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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.

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.

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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