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Kotler Marketing Management

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Nicolas Negroponte – Contributions to HCI and a Bid to “Save the World”

In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte addressed the World Economic Forum with a computing idea to “save the world”. (1) Less than three years later, the One Laptop Per Child initiative (OLPC) launched into distribution with unprecedented cooperation of the United Nations, corporate funders, and governments organizations. Though it is early to review the success of Negroponte’s OLPC initiative, it provides us with an opportunity to explore the implications for rethinking the roles and responsibilities of individual researchers as key ethical players in the equitable design and distribution of technology. With corporations seeking new consumers to distribute technology and bridge the rapidly shrinking digital divide, it’s valuable to ask these questions while there is still time for researchers to contribute their leadership, vision, historical perspective, and critical thinking to ethically inform and guide this process. This paper will review Negroponte’s contributions to HCI and explore linkages to historical figures of the field. In addition, this paper aims to critically review Negroponte’s influence as an advocate for universal usability and the OLPC project.

Architecture Machine Group
In 1967 Negroponte founded the Architecture Machine Group at MIT. Researchers in the group invented new concepts and developed new approaches to human-computer interaction. Inspired, in part, by Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad design interface, The Architecture Machine Group’s original focus was to create an architecture machine to help users design buildings without architects. Computer aided design programs, such as AutoCAD, that became widely utilized in the 1980s were influenced by the early work of Negroponte’s Architecture Machine Group and Charles Eastman’s work at Carnigie Melon. (2)

Though the Architecture Machine was never produced, the group’s work contributed to the concept of a spatial metaphor, multimodal inputs, and graphics for the user interface. In working on The Architecture Machine, the group created a spatial data management system called Dataland. Dataland inspired Bill Atkinson work as an interface designer for apple and was influential in apple’s formation of the desktop metaphor in Apple’s Lisa (and later Macintosh) computer. (3). The group made other significant contributions to the concept of graphic user interface including a hypermedia project, a conceptual precursor to Hypermedia/CD-Roms called the Aspen Movie Map, and the voice driven Put That There interface (developed with Richard Bolt).

Negroponte and others in the group were influenced by the HCI work of the 1960s. The idea of universal accessibility was central throughout the early research and development in computing and interface design. Alan Kay created the Smalltalk programming language and interface to make computing accessible to children and novice users at a time when computers were only available to an intellectual elite. Kay’s Dynabook concept was fundamental in the development of the modern laptop and Kay later became deeply involved with designing applications and interfaces for the OLPC. (4)

Seymour Papert’s Logo programming language was a fundamental advancement in the development of human computer interfaces. Papert’s Logo programming language was designed to be accessible and useful to children who had no prior experience with computing. Papert worked with Kay and other pioneers of HCI to harness the work of Piaget and other cognitive psychologists to form a constructivist theory of computing that was key in the development of the Apple Macitosh computers and a key influence of the OLPC project. Papert later became the Lego Professor of Learning Research at Negroponte’s lab and applied his constructivist theory of learning to develop Lego Mindstorms and development of the OLPC project. (4)

MIT Media Lab
In 1985 Negroponte expanded the Architecture Machine Group into the MIT Media Lab. During its first year the Media Lab worked with Papert to open “the school of the future” a multi-year high density computer project for low income students at The Hennigan Elmentary School in Boston. As director of the Media Lab, Negroponte continued to lead and develop new approaches to Human Computer Interaction and situated the Media Lab on the frontier of the digital revolution. The MIT media lab has become a well-funded research center that explored a wide range of new approaches to computing and now consists of more than 500 researchers and staff. Stuart Brand, in his book “The Media Lab”, credited the lab with developing the MPEG digital compression standard that is fundamental in encoding DVDs, Lego Mindstorm programmable bricks, and experimental projects such as wearable computing. (5)

In a 1984 talk at the TED conference, Negroponte highlights some of the founding principals and ideas of The Media Lab. In this important speech, Negroponte predicts a number of modern developments. Clearly disappointed with Apple’s new mouse as an input device, Negroponte describes the concept of multitouch displays and considers factors such as pressure sencitive displays, multi-finger inputs, and gestures. He considers multi-touch to be more than a luxury, but an opportunity for high-level input. Today with the Apple iPhone, Microsoft Surface, and a number of new multi-touch devices, consumers are just beginning to realize the value of multi-touch as an input medium. (6)

In describing the concept a “new kind of book” that “knows about itself”, Negroponte lays the foundation for the CD Rom. In doing so he describes books with text, pictures, and video and touches on concepts that will become fundamental in hyperlinking and the development of the internet. (6)

Negroponte goes on to outline some work with computers and children. He favors the idea of computers as a pedagogical medium for children over the idea of computers as a vehicle for teaching. Negroponte describes using computers with children as a “complete reversal of roles. The child is, if you will, the teacher, and the machine is the student.” Negroponte described Media Lab projects working with children learning programming in Pakistan, Columbia, and Senegal. (6) Later in this paper, we will discuss these pedagogical ideas as a founding principal of the OLPC project.

In 1995, Negroponte developed key ideas from this talk and his columns at Wired into “Being Digital”, an influential book in the field of HCI that provided a forward looking look at the digital revolution.

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