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Making the Future

Reading about the augmented future of technical communication triggered a memory.

Many years ago, when I worked at Computer Associates, they produced a product called CA-7/OLC. (I think that was the abbreviation.) It was an enhancement to their CA-7 software, which is still used for scheduling jobs on big old mainframe computers. The interface for CA-7 was, of course, the good old green screen – green text on a black background. The software came on – are you ready, kiddies – magnetic tapes.

CA-7/OLC was different. The demo included a large piece of hardware that played a 12-inch laserdisk. (Gee, I forget the names of all the parts after all these years.) The product was on a PC using 3.5-inch diskettes, and the laserdisk had some additional magic not possible on the PC back then.

When you ran the program, you saw the usual green-screen interface. Slightly boring, with a lot of numbers and the command line. The difference was in the Help section. You could look up something in the Help section – and bookmark relevant passages. That was revolutionary!

The real jaw-dropper was the video. You triggered the video somehow while researching some topic in the Help section. A video appeared in the upper-right corner of the monitor. This was in color! It had a talking head! The video showed a recording of a real person speaking to you about your selected topic! I think this was in the early 90s, so this was rather revolutionary, especially for a mainframe product.

CA had fun with the demo. When discussing the length of a data field, the woman in the video held out her hands to show the desired length. She smirked! To demonstrate the fact that you needed information in different languages, they had the same instructions in different languages, one of which was Valley Speak – Valspeak, as it is called in Wikipedia. OMG, it was, like, totally, amazing, you know, like? I was the only American in a room full of Danes watching this demo. I was in hysterics watching this part. It was so out of character for the usual dry, geeky mainframe products. It was a breath of fresh air.

The product was never sold. I think the main reason was that the setup was too expensive. Technology continued to develop and made the 12-inch laserdisk a dinosaur.

However, it showed us the future. It showed us interaction with a product. It showed up possible ways to use new technology. I am bit vague on some specifics, but I do remember the overall excitement so many years later. It was someone’s imagination brought to life. Breathing life into impossible or impractical projects stimulates us to make breakthroughs.

Watching the video in Alan’s blog post about our augmented future revived the memory of a demo, which is probably 20 years old. It reminds me that although there can be issues with these visions, those issues bring something tangible into the discussion that we can begin to analyse and test and evaluate. It helps us create our future.

Alan closes with this sentence:

Technical documentation is not just about the written word, it is about the communication of ideas and knowledge.

If we think like this, we will always be prepared for the future.

1 reply on “Making the Future”

My exposure to future tech possibilities was at Telaction Corporation, a subsidiary of JC Penny that attempted to develop interactive home shopping via cable TV and telephone in 1987. They created their interactive virtual malls on banks of laser discs (which is what reminded me of it in your post). After several years and several million dollars, the company folded because they couldn’t sell the cable companies on the infrastructure investment required to make it a reality. The only part of the project that made it to reality was the interactive kiosks in the JCPenny catalog departments that provide shopping from their online catalog. The primary drawback of the whole project was that they were about a decade ahead of the internet technology that makes online shopping a reality today.

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