Foresight in advertising: 1987 to now

Keith White
4 February, 2009
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After the 1984 Macintosh commercial, the next most celebrated is probably the 1987 Knowledge Navigator video. Envisioned by then Apple CEO John Sculley in part to promote the concepts behind the ill-fated Newton, it covers a gently frenetic six minutes in the life of an imaginary American geography professor. More of which in a minute.

This was actually one of a series of three set forward into the year 2010, and is by far the best known of the three. I’ve only been able to locate a section of one other, with a middle-class middle-aged guy sitting on a park bench learning to read from a tablet-like computer with a very Hypercard-looking screen.

As he reads, the device reacts to his voice input and dims the words as he reads them correctly. When he gets stuck he asks the computer for help and the word is pronounced for him. Would he like to continue, he is asked when he reaches the end of a chapter? Not today, thanks, he wants to read the sports section in a newspaper he has with him. So he places it on the device, scans it in and continues with his assisted reading. A great example of the advantages of user-friendly technology to help with learning difficulties. And predicting the development of voice input and speech-to-text, which we now can do. Sort of.

In the third video apparently a student refers to his notes on a handheld version of the system to give a class presentation on volcanoes, which he climaxes by sending a movie of an erupting volcano from the device to a video screen. If you’ve seen it, tell me.

In the main movie, lush baroque music ushers our prof into his expansive study where we pan across his desk onto a white object that opens up flat to reveal a screen with a cheesy bow-tied assistant in an sort of iChat video window reading some messages. The prof then requests information on deforestation in the Amazon rainforest for an upcoming lecture. By voice he is able to engage in a dialogue with his virtual assistant to refine his search and the assistant suggests a paper by a colleague.

“OK, call her.”

“She’s busy, but I left a message that you called.”

“OK get me this paper with an alternative view. Graph this guy’s predictions against what actually happened, Hm, he was way out.”

Prof then calls up an interactive map of Brazil and asks for a copy of thirty years of rainfall figures whereupon he inserts something very much like what we would now call a memory card into the device to record the results.

His colleague returns his call and she appears in a second video window. They discuss an online collaboration for the lecture. She pings a graphic simulation of desertification in Africa across to his screen. Our Prof touchscreens up his Brazil map onto the same screen and factors in a variation in logging rate which then reacts with the Africa graphic.

There’s an amusing subplot that, in spite of the fact that the lecture has to be delivered that afternoon, the new knowledge tools can obviate this time pressure — although the Prof does agree with his colleague that he is a serial procrastinator.

It’s all delightfully tongue-in-cheek and closes with the then Apple mantra: “the power to be your best.”

Intriguing is how much they’ve got right. Touchscreen interface, video conferencing, removable storage and remote screen sharing are all very much with us. Natural speech voice input and the intelligent assistant in the video are a fair way beyond where we are now — but the underlying technologies are all there. And it’s not 2010 yet.

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