By NPR Staff
In 1975, when then-composer and performer Bill Buxton started designing his own digital musical instruments, he had no way of knowing he was helping to spark the next technological revolution. But nine years — and a master’s in computer science — later, that all changed.
“I wasn’t trying to make a computer interface, I was just trying to make a drum,” Buxton tells NPR’s Robert Siegel. “Did I envision what was going to happen today, that it would be in everybody’s pocket — in their smartphone? Absolutely not. Did we realize that things were going to be different, that you could do things that we never imagined? … Absolutely.”
Today, Buxton is known as a pioneer in human-computer interaction, a field of computer science that has seen a spike in consumer demand thanks to a new, seemingly ubiquitous technology: Touch.
According to the technology, media and telecommunications company IHS iSuppli, global shipments of touch-screen cellphones and tablets have gone from 244 million units to 630 million units in just two years. This year, iPad sales nearly quadrupled compared to 2010.
But if you ask Bill Buxton, the touch explosion has been long in the making. It’s part of a theory he calls The Long Nose of Innovation and it says that much of the innovation behind any technological breakthrough actually takes place over a long period of time.
Buxton became part of the long nose of touch technology when, in 1977, he signed up to study computer science at the University of Toronto. Today, Buxton is principal researcher at Microsoft Research, but he says the fact that he started out as a musician and not a technology insider has been invaluable to his work in computer science.
“It’s just your imagination that’s driving it and you’re not trying to be so deliberate,” he says. “That usually just makes you get uptight, constrained and it’s far better just to find something you love doing, chase it down and the rest will just fall out.”
Sci-Fi: Boldly Going Where No Science Has Gone Before
To many, the tablet computer seems new. But NPR’s Laura Sydell reports that the idea for a flat, personal computer shaped like a book has actually been around for a long time. Just think of Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey in which space travelers follow news on Earth via a “Newspad” that downloads the world’s major electronic papers.
Clarke’s newspads also show up in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film by the same name, where the fictional devices look so much like an iPad that today Samsung says it proves their Galaxy Tab isn’t a rip off of Apple’s iPad. They’ve even included a link to a YouTube clip from the film in their court documents.
Even before Space Odyssey, tablet computers had already appeared in 1966 on the original Star Trek. The first iteration was called an electronic clipboard and was used to control the ship. Around 1989, it was redesigned to ultimately do a lot of the same things iPads do today; the show’s characters used it to read books, look at reports and send messages.
Usability expert Kevin Fox says he’s not surprised science fiction writers came up with the tablet before science did.
“I think science fiction is the brainstorming part of science,” Fox says. “Look at Jules Verne for example. He’s talking about going to the moon; he’s talking about submarines, that sort of thing. It’s a lot easier to do that than it is to hold your tongue … until you’ve actually made a rocket that can go to the moon.”
How iPads Are Changing The Classroom
Now that the iPad does exist, people are finding a lot of practical applications for it. Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington County, Va., has a growing cache of iPads, about 100 for 600 students. The school uses its tablets for everything from writing to math to reading graphic novels. Continue reading