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Reaching For Engelbart's Vision of the Future

Carnegie Mellon Associate Professor Jason Hong

Doug Engelbart, a true computing visionary, passed away on July 2, 2013. Many of the obituaries have commented on how he helped invent the mouse, but Engelbart and his team at SRI did so much more, pioneering much of modern interactive computing. 

In 1968, even before Unix was first developed, before even the concept of personal computers were invented, Engelbart and his team did what many have called the Mother of all Demos. This demo was the first public showcase of ideas that defined the major contours of the computing landscape. 

I often show clips of this demo in my classes, and point out the number of new ideas that Engelbart and his team innovated. In just one demo, Engelbart introduced to the world the first implementation of hypertext, the first interactive text editor, the first video conferencing, the first multi-user interactive system, the first chorded keyboard (imagine using something like a piano to input text!), and of course, the mouse. The NLS system Engelbart demoed was also designed to minimize hand movements too, with one hand on the chorded keyboard and the other on the mouse, allowing for effective two-handed interaction.

You can check out videos of the 1968 demo on the Engelbart Collection web site maintained at Stanford. I also like Alan Kay's commentary on select clips of the demo, part of his lecture Doing with Images Makes Symbols. (Keep in mind that when watching these, you have to appreciate the work in the context that it was done and how it influenced the work of people who followed. Don't be like the high school students who criticize Romeo and Juliet for being cliched!)

It's worth pointing out that NLS was not easy to use. Some of this was due to suboptimal designs. For example, in a CHI 2011 talk, Larry Tesler pointed out NLS was took at least four separate and error-prone actions to copy and paste text. However, oftentimes, NLS reflected Engelbart's philosophy that we should design computers for proficiency and fluency, to allow information workers to achieve ever higher levels of performance. Using a particularly powerful example, Engelbart argued that while tricycles were good for initial ease of use, they would never allow riders to achieve their full potential (imagine the Tour de France on tricycles!). In contrast, learning to ride a bicycle is much harder, and comes with more bumps and bruises, but is ultimately more rewarding and effective. Thus, while ease of use is an important design consideration, one should not forget about designing systems for expertise and mastery.

However, all of this was just one part of Engelbart's overarching vision. The theme connecting his work was in what Engelbart called "augmenting human intellect." The kinds of problems and the scale of problems that humanity is facing are rapidly growing. Engelbart argued that to solve these bigger problems, we need better methods, language, artifacts, and training, before we get overwhelmed by sheer complexity. In his later years, Engelbart continued to push these ideas, talking about collective IQ, a measure for how well groups of people can respond to and solve problems.

We are all living in Engelbart's world. His vision, his ideas, and his drive will be missed.


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