Knowledge Navigator (1987/88)

The Knowledge Navigator is a concept described by former Apple Computer CEO John Sculley in his 1987 book, Odyssey. It describes a device that can access a large networked database of hypertext information, and use software agents to assist searching for information.

Apple produced several concept videos showcasing the idea. All of them featured a tablet style computer with numerous advanced capabilities, including an excellent text-to-speech system with no hint of “computerese”, a gesture based interface reminiscent of the multitouch interface used on the iPhone and an equally powerful speech understanding system, allowing the user to converse with the system via an animated “butler” as the software agent.

In one vignette a university professor returns home and turns on his computer, in the form of a tablet the size of a large-format book. The agent is a bow-tie wearing butler who appears on the screen and informs him that he has several calls waiting. He ignores most of these, from his mother, and instead uses the system to compile data for a talk on deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. While he is doing this, the computer informs him that a colleague is calling, and they then exchange data through their machines while holding a video based conversation.

In another such video, a young student uses a smaller handheld version of the system to prompt him while he gives a class presentation on volcanoes, eventually sending a movie of an exploding volcano to the video “blackboard”. In a final installment a user scans in a newspaper by placing it on the screen of the full-sized version, and then has it help him learn to read by listening to him read the scanned results, and prompting when he pauses.

The videos were written and conceived by Hugh Dubberly and Doris Mitsch of Apple Creative Services, and produced by The Kenwood Group in San Francisco. Director: Randy Field. Director of Photography: Bill Zarchy. As a vision statement the films were groundbreaking, as powerful a vision of the future of computing as 2001: A Space Odyssey. It may be useful to note that the video opened with the statement “In the year 2010.” Most viewers missed this indication that the Knowledge Navigator was a visitor from the future and wanted the features now.

The astute bow tie wearing software agent in the video has been the center of quite a few heated discussions in the domain of human-computer interaction. It was criticized as being an unrealistic portrayal of the capacities of any software agent in the foreseeable future, or even in a distant future. Some user interface professionals like Ben Shneiderman of the University of Maryland, College Park have also criticized its use of a human likeness for giving a misleading idea of the nature of any interaction with a computer, present or future.

Compared to recent research in the field of ubiquitous computing and augmented reality interfaces many of the aspects of the Knowledge Navigator seem a bit quaint. For some however this video prototype was and/or still is a source of motivation for their work. They see it as a goal set in a future they might help create one day. To some extent the concept was also used to position the Apple Newton handheld device. Newton was released before the technology was mature however, and proved to be a commercial failure. Eventually, the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web and several devices marketed by Apple’s competitors would indeed fulfill some of the visions of the Knowledge Navigator.


Knowledge Navigator. (2008, August 28). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:46, November 2, 2008, from

This article is licenced under the GNU Free Documentation License

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