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While its future ownership is in doubt, the buttoned-down brain trust at PARC has lost none of the anything-goes enthusiasm that made it famous in the first place. It's a place where experts from entirely different academic disciplines mind-meld furiously, then run off in pursuit of the most challenging technological problems they can come up with. And right now, at the dawn of the Internet age, PARC scientists are most motivated by the question of how we digest our increasingly bloated diet of data. After all, they say, your total potential reading matter increased by a factor of 10,000 during the 1990s. "In a world where information is abundant, the scarce resource is attention," says Stu Card of PARC's User Interface research team. "That's what we're trying to do--manage user attention."
Both Gold and Card have this aim in mind, but there the similarities end. Gold is deeply tanned, ponytailed and fast talking, with a background in experimental music and toy design. His group has spent the past couple of years dreaming up utterly outlandish text-display inventions like Speeder Reader. There's the Tilty Table, a vast and thin computer screen on shock absorbers that you tilt in any direction to scroll through a document that would in real life be 30 ft. across; Listen Reader, which uses tiny embedded computer chips to produce different ambient sounds on each page of a children's book; and the Reading-Eye Dog, a robotic pet that uses a text-to-voice synthesizer to read out anything you care to put in front of it (making it fetch the paper as well as read it to you may take a little while longer).
Card, by contrast, is a soft-spoken, slightly geeky-looking psychologist and computer scientist; his group is involved in the more practical, down-to-earth business of making the Web more readable. He uses the jargon of Internet ecology, talking about the way we "forage" for information and hunt its "scent" to produce a balanced "diet." But that doesn't make his tools and results any less gee-whiz than Gold's. Step into Card's lab, and he will show you the device he uses on his test subjects, a metal headpiece with little cameras positioned in front of each eye. This scary-looking machine records your saccadic jumps while you hunt for information, and notes how long it takes for your pupils to dilate (that is, when you've found the particular scent you're looking for). His conclusion: "People tend to spend a lot more time skimming than reading."
You might think this would be a point in favor of hypertext links, those ubiquitous wormholes of the Web. Not so, says Card's team: its research shows the average user gets confused by blue underlined words, and that these links too often fail to communicate exactly where they're taking you. So what's the solution? Ask Card, and he will point to the screen shot of an enormous multisided shape his team jokingly refers to as the Death Star.