentioned came out in 1984 and was made by Casio. It cost less than $100. Think about that. 1984 was the same year that the first Macintosh was released. And this watch had a touch screen on it. And that touch screen had a character recognizer built into it. It was a calculator watch, and you literally drew numbers using the full screen for each character. You'd write a "1" and a "2" and a "+" and a "3" to write 12 plus three. And then you just drew an equals sign and it would give the answer. It was fantastic.

A Casio TC-500 touch screen calculator watch made in 1984.

There's something called Moore's Law that says the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 months. Well that watch was more than 17 Moore's Laws ago. That means that more than 136,000 times the computing power is available today than there was for the chip the size of the one that was in that watch in 1984. It's phenomenal.

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