IT Systems You Wear Around Your Neck: Not Just For SciFi Anymore

BEFORE HE RETIRES OUR COLUMNIST EXPECTS TO SEE THE GADGETS OF SCIENCE FICTION BECOME REALITY

One of my favorite columnists posted an April Fool’s joke item about the new convergent device, the ‘iTreoPod’. He wrote it well enough that the joke was suspended until you clicked through to the image, which was of an iPod duct-taped to a Treo 650 smart phone.

But that story, and some other recent developments, has me thinking more and more about whatever eventual convergent device we are all headed for. What d'es it look like? What d'es it do? What’s next?

Having averaged close to one full science fiction novel per day from about age 7 to 35, I am pretty familiar with a lot of the ‘future’ gadgets the writers used to posit in their stories and novels. Certainly, storage devices that hold oodles of information and are crystal-like are happening now, what with DVDs and flash memory devices being designed to be worn as jewelry.

And I have been happy as a clam with my Treo 600, mostly using it as a phone and a modem for my laptop, but also taking advantage of its PDA functionality. However, try as I might I cannot make myself use it regularly for web browsing or email. (At 1,200+ each day, it’s too much for a small device with a small screen.)

But I’ve been shopping lately for a new laptop. As I thought and shopped, lots of “Why not?” questions popped into my head, so I am going to put a few in here, in bold type to be separate from the narrative. Maybe you know the answers? I don’t.

We’re on a two-year replacement cycle at SCUP and this time the decision was particularly difficult: small and light versus large and heavy. It’s the first time the choice was that stark, because until recently the small and light laptops were either too expensive or lacked power and speed.

Why don’t laptops come with AM/FM radio built in? It’s seems such an easy, inexpensive no-brainer?

That’s no longer the case. However, I still could not find the right small and light laptop that did not also require a lot of extra peripherals to lug around with it (or forget and leave behind when traveling). I decided to go big and heavy. Mostly because I like using the highest screen resolution and having everything I might possibly want to use on the desktop in front of me. That meant one of the big machines with a 17-inch monitor.

Why can’t a machine as big as the one I eventually chose have nestled slots for several storage media? I don’t mean one slot they can all fit in, but several slots that you can carry around one of each–inside the laptop–so you’ve always got the one(s) you want with you? Literally, with only another quarter-inch of thickness and minimal weight, my new machine’s lid could hold a dozen DVDs, easy.

I really wanted a Dell SPS, but the wait time was long and it was pretty expensive. When I spec’d it out, it was gonna come close to going over $4,000 and that’s hard to justify in these days when you can get a serviceable new laptop for $1,000 (or less).

Why d'es no one make a laptop with a monitor resolution finer than 1900x1200 pixels? My old machine, from two years ago had that, but I couldn’t find a newer one with greater resolution.

But nowadays the high-end machines are more than laptops. I’ve been reading about young folks using them as their multimedia centers to control their audio and visual entertainment and a whole lot more. Since I have for years been ending up going high end, that makes sense to me and the VaioVGN-A290 I eventually got d'es have a nifty “dock” with about 80 different ports on it.

Why don’t laptops yet have good, high res still and video cameras built into the top, and why don’t we see them yet with the data projectors built in that I have been expecting for years?

I decided on the Vaio, because I decided that since I really do a lot of personal work on my office’s laptop, it was time for me to spend the money to buy the machine. Also, I could go to CompUSA and get instant satisfaction. So I spent a couple of hours there, browsing CNET.com and other referral sources and looking closely at the 5-6 really big laptops they had in stock.

Why can’t every laptop screen be a touch pad? Is there a real reason why it can only be in the so-called ‘tablet PCs’ that have not exploded in popularity? I think I would find it very useful.

(By the the way, for those of you who are the type of people–like many of my friends, who recoil in horror when I touch their screen: The screen on my Inspiron 8500, which is now my old machine, was manhandled by me for two years of touching, poking, wiping, and scratching, and it still comes as clean and as nice as the day I got it. I really don’t think people have to be quite that touchy.)

So, I spent $2,222.75 of my own money for my next business laptop. And my decision was, in the end, based on the fact that the Vaio had the brightest, sharpest screen of all the other computers I looked at. It really is superb. And, it has several levels of brightness, the top one of which is brighter than I have ever seen in a laptop. I love it.

But why can’t it and my Inspiron ‘talk’ to each other? Why can’t I just put a firewire cable between them and copy over my old stuff?

What I think is going to start happening next is more and more modular laptops. I expect that before long (and I mean while I am still working, not retired) we’ll be able to carry all the data and computing power that we need in that crystal hanging from our neck and just plug it into to whatever "shell" we want to use it for.

And what about that "heads-up" display in my eyeglasses? We’ve got tiny little headphones now, why can’t I plug my glasses into my Treo and just glance up in the corner of my glasses to read it?

Can’t you see it now? You’re packing for a trip and you are already wearing your data and processing power. You go to the shelf and have a choice of half a dozen "shells" consisting of keyboard, monitor, and port combinations. Everything ranging from as small as a PDA to as large (or larger!) than my new Vaio.

You pick the one (or two) you want to travel with, and off you go.

Like the poor guy who, post 9/11 was stripped of his face-worn videocam and felt like he was operating in a different world, we are, like it or not, becoming dependent (and I do not mean that negatively) on the information, functionality, and connectivity that these things provide for us–whether for you right now it’s a smart phone, a laptop, or a television.

We’re not going to be able to live without all this. You are going to be connected 24x7. Yes, there will be options to manage the public perception of your availability, but in 2020, you’re not going to take that Hawaiian vacation without your equivalent from then of my Vaio from now.

The one thing that they (our laptops) don’t do now for us that will really be changing life is that they will very soon start to offer us options and then make automatic decisions for us. We’re too busy–they’re going to do it for us.

I loved Isaac Asimov, but the one thing about his robots I never liked was their humanoid shape. I expect that we are going to have cultural issues about the sentience of our computers sooner rather than later, but that intelligence is going to packaged into all sorts of shapes and most of us will be wearing our little electronic "slave" around our neck.

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