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Coded for Cuteness: How the Furby Conquered Hearts and Minds

Real programming chops lay behind the Furby’s cuddly, creepy facade

5 min read
Photo: Mark Richards/Computer History Museum
My Friend Furby: Hasbro’s must-have toy of 1998 was the Furby. The specimen shown here now resides in the permanent collection of the Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, Calif.
Photo: Mark Richards/Computer History Museum

When I learned that the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., had added a Furby to its permanent collection, my first thought was, Why?

I am not of the Furby Generation and never quite understood the animatronic furball's appeal. When it first hit stores in the fall of 1998 as the must-have toy of the holiday season, I was just out of college and living in Europe. I wasn't drawn to the creepy/cute cross between an owl and a gremlin, nor did I know any kids who were clamoring for it. Curiosity did not compel me to perform a hacker's autopsy of the toy, nor did I have the creative chops to adapt them into weirdly compelling installations, as the artist Kelly Heaton did in the early 2000s. Eventually, Hasbro sold more than 40 million Furbys, none of them to me.

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How the Graphical User Interface Was Invented

Three decades of UI research came together in the mice, windows, and icons used today

18 min read
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Stylized drawing of a desktop computer with mouse and keyboard, on the screen are windows, Icons, and menus
Getty Images/IEEE Spectrum
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Mice, windows, icons, and menus: these are the ingredients of computer interfaces designed to be easy to grasp, simplicity itself to use, and straightforward to describe. The mouse is a pointer. Windows divide up the screen. Icons symbolize application programs and data. Menus list choices of action.

But the development of today’s graphical user interface was anything but simple. It took some 30 years of effort by engineers and computer scientists in universities, government laboratories, and corporate research groups, piggybacking on each other’s work, trying new ideas, repeating each other’s mistakes.

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