Lessons Learned: Interacting with the PLATO System

Brian Dear

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University May 9, 2003

The PLATO system, originally developed at the University of Illinois, evolved from a relatively modest computer-based education (CBE) project in the 1960s into a wildly ambitious and remarkable system in the 1970s and 80s with thousands of multimedia, touch-sensitive high-resolution graphics terminals connected to a worldwide timesharing network of CYBER mainframes. While PLATO's core mission over the decades remained education, the significance of how the system broke new ground in facilitating human interaction has gone largely unstudied and unnoticed for 30 years.

PLATO of the 1970s was home to numerous compelling early examples of future "killer apps." Based on extensive research, including over 600 interviews, this presentation will explore this lesser-known but enormously significant dimension of the PLATO system.

First, we'll review the system's developmental milestones and examine how and why PLATO's hardware and software evolved as they did. Next, we'll take a closer look at how a "perfect storm" of factors led to the spawning of early forms of most of the tools we take for granted today in communicating with people online: email, chat rooms, instant messaging, message boards, personal publishing, interactive storytelling, and multiplayer games. Finally, we'll walk through some actual PLATO examples, as well as study PLATO's genetic imprint in a variety of well-known PC software titles including Lotus Notes, AuthorWare, DOOM, EverQuest, and Flight Simulator.

Brian Dear is currently working on a book on the history and significance of the PLATO system and its online culture. In 2001 Dear was founding Director of eBay Design Labs, an organization responsible for interaction design, visual design, usability testing, and site text messaging for the eBay website. Prior projects include positions at Eazel, MP3.com, and RealNetworks. Dear was also co-founder and CEO of Coconut Computing, a pioneering software company founded in 1987 that built client/server tools for building interactive multimedia online services. Dear's career began with 8 years working in the design and development of CBE and computer-based training applications and authoring systems, including 5 years working on the PLATO system at the University of Delaware, Control Data Corporation, and the University of Maryland. His interests include virtual communities, information architecture, user experience, product design, and usability research..

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