Don't Just Read, Wear Your Words

Does this scenario sound feasible? Well, a group of industry experts held court Wednesday here at the Seybold publishing conference and delivered a picture of the written word's future describing scenes very similar to this scenario and more besides.

Leading scientists and executives from Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Sun Microsystems, the Institute for the Future, and Adobe Systems gave their thoughts in a keynote panel discussion on both the future of the publishing industry and the ways in which human interaction with text will change over the next two decades.

More than anything else, the pundits suggested that people will interact with the world -- or the surfaces that make up their surroundings -- in a way that will revolutionise individuals' approach to understanding content.

"The end game is to get to a point where there aren't any user interfaces," John Warnock, Adobe co-founder, chairman and chief executive officer, said. Like his fellow panelists, Warnock presented a vision of the future so rich in seamless forms of technology that the user no longer even realises that the technology is there.

John Seely Brown, chief scientist and director at Xerox PARC, brought along a piece of digital paper that he saw as perhaps the initial step toward this seamless future. While the current uses of the paper are limited, Seely Brown proposed that the product could eventually create a highly interactive reading environment for the user where any type of surface could be turned into a form of digital display.

Unlike simply picking up a book and following along with the text, the user could touch certain parts of the digital paper to activate sounds, see 3D images of characters in a novel or even the text itself in 3D, or click on items to reveal entire layers of information not seen at first glance. Seely Brown went so far as to pick up a pen and say, "If you run this over digital paper, it becomes a portable fax or printer."

The panel did assure the Seybold crowd that good old-fashioned paper should be around for some time to come but added that mankind has already had a few hundred years to master what can be done with the medium. "We are going to create new media forms that do not even make sense" using paper, Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, said.

Saffo, in particular, supported bringing a Napster-like approach to developing technology in the publishing world. "Napster is not an aberration," he said, referring to the music-sharing Web site that has drawn the ire of the music industry.

He sees those who rebel against the status quo of technology as being on the path to success and innovation. Saffo urged the audience to ignore the entertainment industry's recent objections to the type of peer-to-peer file sharing evangelised by Napster's Web site and instead to embrace the people pushing boundaries as the quickest path to more efficient and elegant technology. "Pirating software is market development," he said.

In total, the panelists painted a picture of the years to come that will place individuals in a world rich with information and which requires a good deal of interactivity.

"Augmenting human intelligence, that's the point," John Gage, chief researcher and director of Sun's Science Office, said. Perhaps twenty years from now, a computer will not be some box sitting under a desk but rather the desk, the chair you sit on, and the coffee cup you hold, he said.

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Ashlee Vance

PC World

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