HCI - Lecture 1.4 The Birth of HCI
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How did the field of human-computer interaction get started? One good place to begin our story is in July of 1945, when Vannevar Bush wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly, later reprinted in Life, called “As We May Think”. Today, technology has mostly augmented people’s physical abilities; Bush outlined a vision for information technologies that augmented people’s intellectual abilities. Who is this guy? What’s his deal? And what led to his pressing vision? Bush was vice-president and dean of engineering at MIT in the 1930’s, where, incidentally, he was Fred Terman’s advisor. Terman went on to become dean of engineering at Stanford and in the eyes of many the father of Silicon Valley. In 1939, Vannevar Bush moved to Washington. He’s a leading scientific policy maker He directs a lot of the government funding, and indeed creates and is instrumental in setting up large-scale university research. This administrative effort eventually leads to the creation of the National Science Foundation and ARPA, institutionalizing government-funded scientific research. The goal of this article, written in the final months of World War II, is to ask “What can government-funded scientists do to create a better world in peace time?” and his vision was a strongly human-centred one. Bush wrote of a future interactive desk; he calls the system “memex.” The idea is that all of the world’s information would be available on the knowledge worker’s desktop. Key to the memex idea was effective user interfaces for information storage and retrieval. Remember, this is 1945, so there aren’t yet practical digital computers — the first room-scale digital computers were just being built — and the idea was to use microfiche — high density film — to store everything! Even more impressive, Bush’s memex vision invents hypertext: he has this idea that people could author trails through this information store, save them for later use, and share them with others. But you’re not always at your desk, right? You want technology to come with you. And knowledge workers need to produce content as well as consume it. And the world isn’t just textual; it’s also visual. So Bush imagined that, in the future, you’d wear a camera, right in the centre of your head, like a third eye, and use it to capture stuff. And he worked out a design that made it as easy as possible to take pictures, so there’re no dials or settings to fiddle with. As with the memex desk, the details turned out differently; but the core vision was right on target. Today, for example, there are more than a billion camera phones that people carry with them. The programmable digital computers that soon follow, like the ENIACS on here, were a huge technological lead-forward. But, as you can see from the wires, the user interface left a lot to be desired. The idea of providing a more effective interface to computers has a long and storied history, beginning with Grace Hopper’s invention in the early 1950’s of the first compiler. What’s inspirational for me is that she conceptualized how improved tools could provide a much wider audience with access to computation. In the intervening years, good programming environments for the desktop and Web enabled legions of developers to create the content that helped put a PC on every desk. It’s a long path from Grace Hopper’s visionary work on the compiler to the graphical user interface.