Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Touch Screen

by Drew MartinWe never had Atari or Intellivision or any of the first home computers, which the early adopters of the computer generation embraced. We had a lot of peaceful silence in our house - occasionally the television would be awoken - and yet, my brother and I were probably some of the first kids to play games on a computer.

My father was (and still is) a nuclear physicist. On the weekends he would take us to his laboratory to "change samples" (food, water and other items checked for their level of radioactivity). Some of the computers were massive units and the programs ran on reels of punched tape. There were lots of things to do at the lab: run up and down dark hallways, photocopy our hands, watch dry ice boil-over in water and dip things (flowers and rubber tubing) in liquid nitrogen and shatter them like glass on the floor. The computer we played on was pre-mouse, pre-computer graphics. The games were word adventures like the original version of Dungeons and Dragons:

Computer: You've entered a room and there is a hissing sound. What do you want to do?

Player: Light a torch
(thinking it is a snake)

Computer: The hissing sound was an open gas valve. You have blown yourself up. Start a new game?

I longed for something like a mouse or joystick and images: a graphical user interface. I used to randomly place letters and numbers on the screen and navigate my cursor around them (with the up, down, left, right arrows) like an obstacle course, but I was insatiable.

Years later, in the dawn of the 1980's, I took a middle school computer class and learned the basics of programming. Eager to make some kind of interactive graphic, I created a palm/hand out of rows of Xs and I wrote a program that asked ten specific and personal questions; date of birth, favorite color etc. The program instructed the user to place his or her palm on the hand on the screen (as if there was some kind of scanning or computer palm reading involved) and then answer the questions. After all of this was done, a fortune was told to the user such as: you will marry and have lots of will see the will live a long life...etc.

Looking back on this for the first time in almost 30 years, I see it was quite an insightful project for a tween. Ironically, as computer graphics evolved, I became less interested in the visual nature of images and more consumed by the literary abstractions and concepts behind them.