Toward a Visual Computer for Visual Thinkers

Scott Kim, Stanford University

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University May 29, 1991


Computers today, such as the Apple Macintosh, are adopting a style of user interface called "direct manipulation", in which the user operates on objects by directly manipulating pictures on the screen. Despite improvements in the quality of user interfaces, however, computers continue to be designed by programmers unfamiliar with the principles of visual communitcation. As a result, artists and other visual thinkers find computers unnecessarily difficult to use. My research explores a radical alternatiave to current direct manipulation interfaces. In conventional systems, the screen is a secondary representation of primary data structures stored in the computer's memory. The user cannot deduce system state from the screen alone. My system, Viewpoint, adopts the screen itself in the form of the frame buffer as the primary representation of system state. Both user and computer can deduce system state from the screen alone. This approach aligns with the fundamental premise of visual thinking: Pictures as the primary representation of ideas. To give Viewpoint a theoretical foundation, I contructed a formal model of interactive computational systems, defined a new user interface design principle called "visibility", and proposed a procedure for verifying visibility. To demonstrate the consequence of visibility, I built a pixel-based text, graphics, and font editor and tested it on users. Viewpoint demonstrates by example that a totally visible text, graphics, and font editor is possible. The implementation demonstrates particular techniques for implementing pixel-based visible systems. The project as a whole illustrates a new approach to user interface design research: Investigating principles by building minimal systems.


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