Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Wednesday Wonder: Science Fiction Gets Real

We're as human beings the creatures that create
and we should make sure that our machines
aid us in that task and are built in that same image.
~ John Underkoffler

In the mid-1970s, I was editing on one of the first word processors available at the time. I had to save my work on huge portable disks that I hand-carried to others who performed next-steps. Some years later, when I moved on to a different company, a publisher not so hip as the organization that earlier had employed me, I had to use a non-self-correcting typewriter and carbon copy paper to write and rewrite my features and a pneumatic tube to send the copy from one floor to the next. We also used a delivery service to ferry, literally, our "final" copy to our printer; we had one chance to make changes to "blue lines", via red pen, and prayed when the copy went out the door that our hand-written changes would, one, be made and, two, be made accurately. We never knew until we saw the copy our customers received. 

After a few more years, the company finally got with it, introducing a computer system for editing that was obsolete when it hit the market. One point in its favor was that it did not require use of messy carbons, and deadlines became just a wee bit more flexible. Over the next two decades, the company tried, adopted, abandoned, tried again, and ultimately built its own proprietary software and applications that cut out the need for the many people we'd relied on over the years to help us get our work out the door. By the time I retired in 2007, I'd begun to think we'd reached a point where we the people were serving the machines, that we'd now come to what I've heard called since the "post human" age: science fiction made real.

Fortunately, there are still many people who believe that we need to pay attention to the human factors involved in designing and using computer interface technologies. One of  those people is John Underkoffler.

Science adviser and inventor John Underkoffler — he's the genius behind a point-and-touch data interface called g-speak — explores the fascinating possibilities of the "spatial operating environment", which, ever since the debut of  Minority Report with Tom Cruise, he's been seeking to move out of the realm of the possible and into the "real" world. 

In his TED talk below (second video), Underkoffler identifies some of the characteristics required of computers to aid us as "creatures that create" — ability to navigate in 3D, to be manipulable, to assist computation, and, in a world where "1:1 no longer cuts it", to be collaborative — and demonstrates what can be done with natural gestures and a glove and no keyboard, mouse, or command line. 

Although Underkoffler and his extraordinary company Oblong Industries, which he founded after spending 15 years with MIT's Media Laboratory, currently are building applications mostly for aerospace, bioinformatics, video editing, and the like, Underkoffler thinks that within five years we'll all be g-speaking, that is, using in real time at our places of work, in our living rooms, and even in our cars the space- and network-soluble computers he describes. 

Watching what Underkoffler and his team accomplish with computers and the applications they've devised (first video) is a thought-provoking show of where the human creative mind can take us. 

Be sure to find time to explore the site of Underkoffler's company, where he is chief scientist. Other videos are here.

g-speak overview 1828121108 from john underkoffler on Vimeo.


Anonymous said...

my first introduction to a word processor was the "star" from xerox. it made the writer's jobs easier for the product manuals, as well the writer's did simple drawings instead of the having an illustrator do the job. no need for the typesetter's job. this was around 1980. and it was true at that time that as soon as a system was purchased, it was out of date.
so that the groups that could wait it out a bit, were actually ahead of the game.

katdish said...

It's amazing how far technology has come in just the past few years. My kids have never heard music played on a record player or typed on a typewriter. They think they can't watch tv if they lose the remote control. I took typing class in high school. My kids have been using computers since kindergarten. Exciting (and maybe just a tad scary) to wait and see what they come up with next.

Joyce Wycoff said...

Dontcha just love these time warps? My first summer job I had to type on mimeograph paper ... to make corrections you had to scrape the ink off the back, put a scrap of inked paper in the right place and type over. The front wound up looking like Chinese but the pale purplish copies would be "right." What "fun" the kids today have missed. Thanks for the memories and the TedTalk.