From virtual reality to real virtualities: Designing the worlds in which we live

Terry Winograd, Stanford and Interval Research

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University October 29, 1993


Whenever we design software that involves human interaction, we are doing more than building an interface. In using the software, a person is entering into a "virtual world" created by the designer. This is not a virtual reality in the popular sense, with its 3-D images and wraparound goggles, but a "virtuality" that carries within it a set of objects, properties and actions that make sense in its own terms. Often the most cirtical aspect of whether a system works is the coherence and breadth of its virtuality, not the form of the interface or familiarity of its metaphor.

In designing virtualities, software designers take a stance that is more akin to the design professions, such as architecture, rather than than the "hard engineering" professions. There is an important difference between the "constructor's-eye view" that dominates computer science and software engineering, and a "designer's-eye-view" that takes the system, the users, and the larger context all together as a starting point. When a constructor says that a piece of software "works" he or she means that it is robust, reliable, and meets its functional specification. When a designer says that something "works" (e.g., a building or a visual layout) there is a much broader sense-it works for someone in a context of values and needs, to produce quality results in use.

In this talk I will give examples of virtualities, drawn from work I have been doing on interfaces to networked information, and will try to identify the areas of inquiry that will be vital to future advances in improving our interactions with computers.


Terry Winograd is Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University. His early research on natural language understanding by computers has been widely cited in artificial intelligence, and he wrote two books and numerous articles on that topic. His book, Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design (Addison-Wesley, 1987, co-authored with Fernando Flores), takes a critical look at artificial intelligence and suggests new directions for the design of computer systems and their integration into human activity. His most recent book, co-edited with Paul Adler, is Usability: Turning Technologies into Tools (Oxford, 1992).

Winograd is a founder of Action Technologies, a developer of workflow software, and on the national board of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, of which he is a founding member and past president. During the past year he has been on leave from Stanford at Interval Research, a new laboratory in Palo Alto. At Stanford he directs the Project on People, Computers, and Design and is developing a teaching and research program on Human-Computer Interaction Design.


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