With knobs on

Reading Sutherland’s incredible 1963 Sketchpad thesis I was struck by the following passage:

We will issue specific commands with a set of push buttons, turn functions on and off with switches, indicate position information and point to existing drawing parts with the light pen, rotate and magnify picture parts by turning knobs, and observe the drawing on the display system.

Where are my knobs and buttons? Why is the great advance of recent decades in widely available physical human-computer interaction the click-wheel mouse?

Sutherland opens his thesis by observing:

Heretofore, most interaction between men and computers has been slowed down by the need to reduce all communication to written statements that can be typed; in the past, we have been writing letters to rather than conferring with our computers.

Isn’t it time the epistolary model of interaction evolved?1,2


1. Yes, I know this seems at odds with my admiration for CLIM.

2. Yes, I am being deliberately provocative – this is the web – but I can imagine zipping through a document accepting and rejecting edits with my PS2 control being a lot more productive (and fun) than the mouse+keyboard experience.

3 Responses to “With knobs on”

  1. Rob Myers says:

    I kept a dials box and a key matrix from an old SGI Iris I once owned. Someday I am going to get them talking to a more modern system…

  2. pa says:

    All the knobs and sliders and other interesting input devices are victims of the mass production of computers. When Sutherland did Sketchpad, he had to build the whole damn thing himself, so input was whatever he thought was best. The Xerox Alto had something like 1Kbit of address space entirely devoted to whatever interesting input devices (light pen, mouse, knobs, chordkeys, whatever) somebody wanted to build and write the microcode for.

    Same thing for personal computers up to (more or less) the Amiga. If you wanted to code it, the access was there.

    Now the access is much harder unless you can get a knob (like the Griffin) that puts out data in a form that a USB bus or a TCP connection can understand. and even then, the cost of everything else has fallen so much that customization seems prohibitive. Are you willing to spend the time coding the interface between your game controller and every piece of software you own?

    This may be changing again — the cost of smart knobs, sliders and buttons is probably already down to a few bucks. No all we need is a whizbang interface so that you could actually use them. I wonder what the type would look like in CLIM…

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