Apple's 1987 Knowledge Navigator, Only One Month Late

In 1987, Apple released this concept video for Knowledge Navigator, a voice-based assistant combined with a touchscreen tablet computer.

Based on the dates mentioned in the Knowledge Navigator video, it takes place on September 16, 2011. The date on the professor’s calendar is September 16, and he’s looking for a 2006 paper written “about five years ago,” setting the year as 2011.

And this morning, at the iPhone keynote, Apple announced Siri, a natural language-based voice assistant, would be built into iOS 5 and a core part of the new iPhone 4S.

So, 24 years ago, Apple predicted a complex natural-language voice assistant built into a touchscreen Apple device, and was less than a month off.

(Thanks to Hugh Dubberly for the video, who helped create it for ex-CEO John Sculley’s EDUCOM 1987 keynote in six weeks on a $60,000 budget.)

67 thoughts on “Apple's 1987 Knowledge Navigator, Only One Month Late

  1. That’s nice and all but this video is not from 1987.. 1997 maybe. The lady at the beginning of the video mentions Yahoo which didn’t launch until 1995.

  2. Nice! I had forgotten about this (it’s been a few years since I’ve seen this). OpenDoc and CyberDog are a great reminisce however 🙂

  3. Ben G: The rest of the video is newer, probably circa 1996 or so, but the Knowledge Navigator part is from 1987. It was created for John Sculley’s 1987 keynote at EDUCOM. I replaced it with a version that’s lower-quality but won’t confuse people, and some supporting links for evidence.

  4. Very cool indeed.

    Yet the assistant in the video does seem to be much closer to a strong AI than Siri. Siri doesn’t e.g. summarize emails and phone calls. Still…

  5. If you really really get technical about it,

    Wednesday, September 16th as his to-do list states,

    would be 2009. Which is still very close to the iPad’s introduction January 2010.

    Just substitute ‘semesters’ for years in the vocabulary of this forgetful professor and it works out.

  6. “was less than a month off.”

    not really. its obvious that the guy in the commercial has had the navigator for a while already.

    still good

  7. Calendars repeat. Wednesday, Sept 16th last occured in 2009, will next occur in 2015, and also happened to occur in *GASP* 1987. The dates and years have nothing to do with any sort of prediction of where technology would be, or any sort of goals Apple had for getting there.

  8. How far is your tongue in your cheek? The functionality shown in this video is still quite a ways off.

  9. I think there is a deeper message to this video:

    “Remember what REALLY matters.”

    What really matters? In this video, what really matters is people and the planet.

    In this video we can get all the techno-gadgetry we want but we can’t stop forest degradation, climate change or desertification. Those situations need other ways of thinking to address them which is beyond what is possible to be addressed by any company or government.

  10. It’s amazing how we all watch the same video and there are hundreds of interpretations. Humans – got to love us.

  11. sadly they also thought Apple would still support external storage. ..and presumably the ability to manage your own files.

  12. Early computer technology users were housewives (recipe data storage), man of the house (personal finances) and business, and in the then future, science professors will be the ideal target user.

    In 2011, Apple markets their wondrous devices and software to young people who tweet, play games and share creative works.

  13. It’s funny how few commemters around the web – and the market – get that this is it. This is what Steve has held.on for, and this is exactly where Apple is taking Siri: the Conversational UI.

    I’d bet good money that

    a) The ‘beta’ designation and the network servers are there in the main to train Siri. You get tons of data on what people are saying and what ‘more’ they wish Siri could understand – where the edges are, where to grow the envelope. (Eventually (?) Siri can probably be ‘explained’ new concepts in plain language, for now that’s probably a tedious-ish task for some Deep Beta group plus a buncha devs.)

    b) It already can do many more things than they’ve shown off. And probably has a clever response to “Open the pod bay doors, Siri.”

    c) People asking for this on iPad, Lion etc. Don’t Get It. This is your Personal Assistant – it’s always with you on a smartphone backed up by the cloud. The iPhone can talk to any other BT devices, like all your apple gear, and your wifi network. (Maybe they’ll bring it to their other platforms in an interim move to placate the crowd, but ultimately I think that will.come.to seem backwards. This is the wearable.)

    (maybe) d) Siri can, in fact, process a lot of ‘basic’ stuff locally, or even, say, the current concept base / dictionary, which’ll regularly get updates from the cloud training.

    Me, I’m waiting for “When I X, do Y” e.g., “When I tell you I wanna watch movie X, check Netflix first. If they don’t have it, …” – actually, it’ll already have been taught that one from others…

  14. thanks, winkler.

    funny, that’s also the date jobs left and rejoined apple…

    wired.com/thisdayintech/2010/09/0916jobs-out-in-apple/

  15. Oh sorry, you’re *that* Dan Winkler.

    …why am I getting the feeling there’s something really big and obvious I’m missing here? Did I sleep thru the Singularity?

    Was there some really Heavy Magic joojoo done back in the Alan Kay days, after that big night with Sandoz? The big, tricky storylines laid out to get all us slower folk from There to Here?

    “OK Bill, you got the deuce. You run the Mega-corp That Does Everything in The Most Retarded Way Possible, to deeply ingrain in people the desire for Righteous Design.”

    – “aww, do I gotta? Why can’t I make the Righteous Design stuff? And why do i gotta be such a *schlub*?”

    “Steve got the Ace. C’mon, we discussed all of this beforehand, remember? Everyone has a burden to bear. Before it’s all over Steve faces more danger than almost any of us. He might end up the most hated man ever in Phase x-1, which didn’t work out well last time. Anyway

    “Now, ‘VALIS’ [winks – in the background we hear lots of giggling, sniggering and catcalls] we’re going to be calling you SIRI at first…here’s why…”

  16. What a ridiculous premise for an article. Did the author research all of the WRONG predictions in Apple ads down through the years? This is what is called LUCK.Even a broken watch is right twice a day.

  17. What I find interesting is the “Avatar” in the demonstrating is the spitting image of Mark Zuckerburg and the “user” is very similar to Steve Jobs!

  18. The film was produced in 87. I know because I directed it for Apple and Hugh Dubberly. I added the part about being pestered by his mother as an homage to my own mom.

    It was shot in one day in a home in SF, took 3-4 days to assemble at One Pass Film and Video and we thought it would only be shown once or twice by Scully.

    So much for vision.

  19. Thanks so much for commenting! Amazing that your work was still being used in Apple marketing materials ten years later, completely untouched.

  20. Um. Duh. Siri was invented YEARS ago – they only recently were bought and repacked and released by Apple. I mean, they got 8.5M in funding in 2008.

    So any correlation you have is ridiculous and wrong.

  21. You must be fun at parties! Two things: First, I said it was the first time that a natural-language voice assistant was built into an Apple product; not when Siri was invented. Second, this was only a fun coincidence. Don’t take it too seriously.

  22. Thing is, even in my own home I’m not going to sit here talking to my computer. If my kids are here they’re not going to let me. What about a big open plan office, it would be a nightmare.

    Sure, this guy sits all alone in a big empty room. Lucky for him. What happens when he needs to consult his ‘laptop’ with a few students sitting in his room with him?

  23. Holly crap.

    I have WAY too much faith in the human race after all…

    Do these commentators really exist?!

    Seriously tho. Are you for real…?

    Thank god for Andy keepin’ it together (and fun) for the rest of us (or just me and Gruber maybe).

    Also, Randy Field, nice job, you wizard of Oz you.

    (IT’S A JOKE. STOP ALREADY)

    Ok, I’m out.

  24. I dont know why apple would fanboys (daring fireball) would want apple to take the credit for this suddenly. Siri was there since quite long and it was ACQUIRED by apple. as soon as Apple showcased it, it became super cool and SJ became more genious than Edison himself. It would be interesting to see Apple Fanboy blogs when Apple stumbles which it will some day.

  25. This video was put together for and influenced by John Scully and I believe shown by him at a Macworld Speech that year. He and Apple got a lot of publicity out of it.

  26. Soma – Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll be something else to be excited about by the time Apple “stumbles”. In fact, there already is! That’s the great thing about life, enjoying things and being curious. It’s exciting to have Apple and their presentation of products (even if acquired) spark my enthusiasm, and it’s in no way exclusive of you being excited about android (sorry, that was an assumption, totally not cool…). Think, in the perfect world, we could be friends sharing with each other our love for technology and innovation! Handholding, pastures of flowers, and shiny modern tech devices… sigh… 🙂

    Anyways… Look at this cool coincidence! Apple products are great! They definitely eclipse the moon, universe, and my family in importance!

    PS. Speaking of blogs. Do you remember “As the Apple Turns”? That was some AMAZING blogging.

  27. I was a Mac user at the time and worked at Bell Labs (AT&T). When this video aired, a memo came out from the very top of AT&T – why can’t we project an image like this – we’re the largest corporation in the world. I (distantly) recall that there were talks with Apple at the time.

    That was then. AT&T was the largest corp in the world – and Apple was this little tiny company with a vision. Oh how times have changed 🙂

    D

  28. I had a VHS tape around 1990 – 91 with this and the extended piece with the kid and the small handheld version giving the volcano report in class and controlling the video screen and I think some other scenarios using the Knowledge Navigator in different settings. One I remember was kind of cool. Someone circled some text on a piece of paper and held it to the screen and it was scanned. The tape had about 4 hours of “The Power to Be Your Best” commercials and many internal Apple videos that I have yet to see anywhere online since. I really wish I had that tape… and VCR to play it on 🙂

  29. If you’ve ever endured the office politics, or Cthulu Forbid, the meetings at a GloboCorp like AT&T, you know that they’ll *never* be able to disruptively innovate. They can’t even *see* – still! – what iPad is, let alone Siri. People can but not the Corps.

    When only followers get promoted, you run out of leadership pretty fast.

    Betcha internal Apple design meetings aren’t daylong snoozefest deathmarches. When people can commit passionately and fight over ideas – when they trust each other enough to put their ass on the line, and be wrong, because they share real goals – then things can move and you can Do Stuff.

    Design by ass-covering committee members with no ownership of ideas creates bullshit like Windows and Transformer 3s and Xooms and all the rest. It’s cargo cult science: it almost looks like the real thing, but it taste like mildewed cardboard. Yum! go the pundits…gaahk

  30. (this is what gives me hope for OWS vs The 0.01%: we’re Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner, WALL-E & friends. They’re dinosaurs, albeit with nukes)

  31. @Soma. Dude, seriously, the only “fanboys” existing are inside your mind. Why are you having such a strong emotional problem with Apple and their customers? Why the need for aggression, and accusations, and belittling of Jobs, which, frankly, looks quite rude and classless at this particular point in time? Why hate? Please try to relax, and leave other people alone.

  32. I don’t like that they had to cut down all that rain forest to build those personal assistant factories in Brazil.

  33. Indeed, combine this with the best thing Apple have have never followed up on (SonyErcsson’s Bluetooth watch functionality) and you can BE THE HOFF

  34. They weren’t one month late, the video obviously shows a beta user so they were actually on time or early.

  35. Andy,

    Thanks for posting this, sorry a good chunk of the commenter here have saggy diapers.

    prospect

  36. @Soma:

    You said something in your comment that should help you understand why Apple customers are so loyal… “when Apple stumbles some day”. That sums it up, they don’t screw up very often. You hate them and all you can say is “when they screw up some day”. of course they will make mistakes, but so far they seem to try harder not to than anyone else and I would rather support that effort with my money than the kings of beta software over at google. Jobs is considered a genius for creating the company that cares about good products, cares about design and fosters an attitude of excellence. He created a corporate attitude that is rare today and the loyal following proves his genius even if you aren’t able to appreciate it. And as for calling Apple customers fanboys… it seems far more odd to spend energy disliking a company whose products you are not required to use, than to appreciate a company who makes products you like.

  37. This ad is emblematic of the Scully era: pretentious classical music, over-promised vaporware in some pie-in-the-sky future, stodgy, badly written and limply enacted. Jeez, even the on-screen AI is a dork.

    Jobs would have NEVER approved such an ad. His Apple was all about the here-and-now, under-promised surprising products that had undeniable cool. With Siri we see the beginnings of a true Intelligent Assistant, delivered one coherent step at a time, without any grandiosity.

    If we see Apple ads like this again, we will know the Jobs era is truly over and the suits are back in charge,

  38. This ad is emblematic of the Scully era: pretentious classical music, over-promised vaporware in some pie-in-the-sky future, stodgy, badly written and limply enacted. Jeez, even the on-screen AI is a dork.

    Jobs would have NEVER approved such an ad. His Apple was all about the here-and-now, under-promised surprising products that had undeniable cool. With Siri we see the beginnings of a true Intelligent Assistant, delivered one coherent step at a time, without any grandiosity.

    If we see Apple ads like this again, we will know the Jobs era is truly over and the suits are back in charge,

  39. It is not 2011, as it says “Wednesday, September 16”. During the rainforest data, it goes through 2010, so I checked 2010 on, and the first Wednesday is 2015. I guess 9 years is “about” 5 years before 2015….

    Also, I know the professor he asked to set up an appointment with at the end of the video. 🙂

  40. I don’t think this was an ad. I know The Apple Users Group sent our user group videos regularly and this was in one of the packages. But there was another one in the same month showing a man setting on a park beach with a thin computer (about the size of an iPad) reading, then listening as it read, looked up a word and gave a definition. As I remember the man was dressed casually and the announcer gave a short explanation of a couple of capabilities of this thin computer.

    As a member of the group and a teacher, I asked and received permission to show these videos in computer classes. This helped students visualize what the future could hold for them.

  41. How the Knowledge Navigator video came about

    Sparked by the introduction of Siri, as well as products such as iPad and Skype, there have been many recent posts and articles tracing the technologies back to a 1987 Apple video called “Knowledge Navigator” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGYFEI6uLy0). The video simulated an intelligent personal assistant, video chat, linked databases and simulations decades before they were commercially available. Having been involved in making Knowledge Navigator with some enormously talented Apple colleagues, I thought I would correct the record once and for all about what really happened:

    Educom, the main higher education conference for academic computing, was coming up in October 1987. At the time, I was leading the Higher Education Marketing Group, and had been doing so since Steve Jobs and Dan’l Lewin had left Apple to start NeXT in mid-1985. Steve and Dan’l knew all the higher education influencers and decision makers from their time at Apple (Dan’l had led the creation of the Apple University Consortium), and they had been giving sneak previews of various technologies and products that NeXT was building (but had not shipped). NeXT claimed to be focused exclusively on the higher education market. Many of the higher ed influencers and decision makers were saying that Apple had no vision for its future product line. John Sculley was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at Educom, and the stakes were high for us to show some “vision” of where Apple was going. I met with John to prepare for the speech and discuss ideas of what we could do. We planned to incorporate a number of live demos of educational examples of hypertext, multimedia, and interactive learning, using professors and researchers from various colleges to do the demos. John Sculley’s book, Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple, had just come out and John gave me a copy of it to read. I pored through it trying to find some ideas for his keynote. The last chapter was John’s vision he had developed in many discussions with Alan Kay (an Apple Fellow at the time), where he described the Knowledge Navigator and even had a rough sketch of it, with two joysticks on a screen that one would hold to “drive” through libraries of knowledge.

    I discussed the concept of the Knowledge Navigator from John’s book with Hugh Dubberly and Doris Mitsch in Apple Creative Services and we subsequently met with John again to review his thoughts. Michael Markman joined our team to write John’s keynote speech. Together with Mike Liebhold in Apple’s Advanced Technology Group, we discussed how we could make a vision video of a higher education example of the Knowledge Navigator. Hugh and Doris wrote the script with input from a number of people (see Hugh’s blog for more detail on other sources of inspiration for the script and all the folks involved in the production process: http://www.dubberly.com/articles/the-making-of-knowledge-navigator.html) and I funded the project from the Higher Education Marketing budget. It’s important to note that the Knowledge Navigator vision first articulated in Odyssey morphed quite a bit based on Hugh and Doris’s research, inspiration and contribution from other luminaries in and outside of Apple, and our point of view from working with cutting edge researchers in higher education. We had very little time to pull this off, but sometimes having less time actually focuses the project and keeps the script tight and the length short (KN is only a little over five minutes). Hugh and Doris worked with an outside production company, The Kenwood Group, as a contractor to Apple, and turned the video around in six weeks. John did the keynote at Educom, the live demos came off without a hitch, and we ended with the first showing of the Knowledge Navigator (recall that the example is about a professor coming to work, checking his email, doing some research online, connecting with a colleague in Brazil in a live two-way video a la Skype, etc.). The higher education community received John’s keynote very favorably and felt better about Apple’s “vision,” even though it had nothing to do with our product strategy and had been made in 6 weeks!

    There was no big hullabaloo about Knowledge Navigator in the couple months post Educom (the mainstream media does not attend Educom). For Macworld Expo in January, 1988, Jean Louis Gassee, SVP of Product at Apple, was the designated keynote and was supposed to roll out Apple’s new product strategy. About two weeks before Macworld in late December, Jean Louis informed John that he was not going to be ready to talk about the updated Apple product strategy. John called me and asked if we could do the Educom keynote again at Macworld, tweaking a few things for a more general audience. I called all the demoers again and they all agreed to come out to CA and we tweaked the demos to be less academic. And of course we concluded by showing Knowledge Navigator. (We took advantage of the interval to enhance the screen simulations beyond what we could deliver on the original tight schedule.). It was at Macworld that the general public, including the mainstream media and tech media, saw KN for the first time. And they immediately hailed it as Apple’s new vision. John then started using KN in employee meetings, with the press, etc. He was pictured several months later on the cover of Fortune magazine holding the balsa wood model of the KN that we had used in the video shoot. From that point forward, the mythology around Knowledge Navigator has grown unabated! Among the false legends: that it was produced by George Lucas and that it was produced using Apple’s Cray supercomputer.

    Several months later, sparked by the widespread interest and acclaim for Knowledge Navigator, the Higher Education Group and our team in Creative Services led by Hugh and Doris, did another visionary video project called Project 2000, which featured Ray Bradbury, Diane Ravitch, Alvin Toffler, Alan Kay and Steve Wozniak (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWlA_cDE5RU&feature=youtu.be). It is very cool, but never received the same notoriety as Knowledge Navigator.

    Bud Colligan

    Apple’s Director of Higher Education Marketing, 1985 – 1988

    November 20, 2011

  42. Thank you Bud Colligan!

    I have been on the lookout quite a while for that bit of video of the man sitting on a park bench, learning to read. I saw both the Knowledge Navigator video and probably the Project 2000 video at, I think, a SIGCHI conference many years ago. At the time, they both were magical visions.

    Only today did I watch a couple of the Siri TV ads. Their similarity to the Knowledge Navigator piece is striking and it’s hard to believe it’s not intentional.

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