Black and White Program

Alan Kay’s Viewpoints

February 14th, 2008 by John Eastman

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What Kay is working on now
Looking at the extensive writings and discussions of Alan Kay — known for lengthy discourse — and the direction of work at Viewpoints Research Institute gives an indication of why the current work is so important. Primary research covers four areas.

“Of various ways of coming up with new ideas, I think the weakest is brainstorming, to take what you’ve got and try to wedge it together into something, paint it and sell it. Of course you can get a product out of that: Take all the obnoxious things in a 12-year-old’s room and glue them together and you get a boom box, which happens to be selling quite well. But most things done by brainstorming are like boom boxes.”


Alan Kay in Predicting The Future, Stanford Engineering, Vol. 1, No. 1, Autumn 1989

Teaching and Learning Powerful Ideas
VRI created Squeak Etoys, a tool for teaching and learning ideas. Squeak Etoys is a media-rich authoring environment that enables users to create multiple kinds of objects and simulations, 2-D and 3-D graphics, text, videos, sound, and MIDI included. It is designed to share desktops with other e-toy users in real-time so immersive mentoring and play can be done over the internet. An example on the VRI website displays how a student could draw an object, write scripts to move that object, think about speeds and objects in the real world, use a video camera to acquire details, measure and compare speeds via frames, write script to move a simulation, and finally find a constant that will match up the simulation with the real world. The media system and web plug-in enables “a wide range of presentation of the ideas to be made from active essays to immersive sessions that involve readers and co-creators”, all tools for teaching and learning ideas. While this environment is designed for primary school students, the concepts, ideas, and tools could be utilized for wider industry.

Powerful Ideas Content and How to Represent It
This area focuses on authoring, representing, and publishing content with rich media tools that could alter the way ideas are shared. Noting that blogging and Web 2.0 Wikipedia-types of media is a good start, VRI is working on ways to create, illustrate, and share content in dynamic and WSIWYG ways. Essentially, VRI wants to expand upon the hypertext link style and provide a rich dynamic media with images and formulas.

“When we think about the ways that mankind has extended itself over the years, at least for the purposes of this talk, I’d like to think about two major ways: one is through the notion of amplifying tools, something which amplifies our reach into the world. Many of these tools are extensions of the body, like the microscope and telescope; some of them are rhetorical tools. I think of them as better ways to manipulate things.”


Alan Kay in Predicting The Future, Stanford Engineering, Vol. 1, No. 1, Autumn 1989

One can imagine a new type of super interface editing-publishing tool designed for authoring, editing, and presenting content in methods of interactive text, image, sound, and video with the power of search behind it. Engaging other authors to present their viewpoint and/or collaborate, this tool could take advantage of browser technology already in the making.

User Interfaces That Aid Learning and Doing
With significant history in interface design, VRI had targeted a new type of user interface design with an emphasis on self-learning, enabling the computer to function as a mentor type interface. This was essentially a deliverable on the OLPC XO system where teachers in developing countries may need assistance with computer skills to educate their students and provides project making, model building, and learning.

The VRI website indicates an important element is that the user interface attempts to learn what kind of user is trying to use it, and that that “the range of human styles and motivations is considerable and taking advantage of them is critical.”

Although field tested before deployment in educational settings, it is imaginable, that this interface design will be expanded upon more as a growing list of users and teachers experience this design for the first time over the next few years providing more analysis data.

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