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How I Helped Invent the Touchscreen in 1979 at Xerox PARC

Ravi K. Sawhney helped invent the touch screen in 1979 and didn't realize that he was in the middle of a technological revolution.

It has been thirty-three years since I was thrown head first and feet kicking from the comforts of Xerox's design lab into the world of brilliant psychologists and programmers working at Xerox PARC on the first touch-screen interface.

It was 1979 and I had been tasked with developing the user interface on a computer touch-screen that was 5? x 7? and 16? deep! Today, these dimensions are completely reversed on modern tablets, with a shallow depth and a large screen. We worked with Carroll Technologies to shoot LEDs across the screen in a grid pattern. When you broke the grid, it registered an X-Y location and that would be the switch. The challenge was to create buttons and information displays that would first engage, then lead consumers through decision trees that helped them explore available options, and finally, arrive at a finished solution. Fast forward to today and what seemed to be an obscure exploration in innovation at the time has become commonplace.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing — and couldn't comprehend.

If only I known then what we know today: that Xerox was developing what would become the graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that touch most everyone on the planet in one form or another. The full ramifications of this pioneering work were lost to me when I was implementing Alan Kay's visionary future. I was as close as you can get to the technology and clearly saw the benefits, but I didn't foresee the technology's current omnipresence and mastery by the likes of Apple. What's even stranger, Xerox's GUI innovation was driven by their exploration of introducing desktop publishing nearly two decades before the practice really took off. Their effort to introduce desktop publishing at an impressively high level proved too expensive, and well ahead of the market and people's ability to adopt and adapt to new technologies.

Although they had successfully connected scanners to computers, keyboards, fax machines, and the Ethernet, this was in 1979 at a time when few had ever seen a computer, and when Steve Jobs was walking through Xerox PARC looking for new discoveries. I truly couldn't believe what I was seeing, and at the same time, I couldn't fully comprehend how significant these devices would later prove in our daily lives. Xerox was so far ahead of the market that they disconnected from it, even when they were keenly aware of what the future held.

Imagine in 1979 being able to take a picture, size it, add in captions in your chosen typeface, and then print it out using a laser printer or fax it or e-mail it. Today, we all get it, but then, precious few did. However, it was very interesting to witness the development of the touch screen and working on the interface taught me a life-long lesson: Timing and psychology convince the public to embrace your innovations.

Timing and psychology convince the public to embrace your innovations.

While organizing information graphically for these more complex control panels, I also discovered a life-long fascination with psychology after we encountered the consumers? resistance to touching the screens. Many research subjects recalled maternal admonishment about sitting too close to or touching their home TVs. That was a lesson that has lasted throughout my career—understanding and harnessing consumer demand first requires knowledge of consumer psychology and their aspirations in a cultural context. Again, Apple is the current master who understands this fundamental truth, which I find to be no surprise (nor their stock valuation).

I am confident there are similar examples of great innovations (products, services, and experiences) existing today simply waiting for the market to catch up and appreciate these innovations? benefits to users, upon which adoption and behavioral change ultimately will rest with the free market. This is increasingly done by very savvy consumers, even in "developing markets."

With today's rapid pace, markets and users are embracing innovations more quickly. So I?m optimistic that a lot of hopeful and helpful solutions being developed globally will be introduced and quickly embraced. I know that our creative and intelligent workforce has innovative assets, the value of which even their inventors cannot fully recognize at the moment. I believe that is more often the case than not, which I find to be very reassuring on the topic of innovation today.

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  • AggGrow

    For me, it's been 12 years. I worked for one of the first wireless LAN companies and partnered with GRiD. I know Apple gets a lot of credit lately, but that GRiD tablet was awesome and probably was the first commercially successful implementation of the tablet. We would go around with GRiD Execs to huge Healthcare and SFA VARs and sell these tablets into numerous applications. The technology was early though. Ideas like gestures, a more appropriate OS than Windows for Tablets, 12 years of Moores law on semiconductor chips, and a far more evolved wireless ecosystem made it easy for Apple to reinvent an old successful idea and do it in such a way that it was very easy to use.

    Hat's off to PARC for their innovations that allowed companies like GRiD and Apple to surge!

  • Bill Buxton

    What is interesting is that this story is actually an example of its own moral. Take the line, "I am confident there are similar examples of great innovations ... existing today simply waiting for the market to catch up ..."

    As it turns out, the work described was decidedly not either when or where the touch screen was invented; rather, it, itself, is an example of Xerox PARC picking up on a technology that - while not well known or appreciated - was waiting to be picked up.

    Rather than a criticism, I point this out as yet another example of what I call "the long nose of innovation":


    As it turns out, touch screens had been described and prototyped more than 10 years before the events in this story. The first touch screen that got traction was invented in 1972 by F.A. Ebling, R.L. Johnson & R.S. Goldhor at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champlain. And, with the launch of the PLATO IV system that year - which not only incorporated this touch screen, it had it on a monochrome flat plasma panel!!! This system was then deployed in public schools throughout the state and was one of the first examples of both computer-based instruction, and, computers being used by the general public.

    Now, to close the loop and join this earlier history with Ravi's story, Carroll, the touch screen company that Ravi worked with, was the channel through which the technology developed at the University was commercialized. It is still in business as a subsiduary of Elo Touch:

    What all of this reinforces is that great ideas have a much longer gestation period than most people think. Remember, the mouse - an obviously good idea - took 31 years (1964 - 1995) before it became the norm. Innovation is far less about alchemy-like "invention" and far more about prospecting, mining, refining, and goldsmithing. As example after example shows - including Ravi's - the path to the future is deeply rooted in the past - the too-often unappreciated past, whose potential is sitting their waiting to be picked up and run with. With great technique, great design, great business chops, and great timing!

    Nice piece, and nice to be brought back to PARC :-)

  • Bruce McKelvey

    Thinking back, Control Data Corporation's PLATO Computer Based Education system was one of the first applications of touch screens. The PLATO IV Display had a 16 by 16 infrared touch display. I don't know if this came out of PARC or not, but believe it predated 1979.

  • Frank Pleticha

    Ravi touches on a good point about the market not always being ready for innovation. However, I'm also wondering whether the techies of this world are aware of a massive need that was first identified in a Fast Company article a couple of years ago. I remember reading (and totally agreeing with) the author's premise that the next great financially rewarding leap will not come from the introduction of new technology. Rather, the next multi-billionaire will one who retools existing technology to give it a more human-centric, human intuitive interface.

    Case in point, so many technologies require the user to figure out what various graphical icons mean. The human user has to reorient his/her thinking to learning what functionality is controlled by all the triangles, arrows, and boxes used in today's icons. This should not be....especially for those over the age of 50 who process information via words and not pictures! Why do humans need to learn technology to use a product? Better to provide a technology that will "learn" how the human wishes to interface with it and then it will morph it's interface appropriately. With the huge numbers of Boomers now moving through the Autumn/Winter years of their life cycles, this human intuitive innovation has the potential to create super wealth for its creators. So, where are you tech visionaries?