Alan Kay and the Visionary DynaBook

Alan Kay, computer scientist and futurist, imagined technology coming together in what may be considered the modern-day notebook.  While working at Xeorox Parc, Alan imagined the DynaBook, an affordable personal computer that provided connectivity and interaction that would augment work and learning.  The concept was unprecedented in 1972 when he wrote, “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages – Alan Kays” which described modern laptops or slates.  The writing was inspired by technological trends at the time pulled together with a very inventive imagination.

“The size should be no larger than a  notebook; weight less than 4 lbs.; the visual display should be able to present at least 4000 printing quality characters with contrast ratios approaching that of a book, dynamic graphics of reasonable quality should be possible; there should be removable local file storage of at least one million characters (about 500 ordinary book pages) traded off against several hours of audio (voice/music) files.”

Years before the inception of the modern internet, Kay was already considering the power of connectivity:

“A combination of this “carry anywhere” device and a global information utility such as the ARPA network or two-way cable TV, will bring the libraries and schools (not to mention stores and billboards) of the world to the home.  One can imagine one of the first programs an owner will write is a filter to eliminate advertising!”

And even before the current market trends among music and movies, their vision had a voice:

“‘Books’ can now be ‘instantiated’ instead of bought or checked out.  One can imagine vending machines  which will allow perusal of information (ranging from encyclopedias to the latest adventures of wayward women), but will prevent file abstraction until the fee has been paid.  The ability to make copies easily and to “own” one’s information will probably not debilitate existing markets, just as easy xerography has enhanced publishing (rather than hurting it as some predicted), and as tapes have not damaged the LP record business but have provided a way to organize one’s own music.  Most people are not interested in acting as a source or bootlegger, rather, they like to permute and play with what they own.”

And Kay envisioned the virtual keyboard:

“Of course the keyboard should be as thin as possible. It may have no moving parts at all but be sensitive to pressure, feeding back a click through the loudspeaker when a successful press has taken place. Keyboards of this kind have been available for several years. Once one has gotten used to the idea of no moving parts, he is ready for the idea of no keyboard at all!
Suppose the display panel covers the full extent of the notebook surface. Any keyboard arrangement one might wish can then be displayed anywhere on the surface. Four strain gauges mounted under the corners of the panel will register the position of any touch to within 3/16″ which is close enough. The bottom portion of the display panel can be textured in various ways to permit touch typing. This arrangement allows the font in which one is typing to be shown on the keys, special characters can be windowed, and user identifiers can be selected with one touch.”

It is amazing how much of the technology we take for granted was the worthy vision of the future. The entire piece is worth of read.

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