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Mon, 23 Feb 2004

Thinking outside the [beige] box

Wave Report takes a look at a really cool NEC research project aimed squarely at replacing those boring rectangular computers we interact with with something ... different.

P-ISM is a "concept computer" -- an exercise in blue-sky design aimed at reconceptualizing what the hell a computer ought to be like. Wave Report's folks say: "the design concept uses five different pens to make a computer. One pen is a CPU, another a camera, one creates a virtual keyboard, another projects the visual output and thus the display and another a communicator (a phone). All five pens can rest in a holding block which recharges the batteries and holds the mass storage. Each pen communicates wireless, possibly Bluetooth."

I got yer computer, right here in this pocket protector.

But seriously, this is cool; I don't hold much hope for the projector screen (it adds a hidden requirement -- for a flat white surface), but flexible OLED roll-up displays are on the way, and they'd do the same job. I'm not sure about the virtual keyboards (ever tried touch-typing on the top of a table?) but a minor design compromise would be to use something like Think Outside's forthcoming folding bluetooth keyboard for PDAs (itself not much bigger than the base station for the P-ISM) when a keyboard is required, and a bluetooth-equipped stylus with some kind of position sensor for mouse/handwriting input the rest of the time. Storage is getting cheaper and consuming less energy, to the point where the next generation of PDAs (due by 2005) will sport gigabytes of solid-state storage, so it's a done deal. Power is still a headache but maybe fuel cells will replace batteries some time soon -- who knows?

The key thing is to get away from beige boxes. The beige-box appliance model is inherently limiting, as a quick glance at the history of home stereo systems will demonstrate. Back in the 70's we all had chunky racks of boxes, sized for a 19" rack because that was just big enough to accomodate a turntable and tone-arm sized for 33 rpm vinyl disks. And everything fitted around this form factor, because the box was a standard size. Even cassette decks were sized to fit the turntable and the 12"-diameter LP record, until the Walkman came along and upset several apple carts by demonstrating that you could have high quality stereo cassette players that were sized in proportion to their own medium. More recently, we've seen music centres shrink until they're sized in proportion to the compact disc format -- about 12 centimetres wide. It's taken the iPod to break us free from that particular blind spot, and it's still very much a handicap of all modular sound systems that they are built to accomodate the largest standard physical medium currently in use.

It's the same with computers. We size them to fit their big, rigid, glass-fronted screens; thus we have PDAs (a screen with a slab of electronics glued to their ass), tablet PC's and notebooks (a bigger screen with a slab of electronics hooked up to them via a hinged joint), and desktops (the IBM "three box" layout, dating to about 1982). But once we cut loose from physical screens, or switch to flexible displays or projector displays or eyes-up displays, we can throw the traditional form factors out of the window and have fun.

I don't think the Borg-style wearable is going to catch on as a day-to-day system for most people (although discreet spectacle-mounted displays and tiny cameras for life journaling are a bit more plausible) because they're simply too intrusive. As Peter Cochrane noted, about the quickest legal way to empty a first-class railway compartment is to open your briefcase and start attaching your mobile office to your head. People respond to wearable computers with reflexes honed by years of exposure to "Terminator", "Universal Soldier", and Star Trek. Which is to say, only the bad guys wear their hardware on the outside. However, I think something that resembles a pen case with five pens and a fold-out keyboard is much easier to accomodate on your person and fit into your life, and it kicks the shit out of a traditional laptop design. Remember the old monochrome plasma-screen luggables of the late 1980's? Or how your archaic stereo separates system with the turntable on top looks today? Thats how cumbersome today's iBook is going to look in five to ten years' time. This is a viable model for how the future will look, and I'd be surprised if something conceptually similar to the P-ISM isn't near-as-dammit permanently attached to my anatomy by 2014.

[Link Via slashdot] [Discuss toys]

posted at: 19:59 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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