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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 ...

It's like multi-touch. We were doing that at the University of Toronto in my group in 1984. We published it and made it public in 1985. There have been several companies-two of them Canadian, by the way; one in Victoria and one in Vancouver-that were commercializing multi-touch technologies throughout the 1990s. But it wasn't until 2007 with the release of the iPhone and Microsoft Surface that most people heard about it.

People ask me: Bill, aren't you frustrated they took multi-touch and are getting all the credit? And I say no, not all. I'm frustrated that it took so long, but that's just the natural course of the evolution of technology. Multi-touch is not what has made these products accessible. It's one of the components, but there are all of these other things that have to be right.

For some reason I'm reminded of Microsoft's ill-fated Spot watch. What went wrong with that technology?

I haven't done a careful analysis.

In the 1980s there was this whole thing where we were going to bring interactive digital content into the living room through your TV set. There were three competing systems. One from France, one from England, and one from Canada. You put a set-top box in front of your TV. You know how there are those black bars on your TV if you adjust the vertical hold? On modern TVs you never see that, but on older TVs you did. There's unused bandwidth during those black bars where the pixels would normally be. So what they did was they interweaved digital signals into the broadcast that were decoded by this box. You could get information if you decoded these black bars.

It's still used. If you go to some hotel rooms and see an information channel, that's the technique. It lasted for a while because it was an easy way to get digital content into your TV. The PC eventually caught up and passed it. But there was this big wave in the 1980s, and Canada had the best technology in the world in that space. It just didn't quite have the balance right.

But if you think about Spot, it was doing the same thing on the side bands of the FM channel. It just added the data onto that band so you could pull it out over the existing broadcast signals. And it didn't just go to your watch. There are other products that I believe are still out there that have this type of technology integrated in them.

A Suunto Spot watch.

It was a really interesting project, especially from a technical perspective, but I think people are just getting the same data on their mobile phones now.

And one other thing happened: People don't wear watches anymore. This is staggering for me. It's a generational thing. I'm 61. Four years ago I was talking in a group about how phones were just going to disappear and we're all just going to have smart watches. There were a couple of 20-something people at my table and they said, Bill, you just don't understand. I said: What do you mean I don't understand? Who do you think I am? I understand. And they said, no, people don't wear watches. I said, what are you talking about? And then we found out that of the ten people at the table only two of us had watches. We were at this banquet and there were ten tables in total. I said, okay, we're going to do a study right now. We went out-and keep in mind these were propellerheads spanning generations-and on average there were only two-and-a-half or three people out of each table of ten who were wearing watches. It's a fun activity. Do it yourself. Just look around one day and see how many people in your office are wearing watches.

So people have just replaced their watches with mobile phones. Now, if you did a spectacular watch maybe you could change that…

Part two of my interview with Bill Buxton will come later this week.

Follow me on Twitter: @ chadsapieha

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