Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


And the Children Shall Lead Us...March 2001

Quite some time ago, in the twelfth year of my life, I had the thrill of accompanying my parents on their annual Christmas shopping trip to Wichita, Kansas. I distinctly remember that the distance was 211 miles and that it took just over four hours to get there. This particular year turned out to be an extra special one because my objective was to come home with a Lionel electric train. I had saved every penny for most of the previous two years for this occasion and had worn out several Lionel catalogs -- studying each page over and over again. With the additional contribution my parents had agreed to make as that year's present, I would have just enough to get the modest set I had selected.

The following morning, as we arrived at Innes' department store, I could hardly contain my excitement and concern -- what if they didn't have the set I wanted? What if the price had changed and I didn't have enough money to get it? The price in the catalog was $39.95, and that is exactly how much I had -- and in 1952 dollars that was a considerable amount. Whew! The price was still the same and they had the set. And of all my childhood Christmases, this one stands out as the most memorable.

Further additions, such as the log car with the magnetic dumping relay and an oil derrick with a lighted bubbler, were made on subsequent birthdays and Christmases. However, some major wishes remained unfulfilled. A schoolmate, whose father was one of the wealthier businessmen in the small town where we lived -- he owned the local drugstore -- had a much more elaborate layout. He had several locomotives, including a blue diesel-electric model, as well as four remotely operated switches on his layout. Oh, how I wanted to add extra track and switches to my layout. But the switches were too expensive for my modest budget, as was the additional locomotive. The best I could do was to buy some extra track to add a few new curves and hills to my layout. Nevertheless, this train was my most prized possession for the rest of my growing-up years. The locomotive and several of the cars are today, almost fifty years later, on display in my office. It still seems like a neat toy.

Recently, I read an article in the ‘USA Today’ business section that the Lionel train company is enjoying a great revival and that once again kids and parents are buying electric trains. This success is allowing the company to add new features and to further refine its products. However, the prices are a bit higher (in today's dollars) than when I went on my shopping trip to Wichita, with some of the upper-end locomotives now selling for well over $1,000. This newspaper article went on to suggest that perhaps parents as well as kids are searching for something more than video games and computer screens for entertainment. The "real feel" of a toy train and the mechanical precision that it represents are meeting some fundamental need for us to connect with the world around us.

Whether this is true or not, I do believe that toys represent a "leading indicator" of what is in store for us in the future. Looking back, perhaps we can say that in the 1950s toy electric trains were symbolic of our growing fascination with mechanical devices of all kinds -- cars, airplanes, and appliances. In the 1980s video games presaged the arrival of the home computer and all the other microprocessor-inspired devices that followed.

Today, we are in the midst of another major toy revolution, with robotics, voice recognition, and interactivity. We are approaching the age of intelligent machines through the creative application of technology to products currently intended only for play and entertainment. And what better platform could we have for such experimentation? After all, a toy does not have to do anything "practical." Whatever it does is fine as long as it can sustain some reasonable level of interest and amusement. The criteria for what is "good enough" can be quite arbitrary compared to devices that must fill specified operating needs for business or home applications.

Through toys we can begin to glimpse the interests of future generations. After all, children are less set in their ways and are continually exploring and testing their boundaries and their environments anyway. For example, the strong market response to robotic animals as "pets" may be an indicator of the future acceptance of ever-more capable robotic products with computer-generated personalities. It is also a positive indicator that voice interaction with our computers will become comfortable for most of us in the next decade.

As a result of the ongoing doubling of compute power approximately every two years, we are fast approaching the time when computers will be limited by the insufficient speed of our fingers to "tell" the machines what we want them to do. We will likewise not be able to absorb the results of these computations with our single-page-at-a-time displays. The limitations of sensors and keyboards on the input side, and displays, printers, and robotic mechanisms on the output side will become serious obstacles to information processing and the implementation of artificial intelligence.

Will it take our children to tell us how to solve these problems? Time and again I read about the coming "age of intelligent machines" and how computers will soon be able to out-think us. With what inputs and outputs? How will they help us if they can't interact with the "real" world? For this reason, I think it is great that mechanical toys are once again becoming more popular and that toys combining compute power and mechanical functions are coming on the scene. We need these toys to help us understand how to apply computer power and we need them to train our new generation in the importance of input and output devices to make artificial intelligence useful.

The opportunities for new displays will abound in this environment. We will need them to show us much more than one page at a time. We will need visual cues to great stacks of information. We will need virtual libraries and virtual desktops. We will need voice interaction with our displays -- "computer please show me...." Our children are figuring this out right now. It won't be long before they will begin to show the rest of us how to do these things. I can hardly wait.

Whatever your age, please let me know what you think. I look forward to hearing from you by e-mail at Email or, by fax at 425-557-8983, by phone at 425-557-8850, or by the most senior medium, the US postal service, at 22513 SE 47th Place, Sammamish, WA 98075.