2010 November : Ron Riesenbach's Blog

Old and Improved

Filed Under Tech

This week, I had an interesting exchange of emails with colleagues from the old days . We worked together on the Ontario Telepresence Project, a multi-disciplinary, multi-year, multi-million dollar research project in the area of Computer Supported Collaborative Work. The 3-year project pioneered the use of videoconferencing in group settings and explored the intersections of sociology and technology before way before it was fashionable to do so.

Gale Moore, who was a among the lead researchers on the project, started the conversation thread. She drew our attention to an article she just read about a ‘new’ group awareness system called myUnity.


MyUnity – dressed-up in all it’s newness

MyUnity is an awareness tool which presents you with an automatically updating visual contact list. It displays your buddy’s availability based on multiple sources of information about her. For example, it draws on the location of her cell phone and comparative snap-shots from her webcam.  From this (and other cues) it determines if your buddy is in and/or available. Pretty Cool.

Cool indeed.  However, it turns out that this idea has been around for quite a while. As a matter of fact, in 1997 a colleague and I built a product that did pretty much the same thing called Prorata.


ProRata circa 1997 – Ahhh, I was so handsome back then

Prorata grabbed a grainy, low-resolution, black & white snapshot from your buddy’s webcam about once in 15-seconds. It gathered a few of these together and displayed them in a kind of buddy-grid so that you could see roughly who was in, who was out and who was busy. We purposely didn’t grab real-time, high-res, colour images because we didn’t want this to be surveillance, but rather awareness. The social analogy was to make it like looking down a hallway and seeing someone seated at their desk. You see just enough to know their availability, nothing else.  We would know if the buddy was on the phone, sitting with a visitor, out of the office, etc.  Just like peeking into an office in real-life. And the best part is the you and your buddy’s didn’t have to explicitly set a flag to tell people your availability from moment to moment. We could infer this simply by glancing at the grid and seeing what you were doing. Chat and click-to-call features were also part of the application.

Now, Prorata was ahead of it’s time (a euphemism meaning I didn’t sell many copies). However, I like to think that it anticipated many of the group awareness/collaboration tools that followed.

It would be nice to say that this buddy-grid concept was my original idea, but it wasn’t. No — the concept was around and I ‘borrowed’ the idea from a tool called Postcards cooked up at the University of Toronto. Postcards also grabbed webcam images and displayed them on a grid. But it also took as one of it’s inputs the ‘door state’. Using the roller-ball mechanism of a regular PC mouse,  the researchers instrumented the hinges of our office doors so that the software could sense if our doors were open, ajar or closed.  These are important social signals and now we could use our doors as inputs to our PCs.  Nice!

Door Mouse

A rubber-band and a torn-apart PC mouse = door state sensor

However, the UofToronto’s Postcards application was itself based on still earlier work by Paul Dourish and Sara Bly called Portholes (see the Proceedings of the ACM CHI ’92 Conference pages 541-547). This tool also did the buddy-grid thing.

But wait — you guessed it, Portholes was itself based on even earlier work by Travers and Borning who presented on it at a 1991 ACM CHI conference on Human Factors in Software. I am sure the trail doesn’t end there…

Anyway,  as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Gale was bemused at the apparent novelty of the myUnity product. The implied question is: can a product really claim to be ‘new’ if it basically the same idea that was cooked up twenty years ago?

The answer is interesting.

Bill Buxton (who was our Principal Researcher on the project) responded to Gale’s email by pointing to a magazine article he wrote in which he ponders this particular innovation phenomenon.  In the article, he refers to the muti-decade incubation period for ideas as “The Long Nose of Innovation”. The nose being the stretched-out period of time before the adoption curve starts to take off.   Bill observes that it takes a very long time for a technological idea to spin and morph and grow into a mainstream product/service.  He points to a research study that traced the history of a set of core technologies in the CIT sector. The study found that it is not at all uncommon for a technology to take 20 or 30 years to mature from inception to a $ billion industry. Bill ends the thought-provoking article with this observation: “Any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old“.

So, the take away message for me from our email conversation is that the game of innovation is not just about invention. Truly new stuff is important, but it’s not the whole story. Innovation is also about how you bring forward technologies that may already be invented, but in need of interconnection and clever transformation.

The technologies for the next $ billion dollar marketplace are likely close at hand.