How I Helped Invent the Touchscreen in 1979 at Xerox PARC

It has been thirty-three years since I was thrown head first and feet kicking from the comforts of Xerox’s design lab into the world of brilliant psychologists and programmers working at Xerox PARC on the first touch-screen interface. It was 1979 and I had been tasked with developing the user interface on a computer touch-screen that was 5” x 7” and 16” deep! Today, these dimensions are completely reversed on modern tablets, with a shallow depth and a large screen. We worked with Carroll Technologies to shoot LEDs across the screen in a grid pattern. When you broke the grid, it registered an X-Y location and that would be the switch. The challenge was to create buttons and information displays that would first engage, then lead consumers through decision trees that helped them explore available options, and finally, arrive at a finished solution. Fast forward to today and what seemed to be an obscure exploration in innovation at the time has become commonplace.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing — and couldn’t comprehend.
If only I known then what we know today: that Xerox was developing what would become the graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that touch most everyone on the planet in one form or another. The full ramifications of this pioneering work were lost to me when I was implementing Alan Kay’s visionary future. I was as close as you can get to the technology and clearly saw the benefits, but I didn’t foresee the technology’s current omnipresence and mastery by the likes of Apple. What's even stranger, Xerox’s GUI innovation was driven by their exploration of introducing desktop publishing nearly two decades before the practice really took off. Their effort to introduce desktop publishing at an impressively high level proved too expensive, and well ahead of the market and people’s ability to adopt and adapt to new technologies. Although they had successfully connected scanners to computers, keyboards, fax machines, and the Ethernet, this was in 1979 at a time when few had ever seen a computer, and when Steve Jobs was walking through Xerox PARC looking for new discoveries. I truly couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and at the same time, I couldn’t fully comprehend how significant these devices would later prove in our daily lives. Xerox was so far ahead of the market that they disconnected from it, even when they were keenly aware of what the future held. Imagine in 1979 being able to take a picture, size it, add in captions in your chosen typeface, and then print it out using a laser printer or fax it or e-mail it. Today, we all get it, but then, precious few did. However, it was very interesting to witness the development of the touch screen and working on the interface taught me a life-long lesson: Timing and psychology convince the public to embrace your innovations.
Timing and psychology convince the public to embrace your innovations.
While organizing information graphically for these more complex control panels, I also discovered a life-long fascination with psychology after we encountered the consumers’ resistance to touching the screens. Many research subjects recalled maternal admonishment about sitting too close to or touching their home TVs. That was a lesson that has lasted throughout my career—understanding and harnessing consumer demand first requires knowledge of consumer psychology and their aspirations in a cultural context. Again, Apple is the current master who understands this fundamental truth, which I find to be no surprise (nor their stock valuation). I am confident there are similar examples of great innovations (products, services, and experiences) existing today simply waiting for the market to catch up and appreciate these innovations’ benefits to users, upon which adoption and behavioral change ultimately will rest with the free market. This is increasingly done by very savvy consumers, even in “developing markets.” With today’s rapid pace, markets and users are embracing innovations more quickly. So I’m optimistic that a lot of hopeful and helpful solutions being developed globally will be introduced and quickly embraced. I know that our creative and intelligent workforce has innovative assets, the value of which even their inventors cannot fully recognize at the moment. I believe that is more often the case than not, which I find to be very reassuring on the topic of innovation today.

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