Novena (Bunnie Huang’s heirloom laptop)

Description of project:


Modular, replaceable, upgradeable electronics. Custom-made, possibly 3D-printed (or otherwise handmade?) cases. Free software.

And some info on sales:

As for the inevitable question about if these will be sold, and for how much…once we’re done building the system (and, “done” is a moving target — really, the whole idea is this is continuously under development and improving) I’ll make it available to qualified buyers. Because it’s open-source and a bit quirky, I’m shy on the idea of just selling it to anyone who comes along wanting a laptop. I’m worried about buyers who don’t understand that “open” also means a bit of DIY hacking to get things working, and that things are continuously under development. This could either lead to a lot of returns, or spending the next four years mired in basic customer support instead of doing development; neither option appeals to me. So, I’m thinking that the order inquiry form will be a python or javascript program that has to be correctly modified and submitted via github; or maybe I’ll just sell the kit of components, as this would target buyers who know what they are getting into, and can RTFM. And probably, it will be priced in accordance with what you’d expect to pay for a bespoke digital oscilloscope meant to take a position at the lab bench for years, and not a generic craptop that you’ll replace within a year. Think “heirloom laptop”.



In Idoru, one of the characters has a highly custom and personalized computer made by a group called Sandbenders. ‘They melt old cans they dig up on the beach and cast it in sand molds. These panels are micarta. That’s linen with this resin in it,’ she says.

3D printers. Crowdfunding. Alibaba. Things are coming to a head.

Ritual Objects

Sometimes I like to get spacey. This is one of those times.

Human-Computer Interfaces take a wide variety of sizes and shapes. There’s the design of the display (if there even is one – command line, GUI, etc.) the design of the instruments used to interact with the display (various favors of mice, keyboards, touchscreens, etc.), and the data that is displayed on them (census data, term papers, the Internet).

Standard configurations of these aspects (such as a laptop) are interesting to me when they’re pushed beyond typical usage patterns and become something unexpected. The laptop used to connect to the Internet in the mountains of Tibet, for instance. Or the cell phone used to control aerial drones. Or trading thumb drives to circumvent government censors in Cuba.

These instances aren’t a part of the rosy vision for computing that was presented to the public back in the 60s (a lie even then, as computers were used for wartime code breaking and missile calculations). Instead, they are examples of the human side of computing. Seeing the way things change in our societies, in our lives, as computing evolves.

And as computing evolves, so do our methods of interaction with it. Smartphones. The Twiddler. Surface. Project Glass. We’re finding new and amazing ways to change the way computers and humans interact. And I imagine a future in which everyone will have their own custom, ritual objects with which they will be able to operate their computers.

Children drawing on tablets with fat, crayon-like styluses. Monks, automatically logging into their computers using smart prayer beads. Music conductors, guiding their orchestra using motion capture and a digital baton. Computing is evolving away from the idea of the “computer” and towards the idea of smart objects, deriving semantic meaning from the context and behaviors of both everyday objects and highly specialized ones.

The monk, for instance. From what I can tell, most of them carry prayer beads (in almost every religion that has monks). These objects are common within the context of the monk’s life. Certainly “smart” functions could be added to their usage – vibration or a soft pulsing glow, reminding them to pray. Tracking computer usage or credentials. Even measuring anxiety by tracking when they’re used outside of scheduled prayer times, a sort of biofeedback for the spiritual life.

Do monks need this? Of course not. But monasteries have been centers of learning, literacy, and science for thousands of years. (e.g. Gregor Mendel). And much as technologies like the church bell or electric light have been adopted to further the goals of contemplatives, so could something along the lines of “smartening” objects such as these.

Project Glass


I want Project Glass to succeed. Because this is basically what I am looking for. A small screen for doing augmented reality and data display, mounted onto or embedded into my glasses. I want this for web browsing. I want this for writing code. For all the ambient data I use during the day. Weather, RSS feeds, calendars.

See the frame, with the screen on the side? That frame is gonna be an accessory for people who don’t wear glasses. Mark my words, you will be able to attach this to glasses you already own.

Will this be a standalone appliance? Probably. Based on the communication-centric nature of the video, my guess is that it’s a phone. But just like I can use my phone for 95% of what I want to do, so do I suspect I could with this. Including SSH/Remote Desktop.

I am not worried that Google is going to turn this into a walking billboard, and frankly I’m a little disappointed in the futurists and tech folk that are speaking about that as inevitable. It’s fine to talk about it – after all, it’s one of Google’s cash crops – but Android is no more an advertising mess than any other smartphone OS. Free iPhone apps (at least the ones I like) are full of ads. Pages in safari ask for my location all the time. But Android never had ads built into the notification. I wasn’t autosending texts telling my friends to buy a Nexus or anything. Heck, the iPhone’s default email signature is “Sent from my iPhone.” Elegant, but advertising nonetheless.

I do wonder what the data entry will look like. Maybe some eye-based control (although after writing that, I sort of doubt it), probably a few on-device hardware buttons, and almost certainly a Bluetooth keyboard (just because why wouldn’t you?). I know it’s a sign of crusty, maladjusted nerd to want a Twiddler (soon with Bluetooth!), but I do.

Sadly, I am cynical about what the current “alpha testing” actually looks like. I mean, true, Sergei himself was spotted wearing them in public. But who knows if it was an actual working version or not? My guess is that the current state of it is something woefully unsexy, like an emulator on a phone or a pair of Vuzix glasses connected to a webcam and a computer. Which makes me kind of sad – I was never buying the idea that these would go on sale in 2012, no matter how wide I open my wallet. But I am so. tired. of not being able to buy these awesome concepts.

I mean, I understand that hype is important. But it sometimes feels like designers are operating in a different dimension, content to see an object as “created” as soon as it’s featured on Yanko. Bruce Sterling calls it “design fiction.” And it’s awesome and terrible all at once. It shows us how awesome the world could become while reminding us how our current experiences are still lacking. Which is the nerd’s lot in life.

I doubt even Gruber would say that the iPhone is the best it will ever be. Apple’s gonna keep innovating, sculpting it, molding the experience. And when I’m 50, I’m going to look back at smartphones and laugh, the way I laugh now when I think about the Atari 800 I had when I was 7.

The end of Japanese mobile phone culture

Wikipedia’s article describing Japanese mobile phone culture is fascinating, but a bit dated at this point. Apparently, the iPhone is now the top seller in Japan (our trip to Japan in October saw evidence of this).

Honestly? It’s kind of depressing. A decade ago, user-facing Japanese cell phone technology was the cutting edge. i-mode, digital wallets, and even television technology placed Japan at the head of the pack. It was a place to which American cell phone nerds looked to find the future of mobile telephony.

And now I run the same phone as many of the people over there. The gap has narrowed. My wife and I were actually in Japan for the launch of the iPhone 4s. And there was a decent amount of hype. We played with them, as a matter of fact, a day before they came out in the US.

Don’t get me wrong, we saw a decent amount of the stereotypical flip phones in Japan, and even a few hybrids (I have never wanted a phone as much as I wanted this one), but the phone company literature I brought back was mostly showing off the new slab-of-glass style smartphones we see everywhere in the US.

The gap’s narrowed significantly, leaving Japanese technological superiority in mobile phones to the infrastructure of their cellular systems, as opposed to the devices themselves. I’m sure many people see this as a good thing, but it actually kind of disappoints me. I miss having Japan as a kind of looking glass into the future. It was special because of the fact that the technology was in use – now we’re left with manufacturer demos and rumors and all sorts of crap that may never actually see the light of day. Alas.

On the other hand, we’re still seeing the trickle of Japanese technologies into the US. NFC is slowly creeping into US phones via the likes of Google and Verizon. Streaming television over 4G networks, useable voice control (Android’s, not Siri. Siri has been almost universally terrible whenever I’ve tried to use it), and retina displays have been great leaps forward in US mobile phone technology. Consider your first cell phone – mine was an Audiovox candybar with a single-line LCD and about 50 minutes a month. Our family shared it. Compare that to your current cell phone.

Mobile phones are evolving. They’re converging into the average of all the phones that manufacturers are making. Of course, this is weighted heavily by popularity, with the iPhone becoming the leader and other manufacturers scrambling to copy their hardware design. I predict we’ll eventually see phones become millimeters-thick buttonless slabs of glass, a la William Gibson.

I admit, the title of this article is a bit melodramatic. Japanese mobile phone culture isn’t ending. But an era certainly is. It’s becoming a part of global smart phone culture. The gap, as I mentioned, is narrowing, and will continue to narrow.

(written on my iPhone)