Will innovation come from hardware or new applications?

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In his "Being Digital," Nicholas Negroponte wrote that "although the rate of
change is faster than ever, innovation is paced less by scientific
breakthroughs like the transistor or the microprocessor, and more by new
applications." First, do you agree? Second, can you indicate areas were you
expect the most noticeble innovations to take place in next couple of years.

-- Claudio Gatti, December 22, 1996


I haven't read Being Digital but I'd have to disagree with this quote. All of the applications that are thrilling users in 1996 were around in the 1960s. Ivan Sutherland spent the late 1960s developing a working virtual reality system in a lab at MIT. He placed an array of sensors in the ceiling to track the user's head postion and attitude. With a head-mounted display and real-time information about the user's position, Sutherland was able to place synthetic chairs in the room. [He joked that the ultimate computer display would let the user sit down in the chair.]

Douglas Engelbart demonstrated a system for collaboration to a room full of 2000 people in San Francisco. He had a little inset video image of his colleague, an audio hookup, a keyboard, and a mouse. Though separated by 50 kilometers, the two men could see and hear each other while typing together to collaboratively create a document or alternating mouse strokes to create a drawing. They built a little hypertext document while chatting with each other and the audience. It was 1968.

Researchers at Stanford could watch television on their computer screens while waiting for programs to compile.

Why do these applications seem new? Because consumer-priced hardware to support them is new. And for that, we can thank "scientific breakthroughs like the transistor or the microprocessor."

-- Philip Greenspun, December 22, 1996