FOWD Day 3: Designing for the Rise of Social Networks of Devices – Bill Buxton

May 16, 2012 Jonathan Berger

Bill Buxton has been a computer science visionary for almost 30 years, and shares his thoughts about what the next 30 years—or 5 years, or 10—might look like, and what web designers and developers ought to be paying attention to. Notes are after the jump.


  • The idea is that computing will become transparent.
  • Who’s got a car with a motor in it? Two motors? Three?
  • Our cars all have 100s of motors: to run the windshield wipers, the automatic windows, etc. Motors are transparent.
  • In the mature world, you’ll know no more about the computers in your appliances than you do about the motors.
  • If you know there’s a computer there, that’s a failure of design.
  • Getting computers out of your face is the ultimate interface.


  • Who’s the spider? Who’s the center of the web?
    • The cloud? No.
    • You? (Yes, you.)
    • So? Figure out who’s in your immediate vicinity, and word from there.


List of gear from the audience

  • camera
  • slate
  • brain
  • mobile phone
  • fitbit
  • watch
  • laptop
  • ipad
  • etc.

Ink Browsers

  • aka, paper
  • Keep a diary: for 24hrs, track every interaction you have with paper. Size? Content? Purpose? Who put it there? What else is around them?
  • BB argues: everywhere you see a piece of paper, one day you’ll see something electronic.
  • The diversity of web browsers tomorrow will match the diversity of ink browsers today.

It’s about architecture

“Thoughts exchanged by one and another are not the same in one room as in another.” – Louis I. Kahn

  • A few years ago, $20k 42′ screens replaced one-sheets (advertising posters) at movie theaters.
  • A few years later, a (gimmick) newsstand issue of Esquire had an cover with an e-ink display.
  • In 2009, Entertainment Weekly released a magazine with a (postage-stamp size) color video display. 40m video, 6 hour replay.
  • The web will be everywhere we see print ads.
  • Those $20k screens are now $500. What happens when they’re $50?
  • At first, in the Vienna subway, they didn’t know what to do with projectors: they thought it was TV. They didn’t think about the use case. They tried to use video.
  • Coca-cola vending machine with touchscreen display.

  • Porn drives all tech for the web, advertising follows, and then there’s the rest of us.

  • Yahoo has touchscreen billboards at bus shelters in SF. It’s not just about pulling out my cellphone. This is public (my body doesn’t shield it) and collaborative.

Ubicomp + Society of Devices

  • The list of devices we have today shape our thinking and drive our projects forward.
  • The things we just talked about weren’t on our list, so they’re not on our mind.
  • William Gibson says “the future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.”
  • We have to become comfortable and confident with things that haven’t happened yet*—as confident as we are with things that do exist—in order to design for the web.
    • “haven’t happened yet” is Gibsonian; they exist in the world, just not for us. We need to go out and look for them.
  • Long Nose of Technology: every technology takes 20 years to mature into a $1b industry. Its like the long tail, reversed. Most of that early stuff stays below the radar.
  • Any new thing that’ll be a $1b industry in 10 years is already 10 years old. In 5 years, it’ll be the 15-year-old technology. If you’re not looking 5 years ahead, business-wise, you’re nuts. Are you looking at 15-year-old tech?

Homogenous Networks

  • We’re surrounded by devices that don’t know about each other.
  • BB’s first touched a computer in 1971, when the miracle was “it worked!” to know, when we can do anything.
  • The social networks of devices are as important as the social networks of people.
  • They can make connectivity transparent. Design them properly and they become far more clear.
  • NintendoDS does a good job of this.
  • Games lead the way: iPad / iPhone scrabble.
  • These are all ad-hoc networks right now.
  • Heterogeneous networks of devices
  • Scenario: point a celphone at a bus station display ad, and get to use the screen to visualize the bus map, using the phone as a control surface.
  • There can be an ad around it.

  • This turns pop-up ads on their head (i put up with an ad in order to get stuff for free): this is a pop-up application on an ad.


  • Transaction Cost (Ronald Coates). Every transaction has a cost, and the cost has changed most dramatically. Not always dollars and cents; sometimes emotion, time, happiness, attention, etc.

  • Designers: what are the trans costs? What are the currencies? Where do we get the best cost-benefit analysis.

  • E.g.: automatic doors in supermarkets lower the transaction cost of opening the door. Kinnect 1.0!

  • standard objections:

    • but there’s nothing new!
    • you can already do that!
    • why would I pay extra for something I already have?
  • Apply those objections to a TV’s remote control. All the objections are the same, but the transaction cost is much lower.

  • Who would buy a TV today w/o a remote?

  • “You can already do that!” is an objection that you can always respond to with “At what cost?” in any currency. If you change the cost by an order of magnitude, that’s a big deal.

  • When the iPhone came out, every mobile phone company said “there’s nothing new here”.

  • When the remote control came out, the TV networks synchronized their commercials so people couldn’t surf.

  • TV editing got much faster.
  • Cinema editing got faster in response.
  • Therefore: “redundant” controls => new cinematic aesthetic


  • The effects of the web are wildly more influential than changing a channel.
  • Design the social networks of devices and cost structures, and the opportunities are enormous.
  • We don’t have to make these decisions today, but we will need to deal with them soon. Channel the decisions you’re making today to be in concert with where we’re going.


  • “I can’t stand futurists who aren’t historians.”
  • Q: what’s the master/slave relationship going to be? Which OS will I use?
  • A: MIDI kind of solved that. It’s not about any particular configuration; the hard part is figuring out the transitions from one to the other. It’s all about the transitions; that’s why the iPhone is so awesome. Nothing’s new on the iPhone; how you moved is the difference.

  • phone convo in car => pick up the handset uses totally different technology (speakers, synth). It was as seamless and transparent as hopping from cel tower to cel tower

  • different contexts require different interfaces

  • Q: how do different processing power and cloud computing fit into everything?

1984 touchscreen watch

  • A: if you’re aware the crowd exists, it wasn’t properly done and you shouldn’t be using it. The only processing power that matters is between our ears. In 1984, for $100, you could buy a Casio watch with a touchscreen that recognized gestures with a fraction of current processing power. A watch today should be a remote interface for the phone in my pocket.

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