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Microsoft Bob: the social interface.

"Bobs are familiar, Bobs are common. Everybody knows a Bob. Therefore, a product named Bob is easy for everyone to identify with and use."

--Microsoft white paper on "The Naming of Bob"

Sonic the Hedgehog, move over: Microsoft Bob is coming to town. That message was Topic #1 at the Consumer Electronics Show two weeks ago, where the Microsoft PR machine managed to create a show-wide buzz about a product that almost no one had heard about a week earlier. In a rare CES appearance, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates showed up to demo Bob at a standing-room-only keynote address. The TV networks, the newsweeklies, and dozens of daily papers promptly awarded Bob instant celebrity status--not a bad start for a product that isn't even expected to ship until March 31.

So what's all the fuss about? The truth is, most of Bob is pretty familiar stuff. Aimed at neophyte home users, Bob contains a suite of eight traditional applications (including word processing, e-mail, address book, checkbook, calendar, and geography game) linked by a common interface and some integrated services. The Bob interface--which displays application icons as familiar objects placed in "rooms"--is likewise a model that consumer software developers have been using for many years.

What sets Bob apart, however, is its pervasive use of animated cartoon characters to offer advice, present menu options, and suggest wizardlike tips for performing common tasks. In fact, virtually all interaction with the program takes place through these "friends of Bob," who constantly move around the screen, making suggestions, juggling objects, and otherwise displaying symptoms of pseudo-spontaneous behavior. Each of these dozen characters, moreover, has a distinct and often obtrusive personality; Bob users interact with their PCs by communicating with a psychotic MTV rat, a coffee-drinking lizard, a submissive rabbit, a hostile parrot, and other oddly-behaved creatures.

At first glance all this twitching and prancing looks like a bizarre approach to interface design, but in fact the high-profile Bob characters have a purpose: They reinforce what Microsoft calls its new "social interface" between humans and PCs. In his CES keynote, Gates unveiled the intriguing new design principles behind Bob, principles that he predicts will become "the next major evolutionary step in interface design." In essence, Gates suggests that the next generation of high-powered PCs will abandon traditional graphical desktops in favor of "social" interaction with humanlike agents that can understand, learn, and interpret what the user wants. Initially, these agents will display only rudimentary intelligence and problem-solving abilities, but they'll quickly get smarter and more responsive as PCs acquire the necessary MIPS to run realistic simulations.

Of course, the idea of plugging a talking head into an interface is again not exactly a breakthrough concept. (Back in 1987, for instance, John Sculley's Knowledge Navigator video introduced a bow-tied character named Phil who ran electronic errands.) But the Microsoft approach is deeper and richer, and rests on fairly compelling behavioral research. At CES we talked with two Stanford professors, Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, who have studied the psychology of how humans interact with computers. Their conclusion: At a subconscious level, people already think of computers as possessing some rudiments of intelligence and emotion. And when a computer screen communicates through a talking face or an animated figure, people generally learn more easily and trust the computer to give correct answers. "From childhood, every human is taught to be an expert in dealing with social interactions," says Nass. "We are not socialized to be experts in DOS or Windows."

Reeves and Nass point out that current PC hardware is still too limited to sustain a convincing illusion of human intelligence, so Bob relies on simpler two-dimensional cartoon figures of "Rover the Dog" and other talking creatures. ("As dogs go, Rover is incredibly smart," Nass points out.) The distinct personalities of the characters also help enhance the illusion of personalized interaction: Users pick a guide "friend" that, presumably, embodies the kind of social relationship they expect from the program. But Bob's interaction with users isn't pure illusion; the program is smart enough to observe and learn the quirks of each individual user, and gradually stops giving advice about tasks that a user seems to have mastered. (We know lots of real human beings who haven't figured out when to give up being backseat drivers...)

To be sure, there are still huge question marks about how the market will react to Bob. The target audience--people who've never found a reason to buy their first PC--may turn out to be unresponsive. The $99 price tag may be too high; the program's condescendingly crude graphics (very different from Microsoft's other highly-polished consumer titles) may turn off potential buyers. And the characters, which columnist Gina Smith recently called "insufferably cutesy," may turn out to be so irritating that users will quickly pull the plug on Bob.

But we suspect that Bob's short-term success really doesn't matter that much. Bob is above all else a giant Version 1.0 experiment that will teach Microsoft (and anyone else who's watching closely) a lot of valuable clues about how to design social interfaces for all types of applications, not just software for the home market.

In fact, Gates concluded his CES keynote by demonstrating a prototype of a 3-D animated, real-time character that understands spoken instructions and can interact with other characters. In predictably optimistic fashion, Gates insists we're only "about five years" from seeing widespread adoption of such technology. But whatever the real time frame, Bob almost certainly represents the first step in a fascinating new direction for personal computing.

David Thacher, group product manager/consumer division, Microsoft Corp., One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Wash. 98052-6399; 206/936-3778.
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Date:Jan 17, 1995
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