Bill Buxton at CARS 2009

Courtesy of an invitation by Prof. Bernhard Preim and the CARS (Computer Assisted Radiology and Surgery) organization to give the Visualization and Virtual Reality in Medicine tutorial together with the good professor, I got to go to CARS 2009 in (you guessed it) Berlin.  It was an honour and a pleasure to present this tutorial together with the author of The Book currently defining my research field.

What was completely unexpected though, was being completely blown away by Bill Buxton’s keynote.


I have to admit that I was not aware of this distinguished gentleman or his credentials (amongst other things, xerox parc in its absolute heyday, later chief scientist of alias wavefront and of SGI, now principal scientist at Microsoft, and much more) before yesterday.  This dude shows up on stage, and in a totally relaxed and understated way, manages to blow my mind a number of times.

He started by casually telling us that he’d already been playing around with multi-touch displays (now all the rage in the UI world) in 1985, using it to design digital percussion instruments.  Then he demonstrated, with a number of examples, a significant number of which he had personally been involved with (the multi-touch just mentioned among others), his “20 year long nose” observation.  Innovations that eventually make it, take on average 20 years to get from the lab to main-stream, where main-stream is defined as being a billion dollar industry.  The mouse took even longer: 30 years.

Before getting to the next important and extremely provocative point, he showed us this video (I’ve made you a nice crappy mobile phone cam version):

(Peter Krekel managed to find the original Microsoft demo-reel on youtube and shared:)

His provocative statement was that screen real estate will essentially be free in 5 years, based on the rapid evolution of manufacturing technology, customer demand, and the trends in analogous examples, such as bandwidth.  If somebody had told you 10 years ago that internet bandwidth today, in 2009, would be essentially free and available in copious amounts, you would have spat out your morning coffee.  I know I would have… in ’99 we were still dealing with dial-up.  Coming from Bill Buxton, and also based on all his examples, this made me sit up straight and think.  We’re going to have really big screens.  Think metres by metres at a resolution of at least 100 DPI.  Think walls covered with screens, because it’s cheaper than putting up a whiteboard.  We have to rethink everything that we know about interfacing with the digital world…

Another tantalising prediction (and I’ve heard this from more people than Buxton) is that soon mobile phones will have as standard equipment a micro laser projector.  This will allow us to project on arbitrary curved surfaces (it’s coherent light, so always in focus!) when we want to show something to anyone else and, even cooler, it will allow us to perform 3D colour scans of anything we see.  At this stage I had the distinct feeling of my hair being blown back.  I’m going to be living inside Star Trek!

There was much more (including personal devices that are more aware of their context: think cell phone automatically speaking to television and computer as you enter a room), but I’d like to conclude this post with one of his more profound lessons: Innovation is hardly ever about coming up with something completely new.  That sometimes does happen, but is a fluke.  Real innovation is about taking one of the dimensions defining an existing technology (size, speed, price, resolution, simplicity, intelligence, and many more subtle dimensions) and expanding that dimension by at least an order of magnitude.  Doing this in fact yields a completely new technology.  The really clever people have learned how to identify the more subtle dimensions and expand them.

I’m going to think about that for a while. :)