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An HCI Academic and Entrepeneur: Ron Baecker and Sorting out Sorting

January 20, 2013

I’ve known Professor Ron Baecker for over 20 years. He’s been teaching and researching in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto since 1972. Ron is a natural entrepreneur and while he’s started businesses he’s also started academic institutes and organizations, including the Knowledge Media Design Institute in 1996 (http://kmdi.utoronto.ca/), and more recently, TAGLab at the University of Toronto (http://taglab.utoronto.ca/news/). TAG stands for “Technologies for Aging Gracefully” and the mission of the lab is to identify “sweet spots” where technology seems relevant to human need, envision ways in which the technology could address those needs, then design and test prototypes. It’s a mission that I, and probably many other baby boomers, find attractive.

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When I first met Ron, it was through the Ontario Telepresence Project, which he was working on with Bill Buxton and Marilyn Mantei (now Tremaine). Ron and I were co-supervising a graduate student at the time and as someone just getting in to the field of human-computer interaction I was in awe of the research team that was working on that project. The team also included Abi Sellen (now a prominent HCI researcher in her own right). Hiroshii spent a year working with the project before moving to his current post at the MIT Media Lab, and Saul Greenberg was also a frequent visitor at the time.

Ron’s written a book on typography in programming (with Aaron Marcus) and he was also the lead editor on two influential collections of readings (one on human-computer interaction and the other on computer-supported cooperative work). The topics of the books give you an idea of the multidisciplinary nature of his research which has run from computer graphics in the early days all the way up to the current interest in aging and technology.

Ron’s a visionary, but his natural approach is to build a team and do a startup. One of his startups was the Knowledge Media Design Institute. It was fairly unique in cutting across the traditional university silos of departments and faculties. Originally started as a research institute, it became a collaborative teaching programme within the School of Graduate Studies before becoming part of the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, where it currently resides.

Of all the things that Ron’s done the one that I knew about before I came to Toronto and that I still greatly admire is his movie “Sorting out Sorting” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJwEwA5gOkM) which Ron made with David Sherman in 1981. It’s somewhat dated 30 years later, given everything that has happened in computer graphics, but it is still a beautiful, visual demonstration of how sorting algorithms work.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to visualize how the brain carries out different kinds of thinking tasks in the same way.

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Books

Baecker, R.M., Grudin, J., Buxton, W., and Greenberg, S. (1995). Readings in Human Computer Interaction: Toward the Year 2000, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 950 pp., including 190 pp. of original interpretive material.

Baecker, R.M. (1993). Readings in Groupware and Computer Supported Cooperative Work: Software to Facilitate Human-Human Collaboration, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 882 pp., including 60 pp. of original interpretive material.

Baecker, R.M. and Marcus, A. (1990). Human Factors and Typography for More Readable Programs, ACM Press, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 346 pp.

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