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'Carry anywhere' portable tablet computer envisioned years ago
May 16, 2011
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by Mark Ollig

I recently watched a video of two people seated at an outdoor patio table, enjoying what appeared to be lunch at a downtown café.

The video shows them taking turns reading a newspaper using a flat-screened computing tablet.

Every so often, they clicked on various interactive graphical elements on the display screen with a stylus pen.

The name of the computing device they were reading from was labeled “The Tablet.”

“What is so exciting about that? People are doing this every day with an iPad,” you might be thinking.

Well, for one thing, this particular video was recorded 17 years ago.

In 1994, Roger Fidler, a journalist and newspaper designer, recorded his vision and demonstrated – in great detail – how a person could use a portable computing device to read, interact with, and share the news and information from a newspaper.

While watching the video, it seemed someone had gone back in time to 1994, and placed an Apple iPad in Fidler’s hands.

“It may be difficult to conceptualize the idea of digital paper, but in fact, we believe that’s what’s going to happen,” said Fidler in 1994.

Fidler’s ahead of-its-time (and somewhat startling) 1994 video is called “Tablet Newspaper (1994).”

The 13 minute video where he demonstrates the “electronic newspaper of the future” can be viewed at: http://tinyurl.com/4y7azs6.

The idea of using a portable electronic device in which to obtain news and information, along with manipulating its content, was, however, envisioned before 1994.

A similar device was seen on a science fiction television series from the late 1960s.

From 1966 to 1969, the television series “Star Trek” would occasionally show a scene with crew members carrying and referring to information on rectangular electronic clipboards with a smooth display screen, which they operated by means of a stylus pen.

Starting in the late 1980s, the television series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” showed crew members using what was called a PADD, or Personal Access Display Device.

The PADD was a portable handheld device which closely resembled today’s portable wireless communication devices, like an iPhone.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” is a phrase attributed to Alan C. Kay.

One of the first well-thought-out concepts for a practical personal tablet computer was devised during the late 1960s and early 1970s, by Alan C. Kay, a computer scientist.

Kay called this small, portable, electronic computer, the DynaBook.

The DynaBook was designed to be a “carry anywhere” tablet-like personal computer intended for student educational learning and information gathering.

Speaking of the late 1960s,; as a knowledgeable third-grader, yours truly remembers being anxious about correctly answering multiplication questions on flash cards his mother would quiz him on.

Why?

So I could watch the next action-packed episode of “Lost in Space” (and pass Mrs. Seymour’s math test).

By August of 1972, Kay completed a description of the DynaBook, (including detailed drawings) in a document called “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages.” I created a shortened link to this PDF file at: http://tinyurl.com/5zemqe.

In this document, Kay presents several scenarios demonstrating how the DynaBook would be used.

He explains the DynaBook’s keyboard as being “as thin as possible . . . it may have no moving parts at all – but be sensitive to pressure.”

Kay even went a step further, by suggesting the DynaBook personal computer may have no keyboard at all, saying “the display panel would cover the full extent of the notebook surface.”

The hand-drawn DynaBook shown in the document was somewhat larger than today’s iPad.

There was a full QWERTY keyboard along the bottom of the DynaBook, and Kay explained how one could operate the “multi-touch” liquid-crystal display screen located at the top of the device.

The DynaBook could play audio files, record voice messages, and more.

Kay envisioned how a DynaBook personal computer would connect wirelessly to centralized information storage units,; allowing the DynaBook to “extract” information from them.

Remember, Kay is writing this back in 1972.

To my surprise, he even talks about “speech recognition” capabilities eventually being added to the DynaBook.

Kay compares the technology of this futuristic portable computer with paper books, but admits “this new medium will not save the world.”

He goes on to correctly state how paper books allowed centuries of human knowledge to be “encapsulated and transmitted to everybody.”

Kay transfers this thought-line by invoking his hopes that this new “active medium” (portable computer) will “convey some of the excitement of thought and creation.”

One of Alan C. Kay’s diagrams in the 1972 document shows the DynaBook as being rectangular, measuring 12-inches-by 9 inches, with a depth of .75 inches.

The Apple iPad 2 comparably measures in at 9.5 inches by 7.31 inches, with a depth of .34 inches.

Today, the iPad has become the most popular “carry anywhere” tablet computer, fulfilling the educational values Kay wrote about in 1972, and the electronic news retrieval abilities Fidler envisioned in 1994.

Kay concluded his description of the futuristic DynaBook portable personal computer in August of 1972 with “Let’s just do it!”


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