Knowledge Navigator -- 12/05/07

Five in a row!
One of the areas that is of great interest and fascination for me -- both intellectually and professionally -- is the whole area of the human-computer interface. How do we communicate with computers and how do computers communicate with us? (Oh good lord, two computer geek entries in a row!)

Long-time readers may recall me mentioning that many years ago, Nancy and I collaborated on our graduation project for our master's degrees in systems science, producing a joint thesis: Human Factors Engineering and the Design of Online Computer Application Systems. That occupied our time during the fall '82 and spring '83 semesters -- plus taking an other course both of those semesters -- and I was working full time as a programmer/analyst at the university -- and Nancy was working a 32 hour week as a software engineer at Link Flight Simulation -- and (the reason for Nancy's 32 hour week) having a new baby (Jill reached her first birthday about a month after we submitted our completed thesis). Anyway, I present that information just to indicate the longevity of my interest in that area.

About four years later, John Sculley wrote a book called Odyssey. He described how he went from being CEO of Pepsi to CEO of Apple, but mostly the book is about a concept called the Knowledge Navigator, the use of software agents to access a vast store of hyper-linked data. Apple produced some short videos about this, showing how people might interface with the Knowledge Navigator. The first of these -- and the one that created the greatest stir -- was called "Knowledge Navigator."

The setting is the study of a college professor. The furnishings are traditional rather than modern; the room is certainly not in the least bit futuristic. The scene opens with a view of a large wood desk, the camera slowly panning past photographs in gilt frames and other such desktop decorations as chamber music plays, adding to the carefully evoked aura of the old PBS Masterpiece Theatre opening. One almost expects to see the camera pan to a smiling Alistair Cooke. A longer shot shows that the room has a very high ceiling with a railinged second floor hallway and an arched opening to a bookshelves in a library alcove. The pallet is deep and rich – wood tones, artwork on the yellow cream walls, sunlight from a side window (a twelve-light double-hung window that might be found in the home of some prosperous 19th century New England merchant) contrasting with the room's deep shadows, dark wood furniture, dark green leafed houseplants.

The room's owner enters, removes his sports jacket and drapes it on the office chair, and flips open a notebook that is lying on the desk. The open notebook lights up and we realize that the open notebook is a computer screen, complete with the image (designed to look almost like a photograph that has been place in the upper left corner) of the avatar of the computer, a youngish man wearing a bowtie. The computer speaks, telling him about the messages he has received since the last time he had used the computer. He interrupts the computer when it gets to the third message, one from his mother about a surprise birthday party for his father. The computer goes on to tell him about his schedule for the day. The third item is a lecture that he has to present later that day.

He calls up the notes from last year's lecture, glances at the computer screen, and decides that he needs more updated information. He asks the computer to find more recent journal articles. The computer tells him that his friend Jill has published a relevant article. He asks the computer to contact her, but she is not available. They continue their joint research in a conversational mode.

Then the computer alerts him that Jill is returning his call. Her image is added to the desktop – apparently videophones have finally caught on – and they have a friendly conversation about her research and he invites her to make a few comments (“on the big screen”) during his afternoon lecture. She asks what time and he hesitates and the computer helpfully interjects “4:15.” They discuss some “what-if” scenarios for Amazon logging – he manipulates the graphics on the screen by touching the image – and she can apparently see the results on her computer. After wrapping up their conversation he instructs the computer to print the material and he goes off to lunch, leaving the computer avatar to field another call from his mother.

The video was set in the year 2010.

You could say that we're not there yet in terms of being able to hold conversations with our machines but you could counter that we're also not there in terms of still having three years of development time left.

And there are those who would say that voice commands are not the best way to control the interaction with the computer. (Count me as being partly in that camp. I can see voice commands as being useful in certain circumstances, but not in the way they were being used in the video.) There are definite places for voice command -- such as hands-free phone use as when driving a car, or voice commands for situations where your hands are not free, such as operating machinery in a factory or on a loading dock, etc. I don't see it as being as useful when doing data searches where it would be much faster to get tabular displays of options, initial results, etc. and using a pointing device (a mouse-controlled cursor or even a finger on the screen) to make selections and initiate modified searches. (There are some interesting developments in this area that I won't talk about here because this is already getting too long, but maybe later this week...)

Check it out for yourself: Knowledge Navigator. (It runs 5:45.)

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