MS Researcher to Explore Human Side of Technology

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2005-12-19

MS Researcher to Explore Human Side of Technology

Microsoft Corp. Monday announced the hiring of Bill Buxton, a leading computer scientist and designer specializing in the human aspects of technology, to work with Microsoft Research and assist on various projects in the companys research labs around the world.

Buxton, who will hold the title of senior researcher at Microsoft, brings a pedigree that includes research efforts at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), SGI, Alias|Wavefront (now Alias Systems Corp.) and other academic and commercial pursuits.

Buxton, a Canadian, said he has spent the last 30 years studying and observing how people use technology. He said that while it has become easy to predict what the technology of the future will be, it is not easy to determine how people are going to use that technology.

Meanwhile, Buxton said the decision to join Microsoft "was an easy decision" for him.

"I said where can I go and have the biggest chance to take the ideas Ive spent 30 years on and make a difference?"

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And although he said he had other offers, he chose Microsoft for a few reasons. One was because he knew and had collaborated with key people in Microsofts research and product groups.

Another reason was that, "Microsoft is one of the few places I could go and use all of my own ideas," as many of the patents for technologies he helped create at Xerox PARC and SGI are cross-licensed by Microsoft, he said.

However, although he said he has interest in many areas and projects at Microsoft, "I dont want to commit to anything prematurely," Buxton said. Yet, he said his primary areas of interest include research into pen-based computing, technology for entertainment, technology targeting education and mobile technology.

"Im taking six months to get to know the company," he said. Indeed, Buxton will start a four-month residency in Microsofts Cambridge, England lab beginning next month.

One of the things hell be focusing on there is electronic whiteboarding, he said.

Buxton said one of the strengths he acquired at Xerox PARC "involved bridging between different parts of the company. For instance, pen-based computing is distributed throughout Microsoft. Perhaps I could add some glue here or there."

But, overall, "I am really, really interested and perplexed by the lack of general success in building new products in-house," Buxton said.

"A lot of growth is by way of acquisition. But the whole area of how you design products is what Im looking at," he added.

Moreover, Buxton said product development is dominated by engineering and not enough attention is focused on pre-production or design. He said he is an advocate of an "experiential" view of design.

"What we need to do is start changing the perspective so that what we design is the experience—not just whats in the box."

One of the personal interests for Buxton has been "looking at the role of sketching in the design process," he said. "How do you sketch experience," he said.

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Connecting Products

Asked what Microsoft products his ideas might impact most, Buxton said: "In some ways the thing that its going to have the most impact on is not so much any product per se, but how they work together—the social relationships between devices."

Then Buxton described a scenario where a user with a cell phone gets in his car and drives off with the stereo playing loudly. He receives a call and the cell phone communicates with the stereo to automatically turn down the music, engage a microphone on the cars visor and engage the cars speakers so the driver can carry on a call hands free.

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"Theres a degree of transparency and cooperation between the devices," he said. "My personal bias tends toward more simple devices that can talk to each other in simple ways."

At Xerox PARC, Buxton said he focused a lot on user interface work and the concept of enabling "collaborative work at a distance."

In addition, "Im famous for being the incredible genius who discovered people have two hands," as two-handed use of computing was not initially considered, he said. "Two-handed input still has yet to gain real traction."

Another effort Buxton said he is interested in pursuing further is "capturing the body language or "gestural" vocabulary of humans" to integrate that into technology people use.

Meanwhile, when he worked at chief scientist at Alias, Buxton said he helped build software to create special effects for movies such as "Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars."

"I spent a lot of time in Hollywood and did a lot of work on digital cinema," he said. He said the software they created took some control away from the director, but the effort in the end was to give it back and foster the creative process of the director through what Buxton referred to as "WYSIWYG [what you see is what you get] cinematography."

The Hollywood Reporter named Buxton one of the 10 most influential innovators in the North American film industry in 2001.

"I cut my teeth and learned most of what I know, not by being a computer scientist, but by being a musician," said Buxton, who holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario.

He went from there to study and teach at the Institute of Sonology, Utrecht, Holland, for two years. Then, after completing a M.Sc. in Computer Science on Computer Music at the University of Toronto, he joined the faculty as a lecturer.

Designing and using computer-based tools for music composition and performance is what led him into the area of human-computer interaction.

"I learned a lot about collaboration by designing electronic musical instruments."

Buxton said he likes to go "narrow and deep" in his research. "One of the things Ive found is working on the extremes enables you to gain insight so you can generalize."

Before joining Microsoft Research, Buxton was principal of his own Toronto-based design and consulting firm as well as chief scientist at Bruce Mau Design Inc. in Toronto.

He also is an associate professor in the department of computer science at the University of Toronto.

From 1994 through 2002, Buxton served as chief scientist of Alias|Wavefront (now Alias Systems Corp.) and, starting in 1995, of its parent company, SGI Inc.

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