A loss

Randy Pausch died today.

I had the great privilege of meeting him in person as he was giving a series of seminars at the HITLab in 1991. My notes from that meeting will have to serve as my tribute (note that this was written before the creation of the World Wide Web):

Today Randy Pausch from the University of Virginia is here and has spoken on his SIGCHI presentation “Virtual Reality on Five Dollars A Day”. He brought his equipment with two Private Eyes and a baseball cap for mounting, but unfortunately the equipment wouldn't sync so that we could get stereo images. […] Randy's claim is that rapid feedback is much more important than cool graphics and that one today doesn't have particularly good graphics in the Eyephones anyway—the cool pictures one sees are usually taken from the external video screen rather than the LCD screens that the user sees. […]

Since the Private Eye is monochrome so they only can draw wireframes, they have seen to that all objects are animated so that one can keep track of what lines go together. As a side effect the worlds become more interesting that way, there's always something going on. […]

After this he spoke about another, related, project—SUIT (Simple User Interface Technology). They have made a platform-independent interface builder—they have versions running under X, Mac and PC. NeXT was however not an option—“they are so consciously incompatible with everything else that it isn't worth it, in addition the NeXT InterfaceBuilder is superior there”. This interface builder they used in undergraduate education with completely incredible results—it took first-year students less than two hours to learn to use the system!

[— — —]
Since my last report Randy Pausch gave another seminar, this on Tailor, bespoke user interfaces. It turns out that Randy doesn't really work with virtual worlds, but with computer-supported speech generation for children with CP and he has had very encouraging results so far. (Though his opinion was that the money put into it would be put to better use in prenatal care instead of prosthesis research and I realised that maternal and child health centres are not a matter of course for everybody in this country.)

We also had a longer discussion about the utility of and possible spread of VR technology. Randy has a liberating distance to the subject and dares to express his doubts. Conversely he was very interested in MUDs as examples of already existing virtual worlds and Johan [Andersson], who is an expert on them had a lot to say. I realised that the problems with virtual worlds, and hypertexts, which in some sense are abstract virtual worlds, are that they have to be large to be really meaningful, but a lone programmer/author can never add enough to them to make them interesting. MUDs have that in common with Usenet that there are lots of people involved who, more or less independently of each other, extend the system, add all kinds of things that make it meaningful, useful and interesting in other ways. That's why the Net is so important, visualisation and holograms and such may be good, but it's really a lot of people that should be moving over it. […]

Randy is an excellent and entertaining lecturer with sound ideas about pedagogics, so I asked him to come to KTH and lecture at some suitable point. “I can be bought”, he said and gave me his business card.

We never got around to inviting him, and now it's too late, but over the years I've frequently had reason to read papers and reports by him. Indeed, less than three years ago I had reason to suggest the use of SUIT for a project at work. Eventually we decided on a different solution, but I wrote to Pausch and asked if I could have the source code to SUIT and he sent it to me a few hours later and I demoed it to my colleagues shortly thereafter.

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