A Brief History of
Human Computer Interaction Technology

Brad A. Myers

Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science Technical Report CMU-CS-96-163
Human Computer Interaction Institute Technical Report CMU-HCII-96-103

December, 1996

Please cite this work as:
Brad A. Myers. "A Brief History of Human Computer Interaction Technology." ACM interactions. Vol. 5, no. 2, March, 1998. pp. 44-54.

Human Computer Interaction Institute
School of Computer Science
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3891



This article summarizes the historical development of major advances in human-computer interaction technology, emphasizing the pivotal role of university research in the advancement of the field.

Copyright (c) 1996 -- Carnegie Mellon University

A short excerpt from this article appeared as part of "Strategic Directions in Human Computer Interaction," edited by Brad Myers, Jim Hollan, Isabel Cruz, ACM Computing Surveys, 28(4), December 1996

This research was partially sponsored by NCCOSC under Contract No. N66001-94-C-6037, Arpa Order No. B326 and partially by NSF under grant number IRI-9319969. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of NCCOSC or the U.S. Government.

Keywords: Human Computer Interaction, History, User Interfaces, Interaction Techniques.

1. Introduction

Research in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) has been spectacularly successful, and has fundamentally changed computing. Just one example is the ubiquitous graphical interface used by Microsoft Windows 95, which is based on the Macintosh, which is based on work at Xerox PARC, which in turn is based on early research at the Stanford Research Laboratory (now SRI) and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Another example is that virtually all software written today employs user interface toolkits and interface builders, concepts which were developed first at universities. Even the spectacular growth of the World-Wide Web is a direct result of HCI research: applying hypertext technology to browsers allows one to traverse a link across the world with a click of the mouse. Interface improvements more than anything else has triggered this explosive growth. Furthermore, the research that will lead to the user interfaces for the computers of tomorrow is happening at universities and a few corporate research labs.

This paper tries to briefly summarize many of the important research developments in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) technology. By "research," I mean exploratory work at universities and government and corporate research labs (such as Xerox PARC) that is not directly related to products. By "HCI technology," I am referring to the computer side of HCI. A companion article on the history of the "human side," discussing the contributions from psychology, design, human factors and ergonomics would also be appropriate.

A motivation for this article is to overcome the mistaken impression that much of the important work in Human-Computer Interaction occurred in industry, and if university research in Human-Computer Interaction is not supported, then industry will just carry on anyway. This is simply not true. This paper tries to show that many of the most famous HCI successes developed by companies are deeply rooted in university research. In fact, virtually all of today's major interface styles and applications have had significant influence from research at universities and labs, often with government funding. To illustrate this, this paper lists the funding sources of some of the major advances. Without this research, many of the advances in the field of HCI would probably not have taken place, and as a consequence, the user interfaces of commercial products would be far more difficult to use and learn than they are today. As described by Stu Card:

"Government funding of advanced human-computer interaction technologies built the intellectual capital and trained the research teams for pioneer systems that, over a period of 25 years, revolutionized how people interact with computers. Industrial research laboratories at the corporate level in Xerox, IBM, AT&T, and others played a strong role in developing this technology and bringing it into a form suitable for the commercial arena." [6, p. 162]).

Figure 1 shows time lines for some of the technologies discussed in this article. Of course, a deeper analysis would reveal much interaction between the university, corporate research and commercial activity streams. It is important to appreciate that years of research are involved in creating and making these technologies ready for widespread use. The same will be true for the HCI technologies that will provide the interfaces of tomorrow.

It is clearly impossible to list every system and source in a paper of this scope, but I have tried to represent the earliest and most influential systems. Although there are a number of other surveys of HCI topics (see, for example [1] [10] [33] [38]), none cover as many aspects as this one, or try to be as comprehensive in finding the original influences. Another useful resource is the video "All The Widgets," which shows the historical progression of a number of user interface ideas [25].

The technologies covered in this paper include fundamental interaction styles like direct manipulation, the mouse pointing device, and windows; several important kinds of application areas, such as drawing, text editing and spreadsheets; the technologies that will likely have the biggest impact on interfaces of the future, such as gesture recognition, multimedia, and 3D; and the technologies used to create interfaces using the other technologies, such as user interface management systems, toolkits, and interface builders.

Figure 1: Approximate time lines showing where work was performed on some major technologies discussed in this article.

2. Basic Interactions

3. Application Types

4. Up-and-Coming Areas

5. Software Tools and Architectures

The area of user interface software tools is quite active now, and many companies are selling tools. Most of today's applications are implemented using various forms of software tools. For a more complete survey and discussion of UI tools, see [26].

6. Discussion

It is clear that all of the most important innovations in Human-Computer Interaction have benefited from research at both corporate research labs and universities, much of it funded by the government. The conventional style of graphical user interfaces that use windows, icons, menus and a mouse and are in a phase of standardization, where almost everyone is using the same, standard technology and just making minute, incremental changes. Therefore, it is important that university, corporate, and government-supported research continue, so that we can develop the science and technology needed for the user interfaces of the future.

Another important argument in favor of HCI research in universities is that computer science students need to know about user interface issues. User interfaces are likely to be one of the main value-added competitive advantages of the future, as both hardware and basic software become commodities. If students do not know about user interfaces, they will not serve industry needs. It seems that only through computer science does HCI research disseminate out into products. Furthermore, without appropriate levels of funding of academic HCI research, there will be fewer PhD graduates in HCI to perform research in corporate labs, and fewer top-notch graduates in this area will be interested in being professors, so the needed user interface courses will not be offered.

As computers get faster, more of the processing power is being devoted to the user interface. The interfaces of the future will use gesture recognition, speech recognition and generation, "intelligent agents," adaptive interfaces, video, and many other technologies now being investigated by research groups at universities and corporate labs [35]. It is imperative that this research continue and be well-supported.


I must thank a large number of people who responded to posts of earlier versions of this article on the announcements.chi mailing list for their very generous help, and to Jim Hollan who helped edit the short excerpt of this article. Much of the information in this article was supplied by (in alphabetical order): Stacey Ashlund, Meera M. Blattner, Keith Butler, Stuart K. Card, Bill Curtis, David E. Damouth, Dan Diaper, Dick Duda, Tim T.K. Dudley, Steven Feiner, Harry Forsdick, Bjorn Freeman-Benson, John Gould, Wayne Gray, Mark Green, Fred Hansen, Bill Hefley, D. Austin Henderson, Jim Hollan, Jean-Marie Hullot, Rob Jacob, Bonnie John, Sandy Kobayashi, T.K. Landauer, John Leggett, Roger Lighty, Marilyn Mantei, Jim Miller, William Newman, Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman, Dan Olsen, Ramesh Patil, Gary Perlman, Dick Pew, Ken Pier, Jim Rhyne, Ben Shneiderman, John Sibert, David C. Smith, Elliot Soloway, Richard Stallman, Ivan Sutherland, Dan Swinehart, John Thomas, Alex Waibel, Marceli Wein, Mark Weiser, Alan Wexelblat, and Terry Winograd. Editorial comments were also provided by the above as well as Ellen Borison, Rich McDaniel, Rob Miller, Bernita Myers, Yoshihiro Tsujino, and the reviewers.


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