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.

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Project Glass

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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.