I’m often puzzled by how satisfying older technology is. What a treat it is to muscle around an ancient teletype, feeding it new-old paper-tape or rolls of industrial paper with the weight of a bygone era. What pleasure I take from the length of piano roll I’ve hung like a banner from a high place in every office I’ve had since 2000.
How much satisfaction I derive from the racing works of the 1965 mechanical watch I received as a Father’s Day present this year, audible in rare moments of ambient silence or when my hand strays near my ear, going tick-tick-tick-tick like the pattering heart of a pet mouse held loosely in my hand.
The standard explanation for the attractiveness of this old stuff is simply that They Made It Better In The Old Days. But this isn’t necessarily or even usually true. Some of my favorite old technologies are as poorly made as today’s throwaway products from China’s Pearl River Delta sweatshops.
Take that piano roll, for example: a flimsy entertainment, hardly made to be appreciated as an artifact in itself. And those rattling machine-gun teletypes and caterpillar-feed printers — they have all the elegance of a plastic cap gun that falls apart after the first roll of caps has run through it.
Today, I have a different answer. Sitting beside me as I type this is a 512GB Kingston solid-state drive, its case lights strobing like the world’s tiniest rave. Every time I look at this thing, I giggle. I’ve been giggling all afternoon.
I got my first personal computer in 1979, an Apple II+, and it came with 48K of main memory. I remember the day we upgraded the RAM to 64K, my father slotting in the huge board reverently, knowing that it represented $495 worth of our family’s tight technology budget (about $1,500 in today’s money). What I really remember is the screaming performance boost we got from that board.
The first time RAM made me laugh was in the mid-1990s. My mentor and friend, Miqe, and I were doing prepress jobs on brand-new Macintosh Quadras. It would often take a Quadra three or four days to complete a job. Of course, every machine already had as much RAM as it could handle (136MB).
Miqe and I got to talking about the performance improvements we’d be able to get with an unthinkable 500MB of RAM. Then we thought about 1GB of RAM and all we could do with it. Finally, we strained our imaginations to their outer limits and tried to imagine computing at 1TB of RAM.
And we started to laugh. This substance that cost more than its weight in gold — that solved all our problems — sometime in our lifetimes would be so cheap and abundant that we would have literally unimaginable amounts of it.
And that’s why I’ve been giggling at this half-terabyte RAM (OK, RAM-like) drive that I just spent $1,500 on — the same sum Dad parted with for a 64K upgrade card 30 years ago.
Which brings me back to these beautiful old objects I have around my office. I don’t have these here because they’re inherently well-made. I have them because they’re the best joke we have.
They’re the continuous, ever-delightful reminder that we inhabit a future that rushes past us so loudly we can barely hear the ticking of our watches as they are subsumed into our phones, which are subsumed into our PCs, which are presently doing their damnedest to burrow under our skin.
The poets of yore kept human skulls on their desks as memento mori — reminders of mortality and humanity’s fragility. I keep these old fossil machines around for the opposite reason: to remind me, again and again, of the vertiginous hilarity of our
age of wonders.
Cory Doctorow’s latest novel is Makers (Tor Books U.S., HarperVoyager U.K.). He lives in London and co-edits the website Boing Boing.
This column is excerpted from MAKE Volume 24, page 16.
Check out MAKE Volume 24:
MAKE blasts into orbit and beyond with our DIY Space issue. Put your own satellite in orbit, launch a stratosphere balloon probe, and analyze galaxies for $20 with an easy spectrograph! We talk to the rocket mavericks reinventing the space industry, and renegade NASA hackers making smartphone robots and Lego satellites. This, plus a full payload of other cool DIY projects, from a helium-balloon camera that’s better than Google Earth, to an electromagnetic levitator that shoots aluminum rings, and much more.
Some companies fail, some kill off product lines that are not profitable, but in the end, where does all the knowledge go? Nowhere, usually. In a world of disposable everything, is it time that we demand companies do what’s good for humankind in addition to the bottom line?
If companies are going to just kill something off, why not open source it? Some companies do just that, and others, like Nokia, will promise open source (Symbian, dead product) and then quickly reverse itself, locking it up. Pictured above, a Nokia coffin.
In this article I’m going to share my collection of products that no longer exist but should (or could) have been released as open source projects. Part of the goal is for you to post the ones you’d like to see “open sourced” as well. My list includes some familiar favorites, like the Sony humanoid robots, to some old timers like Ricochet wireless cards.
To kick it off, I’m going to start with things that beat humans. I’m not sure if there needs to be a new law of robotics for creators, but I’d like to see one that says, “If you, the creator, make something to beat or mimic humans, you need to show your work at some point.” Seems fair.
Sony AIBO & Sony QRIO
The first on my list are Sony’s robotic pets and humanoid efforts.
AIBO (Artificial Intelligence roBOt, homonymous with “pal” or “partner” in Japanese) was one of several types of robotic pets designed and manufactured by Sony. There have been several different models since their introduction on May 11, 1999 although AIBO was discontinued in 2006. AIBO is able to walk, “see” its environment via camera and recognize spoken commands in Spanish and English. AIBO robotic pets are considered to be autonomous robots since they are able to learn and mature based on external stimuli from their owner, their environment and from other AIBOs. Artist Hajime Sorayama created the initial designs for the AIBO. The original designs are part of the permanent collections of MoMA and the Smithsonian Institution. The design won Sony and its designer Sorayama the highest design award that may be conferred by Japan. On January 26, 2006 Sony announced that it would discontinue AIBO and several other products as of March, 2006 in Sony’s effort to make the company more profitable.
Around 120,000 AIBOs were sold, and while Sony threatened some of the early AIBO modders, these robotic pets eventually became the symbol for many of what robotics could be. The AIBO was amazing; I had a couple of them, and their servos to their vision systems are what roboticists work on for years and rarely get right. It’s a hard problem, and Sony did good work. But now it’s gone.
On January 26, 2006, on the same day as it announced its discontinuation of AIBO and other products, Sony announced that it would stop development of QRIO. Before it was canceled, QRIO was reported to be going through numerous development, testing and scalability phases, with the intent of becoming commercially available within three or four years.
QRIO is capable of voice and face recognition, making it able to remember people as well as their likes and dislikes. A video on QRIO’s website shows it speaking with several children. QRIO can run at 23 cm/s, and is credited in Guinness World Records (2005 edition) as being the first bipedal robot capable of running (which it defines as moving while both legs are off the ground at the same time). The 4th generation QRIO’s internal battery lasts about 1 hour.
I was able to see these little bots in person while working with Sony in Japan (video above); they’re amazing — there’s nothing like them. If Sony wants to develop something that either mimics or competes with humans, at the minimum they should release the work if they kill it off. Think of the advances in robotics we’d have — from prosthetics to AI, both the QRIO and AIBO represent decades of research — open sourcing it, working with universities or plain giving it away is what feels “right.” At the time of this writing, Sony is responsible for the largest ID theft in history — over 75 million users compromised over the PlayStation Network — it will take a long time for Sony to rebuild the trust and loyalty of their customers. Some random acts of kindness would help; donating their robotics research is just one of the many things available.
IBM’s Deep Blue
OK, so it’s debatable if this is a “product,” but I think it counts. IBM made a chess computer to beat humans, but it’s still unclear to many if it actually worked. It didn’t “fail” or go out of business, but it beat humans, one of our best chess players, so I think it counts.
On May 11, 1997, the machine won a six-game match by two wins to one with three draws against world champion Garry Kasparov. Kasparov accused IBM of cheating and demanded a rematch, but IBM refused and dismantled Deep Blue.
IBM is really active in the open source community; perhaps we could collectively request access to the Deep Blue source to not only see how it beat our best human chess player at the time, but to run our own versions of Deep Blue (it could run on a modern computer for sure by now). It might also clear up a lot of questions on how exactly IBM beat Kasparov too. I’d like to see kids build Deep Blues with Legos. Deep Blue was more than 10 years ago, c’mon!
At a previous Maker Faire, a retired IBM engineer told me that Deep Blue was actually sold to Lenovo (China) and it’s in their executive lounge. I’m pretty sure he was just kidding, but really, who knows.
Next up are products over the last few years that either didn’t make it or were killed off.
Imagine being able to get online anywhere, at broadband speeds — well, we can all do that now, but in 1999 Ricochet Wireless was the way to go.
Ricochet was one of the pioneering wireless Internet services in the United States, before Wi-Fi, 3G, and other broadband technologies were available to the general public. It was offered by Metricom Incorporated, which shut down in 2001. Ricochet’s main draw, however, was that it was wireless; at the time, there were almost no other options for a wireless Internet connection. Cellular phones were not as prevalent as today, and wireless data services such as GPRS had not yet been deployed on US cellular networks. It was possible to use specially adapted dialup modems over cellular connections, but this was slow (typically topping out at 9.6 kbit/s), expensive (per-minute charges applied), and often flaky. In contrast, Ricochet was fast, flat-rate, and very reliable.
The company’s assets were sold off a few times, and it was turned on and off in early 2000s again, but eventually it just died off. While it’s not useful now, imagine if it was open sourced around 2001. Perhaps we’d all be using a slightly different standard, or ways to get online would be cheaper and faster, or maybe we all wouldn’t be stuck with crappy service from the 2-3 remaining big cell carriers. I loved paying $29 a month in 1999 for better access than I have now.
Potenco’s Pull-Cord Generator (PCG)
This one is a little tricky — they are/were a startup — I know some of the founders, but I’m pretty sure they’ve all moved on, and last I heard (a few years ago) the assets were being shopped around. I can’t think of a better thing to consider open sourcing.
PCG1: Personal Device Charger. Introducing the PCG1, a human-powered generator that creates and stores hours of charge for portable electronics. The PCG1 provides energy independence for people traveling, on the go, in the wild, or in an emergency. The PCG1 is sure to bring life to your tired electronics. 1 minute of pulling the PCG1 provides: 20 minutes of talk time on a mobile phone, 6 hrs of music on an MP3 player, 45 min of play on a Nintendo DS lite.
This is a complicated problem — it might be unsolvable until material sciences catch up, but at this point it’s been 5 years since Potenco was in just about every “green” gadget story, so maybe it’s time to release it to the open hardware community. Although I’ve played with the device and knew of the few folks involved, I didn’t get one (I really wanted one). I selfishly want one of these gadgets, so I put it on my list.
Remember when everyone had a Palm? Me too. Well those days are over — phones caught up and became the portable organizers and app runners. My favorite was the Palm V — low power, low cost — it’s a mini computer that is still used by makers for things like bike computers. Palm was bought by HP, so no more Palm for the most part.
Palm handhelds are Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) which run the Palm OS. Palm devices have evolved from handhelds to smartphones which run Palm OS, WebOS, and Windows Mobile. This page describes the range of Palm devices, from the first generation of Palm machines known as the Pilot through to the latest models currently produced by Palm, Inc including their new Palm Pre line of consumer smartphones. The Palm Treo 700p is one of many smartphones produced that combines Palm PDA functions with a cell phone, allowing for built-in voice and data.
On 28 April 2010 it was announced that Hewlett-Packard would acquire Palm for around US$1.2bn. Although HP kept the Palm brand initially, all new PDA devices announced at press announcement on February 9, 2011, were branded as HP devices, not as Palm devices.
The old Palms (include the US Robotics, 3Com models) aren’t useful for anyone now as a commercial product, but their applications for embedded electronics, low-cost computers for developing nations are endless. If the Palm OS was open sourced, the OLPC could have had a running start, and perhaps the price point could have been under $100 from the start?
Microsoft’s SPOT Watches and Technology
The SPOT tech is almost the same as Palm in my mind — lots of smart work, but now it’s all gone. It was really interesting (at the time) to use FM signals to deliver “ambient” information. We’re starting to see some “smart watches” come out now from folks, like the inPulse. But imagine having access to millions spent in R&D now.
Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) was developed by Microsoft to personalize household electronics and other everyday devices, through “smart” software and hardware that would make their uses more versatile. The SPOT technology used MSN Direct network services, delivered across the United States and Canada based on FM radio broadcast signals in about 100 metropolitan areas. The service cost $59 a year. Smart wristwatches were the first SPOT-based application, introduced in 2004 from watchmakers Fossil, Inc. and Suunto, with later models from Tissot and Swatch. SPOT technologies also included coffeemakers by Melitta. It was also planned to use SPOT technology in alarm clocks and weather stations. In 2008, the SPOT technology was applied to traffic and map updates for GPS units for Garmin. While SPOT had a higher local bandwidth than either competing service (RDS or Sirius), it was too late to the market to establish itself.
SPOT watches were discontinued in 2008. The MSN Direct service will continue to support the already sold SPOT smart watches, and other devices, only until December 31, 2011, when transmissions will cease. MSN Direct announces that service will be discontinued on January 1, 2012 due to reduced demand, since the increase of availability of Wi-Fi, Cellular, FM RDS and other digital networks.
Technically, the SPOT lives on via the open source product the Netduino — so while the hardware is all shelved, the software still lives on in some small way.
CISCO Flip Camera
For a while everyone had Flip cameras, until phones got good enough it seems. There were lots of players in that space — even Apple added video recording to their iPod models — but eventually Cisco killed off their purchase, and layoffs are happening now. Some details from the WSJ:
Cisco two years ago made a big splash by buying the maker of the Flip, the perfect-for-the-YouTube-age video camera that was then a tech geek accessory of choice. Now, Cisco is killing off the Flip. Today, the company announced it will “exit aspects of its consumer businesses,” including shutting down Flip.
Just a week ago, Cisco CEO John Chambers issued a mea culpa admitting to problems with slow decision making and lack of “discipline” at the networking company. Chambers signaled that change was coming, and apparently Flip was steamrolled to make way for change.
In 2009, Cisco agreed to acquire Flip maker Pure Digital Technology in a stock deal valued at around $590 million at the time. The deal was one of Cisco’s biggest forays into the fickle, low margin world of consumer electronics. At the time (and since), analysts questioned whether Cisco was making a mistake by getting into the fiercely competitive business with established giants such as Sony.
What a waste! There was recent NYTimes article about folks making a “digital camera kit” to teach how they work and inspire young folks to get excited about engineering. Cisco could do this today. Upload the firmware to GitHub, the BOM to a wiki, the CAD to Thingiverse, and watch a million camera projects flourish. Pictured above: BigShot, the prototype of a kit for building a digital camera. It was created by Shree K. Nayar, a professor of computer science at Columbia University.
The list goes on and on, and that’s where you come in. I’ve left a few obvious ones like the Apple Newton (I think Palm is closer for a candidate), but what are yours? Post up your choice of products that no longer are made, and most importantly, why they should be open sourced and who this could help the most!
The F-1 is still the most powerful single-chamber liquid-fueled rocket engine ever put into service. Manufactured by Rocketdyne, five F-1 engines were used in the first stage of each Saturn V rocket, each generating 1.5 million pounds-force of thrust—more than all three Space Shuttle main engines combined. The present model comes from the 1964-5 New York World’s Fair, held in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
Bonhams is handling the auction of the model, which is being sold as is, where is, in Garden City, NY, and is expected to fetch $15-25K. [Thanks, Rachel!]
We posted about Frida V. (Free Ride Data Acquisition Vehicle), a mapping bicycle, back in 2007. However, it looks like they haven’t quit working on this neat project.
Frida V. is a rugged and comfortable bicycle equipped for efficient exploration and mapping of public urban spaces. It carries a small computer, GPS positioning device, 802.11 wireless network transciever and a basic audiovisual recording unit. The consolidated software and hardware assembly enables automated mapping of stumbled wireless networks, easy creation of location-tagged media and opportunistic synchronization with a server resource on the internet. In other words, let the warriding and rideblogging begin!
After shrinking its electronic components aisle down to a single parsimonious cabinet flanked by overpriced batteries, TVs, and cell phones, it would appear that the Shack has been forced to re-evaluate its priorities given the lackluster state of its earnings. The above ad, which was emailed out to customers, says that 2,000 of their stores will feature expanded hobbyist sections beginning this month. But with the Adafruits and Sparkfuns of the world doing a far better job of catering to makers than the Shack, who knows if they can return to their glory years? Leave a comment with your thoughts.
Make: Live ep07 is all about projects from the new MAKE v26, Karts & Wheels! Thanks to our guests Mark Frauenfelder, Jared Ficklin, Nick Raymond and Eric Chu. Catch up on video and notes from the show here.
Flame Tube – Jared Ficklin See sound in fire! The flame tube project (aka Rubens’ tube) uses a speaker at one end to influence the row of small propane jets along the tube, showing the waveforms of the audio. We had the project set up on the roof. Rubens’ tube aficionado Jared Ficklin joins us via Skype from Austin, Texas.
Drill Kart – MAKE interns In a visit to MAKE HQ in Sebastopol, CA, Becky gets a tour of the cordless drill-powered go-kart designed by Gever Tulley. Watch MAKE interns Nick Raymond and Eric Chu pull some sweet spin moves. It’s really fun to drive!
Maker Dino Segovis was inspired to create his own automatic ball launcher for his dog, Sophie. Want to show us your project? Upload a video or photos and send a link to email@example.com.
Make: Live 08: Brewing Wednesday May 11th, 9pm ET/6pm PT
Watch at makezine.com/live or on UStream Please join us in the UStream chat or mark tweets with #makelive to interact live with the show.
We covered Sandy Antunes’ Project Calliope last year, and he’s written in to let us know how things are going, how you can stay on top of his progress, and how you can help. Project Calliope is taking sensor readings (magnetic field, temperature, light) and sending it back to Earth encoded as MIDI data. Here’s the latest from Project Calliope:
I’ve finally set up a Calliope announcements-only email list to handle the great unanswered questions of life–”how’s the satellite”, “when is launch”, “how do I get the music”, etc. I still don’t have the answers, but when I do, I’ll post there so everyone is informed. If you want to track Calliope in a low-traffic way (perhaps one post/week), sign up!
Second, I’m doing a Kickstarter [fundraiser to] ensure we have the ground tools and radio to capture the Calliope music. As part of it, we’re offering cool mission patches and flight pins.