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

Specialized Technologies

MK: Not convergent, but divergent, decentralized, with only the input-output devices close at hand--in different forms according to various different uses. This thinking comes as a natural extension of ecological design. How, then, does your idea of "ubiquitous computing" express itself in terminal device design?

WB: The basic idea is to make computers reflect the way people work. So if I make something for an artist, I'll make something that looks like a desk, a drawing surface. If I'm a teacher in a classroom, my computer should look like a blackboard. Or, in your house you have a refrigerator and there are probably magnets on it for holding pieces of paper. On my refrigerator I have pictures of my children, my horse, a calendar with my family, messages from my wife, pictures that my children drew, all these things. What's interesting is that what's on my refrigerator is actually a homepage. I only need to put something on the front of the fridge and it goes into the computer. So imagine your refrigerator where you take a picture, you take a pen and write a message, everyone living in the house has a little index. You can also check email, your voice mail, your faxes, all right there on the fridge. Now imagine I'm in traffic and I transmit a message "I'll be late" to my refrigerator, my wife will see the message when she comes in, across the front of the refrigerator because that's where we leave messages.

For telepresence and collaborative work, and collaborative living now, I want my refrigerator on the Internet before I want my computer on the Internet. For me the refrigerator is more important because that is the real information appliance in the household. It's also a good example of ecological design. Already the calendar is there, already it's in my family--the social structure uses that location. Why would I change that to put a computer in the kitchen? It makes no sense.

MK: So you're saying we should have specialized technologies to suit particular places and the activities in those places?

WB: Yes, technology knows what it's supposed to do. Now imagine you go to the grocery store and buy food for the week. You walk out of the grocery store with both hands full. The door of the grocery store knows it's not a bank. In a bank the door would be very secure, but the door in the grocery store knows the sociology of the grocery store: it knows you probably have both hands full and no free hand to open the door.

Then here's a very interesting situation. [takes out a digital camera] This is a computer; this is not a camera. This computer has light-in--instead of keyboard-in--and chemistry-out--as opposed to an LCD panel. The important thing with this computer is that it knows its function. It knows it's not a word processor, it's not a telephone, it's not a radio, it's not a spreadsheet, it's not an animation program; it is for taking pictures. Because of that it has a knowledge of light, exposure, focus and all this knowledge inside. And the power of the microprocessor inside is probably greater than an Apple II computer. And because of how it's designed it's very easy to use. So whether we're talking about computer design or video conferencing, I like to talk about this camera as an example. With, say, a Nikon F or a Hasselblad, it's like MS-DOS or UNIX--you can take any picture you can imagine with that camera, but the probability of the picture coming out well is very low unless you are an expert user. Now when I look at photography, there's only two basic questions that matter: what and when. They translate to two actions: point and click. That's all. I can change the focus and do other things, but they're second-level decisions that I'm not forced to make. So what used to be very complex is now very simple and the best thing is the probability that the photograph is a good one is very high, because this device knows its identity; it knows what it's for. It doesn't think it's a traditional camera. It's a hard drive where it can write from a CPU. And this CPU happens to have a different input channel.

This relates to "ubiquitous computing" and a change from just talking about ubiquitous computing to what I call "ubiquitous media." All of what's important in ubiquitous computing is also true in video conferencing. They all should work together. Now I have my telecommunications technology and my computational technology working together in specialized locations for specialized purposes. As with the camera, I put intelligence in for the intended task. The more I know about the purpose of the device, the more intelligence I can put in it and the less it has to do--it's narrow, but deep. There are so many tasks, each one different. That's the real benefit of divergence.

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