Smart Book concept precedent: Mark Weiser at PARC (of course)

Kevin Kelly's prescient 1994 book Out of Control is online its entirety, searchable, linkable etc. This chapter covers the smart book concept as envisioned early on, naturally enough by one of the progenators of dataspace: Mark Weiser at Xerox Parc

The research labs of Xerox in Palo Alto, California (PARC), invented, but unfortunately never exploited, the signature elements of the first friendly Macintosh computers. Not to be burned twice, PARC intends to fully exploit yet another radical (and potentially profitable) concept brewing in their labs now. Mark Weiser, young and cheerful, is director of a Xerox initiative to view the office as a superorganism -- a networked being composed of many interlinked parts.

The glassy offices of PARC perch on a Bay Area hill overlooking Silicon Valley. When I visit Weiser he is wearing a loud yellow shirt flanked by red suspenders. He smiles constantly, as if inventing the future was a big joke and I'm in on it. I take the couch, an obligatory furnishing in hacker dens, even posh hacker dens like these at Xerox. Weiser is too animated to sit; he's waving his arms -- a marker in one hand -- in front of a huge white board that runs from the floor to the ceiling. This is complicated, his arms say, you are going to need to see it. The picture Weiser begins drawing on the white board looks like a diagram of a Roman army. Down at the bottom are one hundred small units. Above it are ten medium-size units. Perched at the top level is one large unit. The army that Weiser is drawing is a field of Room Organisms.

What I really want, Weiser is telling me, is an mob of tiny smart objects. One hundred small things throughout my office that have a uniform, dim awareness of each other, of themselves, and of me. My room becomes a supercolony of quasi-smart bits. What you want, he says, is every book on your shelf to have a chip embedded in it so that it keeps track of where it is in the room, when it was last open, and to what page. The chip might even have a dynamic copy of the book's index that will link itself to your computer database when you first bring the book into the room. The book now has a community presence. All information stored on a shelf as, say, books or videotapes are implanted with a cheap chip to communicate both where they are and what they are about.

In the ecological office stocked with swarmish things, the room will know where I am. If I'm not there, obviously it (they?) should turn the lights off. Weiser: "Instead of having a light switch in every room, everyone carries their own light switch with them. When they want the lights on, the smart switch in their pocket turns them on or dims them to a level you want, in the room you happen to be in. Rather than the room having a dimmer, you have a dimmer. Personal light control. Same with volume control. In an auditorium everyone has their personal volume control. The volume is often too loud or too low, so everyone sort of votes with their pocket devices. The sound settles at an average for those people."

In Weiser's vision of an intelligent office, ubiquitous smart things form a hierarchy. At bottom, an army of microorganisms act as a background sensory net for the room. They feed location and usage information directly to the upper levels. These frontline soldiers are cheap, disposable small fry attached to writing pads, booklets, and smart Post -- it notes. You buy them by the dozen-like pads of paper or RAM chips. They work best massed into a mob.

Next, about ten mid-size (slightly bigger than a bread box) displays, such as furniture and appliances interact more frequently and directly with the office holder. Linked into the superorganism of a smart room, my chair will recognize me when I sit in it, versus someone else. When I first plop down in the mornings, it will remember what I usually do in the A.M. It can then assist my routine, awakening appliances that need a warm-up, preparing the day's schedule.

Every room also has at least one electronic display that is a yard-wide or bigger -- a window, a painting, or a computer/TV screen. In Weiser's world of environmental computing, the big display in every room is the smartest nonhuman in the room. You talk to it, point over it, write on it and it understands. The big screen does movies, text, super graphics, whatever. It almost goes without saying that it is interconnected with all the other objects in the room, knows exactly what they are up to, and can represent them on its screen with some faithfulness. So I can interact with a book two ways: by handling the actual object or by handling its image on the screen.


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