Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Mother of All Demos

Took some notes from the famous Doug Englebart demo.

As a Human Computer Interaction nerd, I feel the need to pay homage to history of the field. One glaring omission in my education is that I haven't fully watched "The Demo" where Douglas Englebart shows off the state of the art of "Man-Computer Interaction" circa 1968. The subject of the demo is NLS (Online system), which is intended as a synthesis of a bunch of ideas coming from SRI. It's quite impressive how far we've come, but also how many elements are still recognizable, and in some cases impressively ahead of their time.

The first ten minutes introduce a series of key concepts that are staples of desktop computing: the mouse and keyboard, mouse pointers, copy/paste, saving and loading files, numbered lists. Less mainstream, VI-like features are also introduced, such as reorderable, heirarchical lists, and folding sections. Much of what goes on under the hood in NLS reminded me of VIM script and other similar DSLs. Big focus on expert-oriented power usage.

The Demo heavily alludes to the web, with a lot of provisions for interlinking, cross referencing, and even an explicit mention of ARPA close to the end of the demo (Clip 33), which reminds the viewer that this is all pre-Intenet. In contrast, their (presumably telephone-based) video calling was quite impressive. The quality of the remote speaker seemed to be about as good (bad?) as Englebart's. Some collaborative features were quite impressive, with a real-time cursor sharing scheme which was decades ahead of its time. Others were less interesting, like leaving a message for other people in a file to "get a response within minutes".

Some time is spent showing off hardware. Most interestingly is the Keyset, which was a 5-key ancestor of the chorded keyboard, where each key combination (31 in total) led to a character, and was intended as a one handed keyboard. Also interesting as a point of comparison was the cutting edge display tech of the time: black and white CRTs with 15 Hz refresh rates and super high (3 frame) persistence.

The philosophy of the lab behind MOAD was close to my heart, and lives on in R&D groups I've had the pleasure of being part of:

  • Build and try: big focus on prototyping!
  • Evolutionary: make incremental improvements to a real system, not grand visions.
  • Eat your own dogfood: use the thing you build, and test it on yourself.