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Alias/Wavefront's Buxton Offers UC Look Into The Future

Date: July 2, 2002
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Photo by Dottie Stover
Archive: General News

E-mail? Bill Buxton has had the same address since 1975. The Internet? He's been dialing in from home since 1980. Video conferencing? He's had that ability available from his office since 1987.

As chief scientist for graphics software giant Alias/Wavefront, Inc., Buxton knows about anticipating the future. "The future is already here. It's just not uniformly distributed."

Bill Buxton, right, with UC Vice President and Chief Information Officer Fred Siff

Buxton visited the University of Cincinnati in June to deliver a message on challenges students will face in the working world. "Innovation," he says, "is about prospecting. It's not about invention. Everything that is going to affect you in your lifetime is already being invented. It's already present and visible. The question is: Do you notice it and do you know how to extract its impact?"

Much of his message focused on consideration of the user.

He believes new technical advances are mere gimmicks unless they meet this test: they must enhance the experience of the user without crossing the threshold of frustration that comes with complexity.

Buxton offered up his own mother as an example. While she likes to listen to music, he says she'll never be able to use a computer to do that because she can't understand about web browsers and plug-ins and all the other tools that are now a part of the process.

But, Buxton points out that she does like using a radio. And what is a radio really? A kind of a browser that covers a different spectrum - AM and FM signals instead of the web. Taken a step farther, she wouldn't understand bookmarks, but the buttons on her car radio make perfect sense to her, and really serve the same function.

"So I realize that since before I was born, my mother knew how to use both browsers and bookmarks," Buxton says. "Yet, despite all the great advances of technology and design, she can't use them (on computers) because nobody understands the skill set or those analogies, which are brought by some combination of industrial design, anthropology, electrical engineering and communications technologies."

Overcoming these kinds of problems is the greatest challenge now facing product designers.

"The only good computer is an invisible computer. Teaching design students to expect to get no credit and no recognition is important," Buxton argues. "If you get recognition, you've failed, because visible design is a failure of design. Things that integrate seamlessly into the ecology are successfully designed."

Or, as he went on to say, you don't want to buy the glass, you want to drink the wine.

The Holy Grail, as he sees it, is a flexible, adaptable system that meets the needs of the individual user.

"What is going to affect you, your children, your students and all of us in our work in the future is divergence, not convergence - specialized things, because we all have unique needs and unique locations. The right solution in the right form in the right place at the right time for the right cost for the right task, etc. It's about divergence. Convergence is in the plumbing, and you should only notice it when it's broken."

The future, he believes, will produce "smart" devices and systems capable of interacting among themselves - "devices (that are) purpose-filled and know their function." Which means Buxton's mother can probably look forward to a day when she enjoys her favorite music on the Internet after all.

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