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Controller Freak

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

Entry archive:

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

If you have these curious devices and objects sitting around you, connections start to appear. You say to yourself, we've got all these mobile phones with people tweeting and SMSing, and in every case you basically have to stare down at the phone to work the touch keyboard because they have a picture of a QWERTY keyboard on the screen. This kind of touch typing is completely demanding of your visual field. You can't look at the person you're talking to. And it's unnecessary, because with this watch you can enter numbers and letters with your eyes free. I can be looking at you in the eye when I tweet or write down your phone number.

I find that stuff fascinating. The seeds for the great innovations of tomorrow have been lying in this watch for 26 years. We're making slates and MP3 players and mobile phones with touch, and we're so proud of ourselves and think we're so clever, and we've bought them. It's humbling to see that this watch was available for under $100 26 years ago.

It's even more humbling when you realize that nobody in my profession even knows about it. It's out of stuff like this that one can reap huge rewards. You don't need to invent anything, you just have to do traditional research where you look at history and then compliment that with scientific research where you're trying to do something new. That can lead to a lot in the business and technology sectors these days.

Is it a case of technology development moving so fast that people can't come up with useful functions for it?

There are probably cases of that, but I don't think it's the case in general. Take what's been going on with mobile phones as an example. We get excited about touch interfaces because it's the one thing people haven't experienced. So it somehow becomes the defining characteristic whereby we describe and talk about the device. But it's almost never the case that a single technology is the sole reason a product takes off. There's almost always a larger ecosystem and set of circumstances that makes it so.

I'll give you an example. The world's first smartphone-a phone that not only let you make a phone call but also let you have your calculator and email and take notes and so on and so forth-was very, very cool. It only had two buttons and the whole front of the phone was just a great big touch screen. The interface came up in graphics. If you wanted to enter text a graphical keyboard came up, and if you wanted to go to your address book you just touched the icon for that. Can you tell me the name of this phone?

It sounds a lot like an iPhone.

It sure does. It came out in 1993 and it was called the Simon. It was built by IBM. I actually own two of them. And what's interesting is this: Why has nobody heard of it? Why did it fail when the fundamental concepts were revolutionary. You could say because it didn't have a web browser in it, but the web didn't exist in 1993. In fact that makes it all the more stunning that the Simon actually existed.

But I can tell you that the folks at Apple absolutely knew about it. The designer of the iPhone, Jonathan Ive, also designed the Newton, which was around the same time as the Simon, and he absolutely new about that stuff.

An Apple MessagePad running Newton pictured next to IBM's Simon.

But it wasn't just the touch interface. You needed other things to happen. The price of the technology had to go down. The size was too big. The Internet had to happen. It didn't have fast digital networks to support the communication features. Everything was there, but it wasn't at the right price point or performance level or the right size or in the right combination to suddenly get it right and then take off.

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