Office of the future

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The office of the future is a concept dating from the 1940s. It is also known as the "paperless office".


The first practical office of the future concept was probably the series of machines which were presented in Life magazine in September 1945. [1] Life magazine hired an illustrator from Sperry Rand, Alfred D. Crimi, to make drawings of the concepts Vannevar Bush had presented a few months earlier in The Atlantic Monthly magazine under the title "As We May Think." [2]

The Memex article in The Atlantic is most often cited because of its longer text which details the proposal of a system of shared microfilm based hyperlinks which could be considered as a precursor to the World Wide Web. "Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them." [1] Those citations tend to overlook the massive organization it would have taken to mail all those microfilm reels between scientists, and eventually between any knowledge worker, in order to make the system work. The citations also tend to overlook that Memex was an entire system, composed not only of a massive desk which housed the microfilm hyperlinking equipment, and the microfilm library but also of a speech activated typewriter (also capable of speech synthesis from normal paper text) and other accessories. Also overlooked is the difficulty of making large volumes of printed material readable by machine through optical character recognition.

Bush's predictions are notable for the fact that many have now become reality: the wearable camera ("Cyclops"), xerography ("dry photography"), speech-to-text ("vocoder"), and computers ("thinking machines"). Only microfilm has become obsolete, and the desk-size "Memex" is now a device as small as a smart phone or tablet.

Dynabook slate concept

Many concepts for future computer systems were presented in the 1960s and 1970s, but none really touched office work as much as the Memex or had such a lasting impact. For instance, the Dynabook idea (presented by Alan Kay and the Xerox PARC) proposed a portable slate-like personal computer which could have been used in an office but which was really an extremely personal exploration tool, meant more to draw art, compose music or invent new algorithms than to write a business letter. [3]

Starfire video prototype

Sun Microsystems presented a complete office of the future concept when it made its Starfire video prototype public in 1994. Like the Memex system, The Starfire prototype has been sometimes touted as predicting the birth of the World Wide Web. While it is true that we see the heroine "navigating" what the narrator describes as a "vast information space" this takes up but a few seconds at the beginning of the 15 minute Starfire video.

The Starfire is much more than a Web navigating machine. The Starfire video shows in the rest of the 15 minutes a large panoply of hardware and software concepts such as a gestural interface, total integration with public telephony and other innovations. Like the Memex system the Starfire has a large, massive desk as its central feature, and proposes compatible devices in complement to the desk, such as a laptop with a chorded keyboard and advanced videoconferencing. Bruce Tognazzini was the principal driver behind the project, with the collaboration of many other Sun alumni including Jakob Nielsen, and the help of external consultants.

Microsoft and IBM prototypes

The two most recent integrated visions of the digital office of the future have come from Microsoft and IBM. In a way they are in interesting opposition. The D# screen and its Broadbench software look like an informatician's dream workspace, betraying the computer science or software developer culture prevalent at Microsoft. The Bluespace prototype [4] seems like the perfect environment for an ambitious young IBM salesperson, thus betraying the salesperson-centric culture prevalent within IBM.

The D#-Broadbench curves around a single user, making physically close collaborative work difficult. The gentle curve helps to enhance concentration, while its massive size makes it unsuitable for the typical cubicle and perfect for a small closed office, like the one each and every software developer has at Microsoft.

The Bluespace prototype is filled with enhancements meant to manage and control the flow of disturbances coming to a user but not to completely stop them or discourage them in any definitive way. All of the elements are small enough to fit into a typical cubicle or even a smaller one than the norm. While the screens and other devices surround the user, they are flexible enough to permit physical teamwork between two or three more other users coming into the cubicle. [5] [6]

Both prototypes require considerable work to be adapted to what most managers or professionals consider a "real" desk, that is a pedestal desk, located in a closed office. They would also require rework and re-think to be adapted to the types of desks which are found in home offices or small business offices, such as the armoire desk.

Teams at IBM Research and Microsoft Research are currently working on perfecting these prototypes.

Art and beauty

At the beginning of the year 2001 the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York city presented a 3 month long exhibit called "Workspheres", which explored the role of industrial designers in creating what were intended to be effective and aesthetic solutions to present and future office environment issues. [7]

Among the 151 objects or ensembles presented there were 6 works commissioned specifically for the exhibition, from experienced industrial design companies like IDEO. While some of the works had practical aspects, they were all chosen for their artistic impact. A complete catalogue of the exhibition was produced and a special website, with its own distinctive artistic interface, was put on line.

"Office of the Future" is also the name of an ongoing research project (based at the Department of Computer Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) which began among a consortium of universities sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

See also

Related Research Articles

The graphical user interface is a form of user interface that allows users to interact with electronic devices through graphical icons and audio indicator such as primary notation, instead of text-based UIs, typed command labels or text navigation. GUIs were introduced in reaction to the perceived steep learning curve of command-line interfaces (CLIs), which require commands to be typed on a computer keyboard.

Hypertext Text with references (links) to other text that the reader can immediately access

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Memex Hypothetical proto-hypertext system that was first described by Vannevar Bush in 1945

Memex is the name of the hypothetical electromechanical device that Vannevar Bush described in his 1945 article "As We May Think". Bush envisioned the memex as a device in which individuals would compress and store all of their books, records, and communications, "mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility". The individual was supposed to use the memex as an automatic personal filing system, making the memex "an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory". The name memex is a portmanteau of memory and expansion.

Vannevar Bush American electrical engineer and science administrator (1890–1974)

Vannevar Bush was an American engineer, inventor and science administrator, who during World War II headed the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), through which almost all wartime military R&D was carried out, including important developments in radar and the initiation and early administration of the Manhattan Project. He emphasized the importance of scientific research to national security and economic well-being, and was chiefly responsible for the movement that led to the creation of the National Science Foundation.

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This article presents a timeline of hypertext technology, including "hypermedia" and related human–computer interaction projects and developments from 1945 on. The term hypertext is credited to the author and philosopher Ted Nelson.

Cubicle Office furniture meant to allow for concentration

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Dynabook Early portable computer concept

The KiddiComp concept, envisioned by Alan Kay in 1968 while a PhD candidate, and later developed and described as the Dynabook in his 1972 proposal "A personal computer for children of all ages", outlines the requirements for a conceptual portable educational device that would offer similar functionality to that now supplied via a laptop computer or a tablet or slate computer with the exception of the requirement for any Dynabook device offering near eternal battery life. Adults could also use a Dynabook, but the target audience was children.

The Knowledge Navigator is a concept described by former Apple Computer CEO John Sculley in his 1987 book, Odyssey. It describes a device that can access a large networked database of hypertext information, and use software agents to assist searching for information.

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As We May Think 1945 essay by Vannevar Bush

"As We May Think" is a 1945 essay by Vannevar Bush which has been described as visionary and influential, anticipating many aspects of information society. It was first published in The Atlantic in July 1945 and republished in an abridged version in September 1945—before and after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bush expresses his concern for the direction of scientific efforts toward destruction, rather than understanding, and explicates a desire for a sort of collective memory machine with his concept of the memex that would make knowledge more accessible, believing that it would help fix these problems. Through this machine, Bush hoped to transform an information explosion into a knowledge explosion.

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History of hypertext

Hypertext is text displayed on a computer or other electronic device with references (hyperlinks) to other text that the reader can immediately access, usually by a mouse click or keypress sequence. Early conceptions of hypertext defined it as text that could be connected by a linking system to a range of other documents that were stored outside that text. In 1934 Belgian bibliographer, Paul Otlet, developed a blueprint for links that telescoped out from hypertext electrically to allow readers to access documents, books, photographs, and so on, stored anywhere in the world.

Personal knowledge base Knowledge management software

A personal knowledge base (PKB) is an electronic tool used to express, capture, and later retrieve the personal knowledge of an individual. It differs from a traditional database in that it contains subjective material particular to the owner, that others may not agree with nor care about. Importantly, a PKB consists primarily of knowledge, rather than information; in other words, it is not a collection of documents or other sources an individual has encountered, but rather an expression of the distilled knowledge the owner has extracted from those sources.


  1. 1 2 Bush, Vannevar (Sep 10, 1945). "As We May Think". Life. p. 112. Retrieved May 2, 2019.
  2. Bush, Vannevar (July 1945). "As We May think". The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved May 2, 2019.
  3. "The Dynabook of Alan Kay". History of Computers. Retrieved May 3, 2019.
  4. Chou, Paul; et al. (December 11, 2001). BlueSpace: Creating a Personalized and Context-Aware Workspace (PDF). IBM Research (Report). Retrieved August 2, 2019.
  5. "BlueSpace: The Office of the Future". MOBILE LIFESTYLE. Retrieved August 2, 2019.
  6. Deutsch, Claudia H. (January 14, 2002). "New Economy; I.B.M. and Steelcase lay out their vision of the office of the future". The New York Times. Retrieved August 2, 2019.
  7. "Workspheres". MoMA. Retrieved May 3, 2019.
A criticism of the notion of a paperless office. The Social Life of Paper, a review by Malcolm Gladwell.