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History of the Button

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Presentation given at SXSW on March 12, 2010. Synced with the audio!

Even though technology evolved at a crazy pace the last 100 years, the humble button has stayed at the center of it all. What is its past, its future? Why is it important? What does it say about the interaction between humans and technology? Pictures, stories, revelations, movies.

Published in: Design

History of the Button

  1. Historyof the Button Bill DeRouchey
  2. Hello. This incarnation of the History of the Button was presented at SXSW on March 12, 2010. This slide deck is slightly different from the live presentation. The main difference is that the videos that were in the presentation have been translated here to stills as best as possible. Enjoy. Also, narration boxes like this are Bill DeRouchey extra notes to help fill in context where necessary and point out bill.derouchey@gmail.com where this version differed from @billder the live presentation.
  3. About the audio. If you’re listening to the audio, sorry about the bad quality for the first 12 minutes. SXSW somehow cut off the first 12 minutes. To make up for it, I had to slice in the audio from my FlipCam recording, which was better than nothing. If you’re not listening to the audio, then it doesn’t matter at all. Carry on.
  4. This is astory that spans over 100 years... As a contrast to SXSW which focuses so much on the Now and the Future.
  5. ... about how we got from here to here...
  6. buttons ... about how have changed how we understand our world...
  7. buttons ... about how have changed how ... think. we understand our world.
  8. Products Movies Advertisements Screens We’ll take almost an anthropological approach by looking at these items to examine the history of the button.
  9. 1910 1956 1984 2010 These were all movies in the original presentation. The simplest motion.
  10. 1910 1956 1984 2010 These were all movies in the original presentation. is just push the button.
  11. This was a movie in the original presentation (from Apple.com). We’re in a transition....
  12. This was a movie in the original presentation (from Apple.com). a transitiontransition.... We’re in a to Surface.
  13. Transitions are interesting... because that’s when our brains change.
  14. Generations of Interaction 1 Lever 2 Button now 3 Surface 4 Fluid We are currently in a transition from a button era to a surface era.
  15. Generations of Interaction 1 Lever 1900 2 Button 3 Surface 4 Fluid We should look to the previous transition to understand today.
  16. We are a bunch of smart monkeys. We figured out how to use the objects in the world around us to augment our human motion. Bones into shovels. Sticks into rakes. Iron into gears. We love our tools.
  17. For example, a gun can simply be understood as throwing a rock, a tiny rock, much faster and with greater accuracy.
  18. Pressing on the keys of a piano simply triggers a hammer hitting a string. Motion is augmented.
  19. You can see the Action. In the mechanical era, you can see action happen, see how one motion affects another. You can follow the results from action to result.
  20. Levers scale motion. Scaling is the mechanical age.
  21. Compressed Time Major advances in technology actually change how we perceive the world. For example, train travel compressed our sense of time between faraway places.
  22. The telegraph changed our sense of connection over distance. Instant communication across hundreds of miles for the first time. Compressed Distance
  23. But the button meant for the first time, the result of a human motion could be completely different from the motion itself. Abstracted Motion
  24. The motion Push does not scale to the result Light. This abstracted interaction with technology represented a new way to comprehend the world.
  25. Buttons abstract motion. Abstraction is the electronic age.
  26. What was the first button? This might be the most common question people ask me.
  27. The flashlight was the first simple everyday button. It revolutionized our sense of light. What was the first button? 1898
  28. Buttons enter Daily Life
  29. George Eastman of Kodak introduced cameras for regular people. 1890s
  30. Eastman used the phrase “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest” to show how simple cameras can be. Button = easy. 1890s
  31. Doorbells replaced pull ringers in homes. 1900s
  32. As the electricity grid expanded, homes installed lights and simple pushbuttons to turn the lights on and off. 1910s
  33. Sidenote: An editorial cartoon from 1911 depicting a dark vision of the future. Surrounded by technology, lazy, pushing buttons. For a similar dystopian view, read the 1910 short story “The Machine Stops” from E.M. Forster. 1911
  34. “The Opera Delivered to Your Door” = Pandora “The Observascope” = webcams Of course, all with a robot servant!
  35. The next major tech innovation was the radio, sending live audio from a distance. The opera really now was delivered to you. The radio. 1920s
  36. 30 million radios sold by 1938. This was their Internet boom.
  37. But tuning to your favorite stations almost required a scientist mentality. Until 1938 when radio presets (buttons) exchanged the emphasis on “tuning” for “returning.” 1938 Radio presets.
  38. Essentially, radio presets were the first notion of “saving” in technology. Save your favorite station. 1938 First notion of Save. Radio presets.
  39. Buttons represent The Future
  40. 1939 During the Great Depression, people looked to a better future, capped by the World’s Fair in 1939. New York World’s Fair
  41. 1939 Technology was heralded as the emancipator of leisure. A shrine to the button?
  42. Movie from 1940 depicting a vision of the future. With robots. 1940
  43. Roy’s Robot Repair is helping this concerned woman with her robot. 1940
  44. She controls her robot with buttons. Roll-Oh can even fix a furnace. 1940
  45. When fixed, Roll-Oh fetches the nice repairman’s hat. 1940
  46. 1958 Visions of the future continued, including this Monsanto home, promoting both the wonders of plastics and pushbuttons. Monsanto House of the Future
  47. Another movie. 1958
  48. The happy wife pushes buttons to access hidden compartments. 1958
  49. The happy wife pushes buttons to access hidden compartments. 1958
  50. The happy wife pushes buttons to control her home. 1958
  51. Buttons represent Luxury
  52. In the 1950s, the promise of pushbutton technology became available to a wide variety of consumer items, providing a new luxury for the middle class.
  53. And in nearly every case, the phrase “pushbutton” became an adjective communicating modern, luxury, advanced, new, easy. 1956
  54. 1958
  55. 1960
  56. 1959
  57. 1961
  58. Now there’s a woman in control of her laundry. 1959
  59. So easy... even a woman can do it. And also in nearly every case, women were used in ads to add the subtle message of, this new technology is so easy to use, even a woman can use it.
  60. Picture the classic Crossing the Chasm diagram of early adopters vs. late adopters. “Pushbutton” meant that the product was simple enough for late adopters to now buy. Buttons cross the chasm.
  61. This practice of using “pushbutton” continues today, but only in the seamier parts of the web. Get rich quick!
  62. Lose weight now! 1959
  63. Join the Push Button Empire!
  64. Returning to the living room, the remote control has become the classic example of this pushbutton era. 1959
  65. Because for the first time, regular people could control an object from a distance. No wires! First control from a distance 1956
  66. Buttons represent Fear
  67. After WWII, we had automated war machinery so much that global nuclear annihilation was perceived to be as easy as pushing a button. And it may have been. Who has theirfinger on the button?
  68. Raising a generation on fear. 1950s
  69. Buttons represent Control
  70. At the same time, engineers were building complex machines controlled by rows and rows of switches and buttons. We were learning to automate.
  71. At the same time, engineers were building complex machines controlled by rows and rows of switches and buttons. We were learning to automate.
  72. Only a select few could understand these machines, could use these buttons, using a highly specialized language.
  73. Only a select few could understand these machines, could use these buttons, using a highly specialized language.
  74. From “That Touch of Mink.” Doris Day works at Univac. 1962
  75. She’s fed up at working in this automation job. 1962
  76. So she slams the machine. 1962
  77. And leaves the machines running. (Note the Univac in the background.) 1962
  78. Chaos ensues. 1962
  79. Buttons represent Play
  80. Humpty Dumpty pinball machine was the first to use flippers. 1947 First pinball flippers.
  81. First mechanical game where you can interact with the ball in play to keep it in play. Beginning of a new era in gaming. 1947 First game interaction?
  82. Generational 1977 Icon This Atari joystick revolutionized gaming in the home.
  83. Shape as Play 1978 Experimenting with the shape of the button itself.
  84. Arcades boomed in the 1970s
  85. Dexterity in pushing buttons now became a prized skill, generating an entire industry.
  86. Buttons become Metaphor
  87. Before this, buttons were physical things. The Macintosh in 1984 introduced to the general public the idea that buttons could be virtual.
  88. The virtual button still needs a physical button. 1964
  89. The virtual button still needs a physical button. 1984
  90. This concept was so new that Apple needed to educate people simply how to use a mouse. They took out 39 pages of advertising in Newsweek to essentially publish a user’s manual. Education through Advertising 1984
  91. Notice the incredible detail to communicate the basics of something we take for granted. Education through Advertising 1984
  92. Notice the incredible detail to communicate the basics of something we take for granted. 1984
  93. Buttons lose Shape
  94. With the web, “buttons” could become anything. They didn’t need a specific shape that said “I’m a button.” They could be blue text and underlined. 1996
  95. Images, text, anything is now actionable. As an example, the next page shows everything that can be acted upon. Compare it to this page.
  96. Nearly everything can be acted upon. This has changed how we perceive the world around us. All items can have deeper connection.
  97. We even understand that simple gray text is actionable, simply from its location to its neighbors. We assume that “Work” is a link. 2010
  98. But would we assume that here?
  99. Buttons go Touch
  100. Touchscreens are becoming everyday interactions.
  101. Touchscreens are becoming everyday interactions.
  102. The poster child of touch.
  103. Now taking orders
  104. Where are we now?
  105. Buttons don’t need... form borders contour shape words ornamentation
  106. ... and yet, we attribute to them ease process magic control play simplicity automation
  107. think about We now objects with depth and time, instead of just static things.
  108. We are approaching a time when anything is interactive.
  109. Gesture interaction game designed by Ziba for Li Ning in China.
  110. Imagine somebody 100 years ago encountering this device.
  111. Imagine somebody 100 years ago encountering this device.
  112. Generations of Interaction 1 Lever 2 Button 3 Surface soon 4 Fluid The next generation will feature dynamic surfaces.
  113. Dynamic tactile surfaces will create disposable physical interfaces.
  114. If it was rumored to be in the iPad, then the technology must be only a few years away.
  115. Research on dynamic tactile surfaces from Chris Harrison and Scott Hudson at Carnegie Mellon University.
  116. When buttons can essentially have a disposable physical form, we can build interfaces into any surface.
  117. Meaning our entire surroundings can be interactable. Imagine the generation that grows up with that.
  118. And the next generation?
  119. Imagine growing up in a world where touchscreens and interactive gestures are a given. How does that affect your brain processing?
  120. Imagine growing up in a world where touchscreens and interactive gestures are a given. How does that affect your brain processing?
  121. Imagine growing up in a world where touchscreens and interactive gestures are a given. How does that affect your brain processing?
  122. The button has been a 100 year transition technology from the mechanical age to the truly electronic age.
  123. The button represents how we interact with the objects we create.
  124. And that’s why the button is the most influential yet least appreciated innovation of the 20th Century.
  125. Historyof the Button Bill DeRouchey @billder bill.derouchey@gmail.com

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