Feature: Telepresence: A Technology Transcending Time and Space
An Interview with William Buxton

Three Skill Levels

WB: We can look at how to do these things. I need to know what kind of social organization I want for the organization communicating. I need to understand things about them--how often, what artifacts and where they are in distance and where they are in time--so there's a sense of community. Communication is not the goal; communication is the means to community.

So what kind of community do we want? That's the framework for how I think about this intellectually. Then I approach such things through what I call "ecological design." Which maybe is not a common term. Ecological design, in my definition, is design that takes into account the physical, social, cognitive and psychological ecology of the people who will use the design.

The first notion when I look at design is the skills people worked very hard to get that gives them their identity and their pride. For example, I worked very hard to learn how to ski. It's a skill I have. When I buy skis, I expect the technology to respect the skill that I spent 30 years to develop. I studied music for many years: I was a professional musician. So when I get a saxophone, I expect the designer of the saxophone to respect all of those days I spent ten hours practicing, all of the techniques I developed. There must be respect; the tools must fit the skill.

Everything I've mentioned so far fits my motor skill, but actually there are three levels of skill in every human: you have motor-sensory skill (how your hands, your ears work); you have cognitive skill (how you think); and you have social skill. Every one of those skills is different: the motor skills of an athlete are different from the motor skills of an artist, which are different again from the motor skills of a musician. The cognitive skills of an accountant are different from the cognitive skills of a philosopher. If you design a technology to fit a cognitive mental model, then you can have a very successful product. For example, Lotus 1-2-3, or before that, VisiCalc: the reason spreadsheet software was successful is the technology respected skill and how people thought about accounting. It was designed to the right model, and it was immediately successful. Now we see the same thing : different societies, say, Japan compared to Canada. Even an animation company in Tokyo like Dream Pictures, which is making feature films using my company's software, has a very different social structure from Honda, which is designing automobiles also with our software. We must understand even those cultural differences.

When I look at any technology, I think about it as a mirror. The quality of the technology is in how well it reflects my skills. In fact, there are three mirrors : quality in reflecting my cognitive skill, quality in reflecting my motor-sensory skill, and quality in reflecting my social skill and behavior. Ecological design takes into account this notion of how design reflects the skill, but also the skill in the physical context: not just the person, but the person's location. The goal then becomes to provide the right function at the right time for the right person in the right form, in the right design. Since these factors will change, the technology for one person will be different than for another.

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