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Sometimes You Wish You Wrote Stuff Down

April 19th, 2014

No way I can prove this, but about ten years ago, when lecturing in my survey course on Computers, we were reviewing computer history. I pointed out the evolution of computer technology—from vacuum tubes to transistors up through IC chips and multiprocessors—of hardware types, from computers which were building-sized, room-sized, cabinet-sized, desktop-sized and mobile types from laptops to handhelds—and of user interfaces, from paper tapes and punch cards, and from the command line to the GUI and to multitouch. I showed them these trends over time and then asked them to project, to imagine where things would go over the next half century.

Usually, some students asked me to answer the question myself. I would sometimes talk about surgically implanted computers, or focus on interface elements such as motion or voice control. Unsatisfied that I was not responding with a coherent image, I developed—remember, this was ten years ago, before even the iPhone was out—a single concept.

When asked what a computer in the future would look like, I took off my glasses, and pointed at them. I noted that they had all the elements you might need for input and output in a compact space. The lenses could become displays, the temples (the parts that extend over the ears) could house microphone and speakers. Whatever components needed locally would fit into the frame, but the unit would depend largely on computer power housed elsewhere, accessed wirelessly. Cameras would be mounted at the far end of each lens. Control could be by voice, or else via a motion-control visual interface, a la Minority Report. After 2009 I pointed to Kinect. As far as use, I noted that social media might extend into shared experiences; you go shopping, you can take your friends along, with them seeing what you’re seeing, for example.

Over a few years, I developed this idea and fleshed it out. And then, damned if Google didn’t steal my idea. Not having blogged it or incorporated it into my class web site, all I could do was lamely point out that I had the idea years before Google came out with Glass.

On the other hand, the idea was kind of inevitable, and looking back, others had it before I did, and did write it down. I believe that a similar idea was included in David Brin’s 1990 novel Earth, and John Varley interestingly covered an evolution of of this type of future technology (up to nanites being sprayed onto the eyes) in his Red Lightning and Rolling Thunder novels in 2006 and 2008. I’m sure many other novels over the years also laid out the idea, and countless thousands of people had thoughts similar to mine and similarly did not write them down.

Still, it’s fun to be somewhat ahead of the curve….

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