Monday, May 08, 2006

The Ultimate Gadget

For some time now I’ve been ruminating on “the ultimate gadget” (that’s right, you heard me – ruminating). The problem is that every time I pursue this train of thought I commit singularity and have to reboot. The thought process generally goes something like: “foldable, hi-definition, 3D electronic paper with eVisors and a neural interface…!!! Then singularity hits and a mere pre-transcendence homo sapien such as myself cannot know wot of the wonders available to the vast and cool and unsympathetic posthuman intellects of the beyond…
So in an attempt to create a useful thought experiment, here are some guidelines:

• All the technology used in the gadget should be feasible by the standards of 2006.
• By “gadget”, I mean a handheld device. Clearly cybernetic cyborg-implants are disallowed by the first point, and anything I can’t carry around in a jeans pocket is also out.

The gadget would be the form factor of an Orange SPV M5000 except it wouldn’t have the annoying asymmetry of the aforesaid device, and it should be slightly longer and thinner, more like that of the Sony Ericsson P910. The dimensions would probably be about 12 x 7 x 1.5 cm. In this aspect the gadget would resemble a mini-laptop/tablet, with the screen and a compact, QWERTY keyboard available on the interior of the clamshell. However the screen should be touch-sensitive when the device is in “PDA mode/camera mode”. The supplied stylus should of course have a little cap under which lurks a black ball point.

The gadget would have a camera similar to that of the imminent Sony Ericsson K790i. 3.2 MP, a substantial lens, autofocus, macro modes, and a xenon bulb for flash photography. The flashlight should also have a lower power setting which allows it to be used as a torch (a very useful feature of the K750i). There would of course be a cover to protect the lens – and the cover should not cover the flash. The gadget would have a smaller camera inside the clamshell for video conferencing. It is worth pointing out that beyond about 4 megapixels other factors start to affect the quality of the photographs you take much more than the number of pixels. I think building an optical zoom into the device is reasonable. The camera and cover should be flush to the surface of the back of the device, and be of a similar consistency material-wise so that it is not irritating or uncomfortable to hold.
The gadget would come with a full suite of entirely open-source, free and tech-hippy-friendly software including all the office basics, games, a web browser, basic photo and picture editors, sound recorders, media playing software etc…
Speakers and microphone (both for mobile-phone capability and note taking) would have to be included, of course. External function buttons could include pause/play, stop, back-forward buttons, a camera button and a voice record button, as well as the all important “hold” slider switch.

Connectivity options would include: a USB/Firewire data cable (presumably bundled in the box) a standard audio jack for speakers and earphones, an IRDA port located near the top end of the device (this would mainly be for use as a remote control for TVs, VCRs, DVD players, PVRs etc), Bluetooth, wireless a/b/g, EDGE, GSM, UMTS etc. The device should be able to function as a removable USB pen-drive with the cable. Included in the box should be adapters that allow the device to communicate with phone outlets and LAN cables.
One feature I’d like to include (but sadly cannot for feasibilities sake) and would like to see on mobile devices generally is a cross-spectrum sensor that allows the device to communicate in huge numbers of different ways across all conceivable areas of the electromagnetic spectrum. Updates and information about protocols could be downloaded and put in place through software mechanisms. This is a bit like black box technology, where you simply have a lump of stuff that does something depending on what you do to it. I suspect that this is one technology that will emerge from widespread nanotechnology and the invention of computronium, but I should really leave it out of this experiment as such a device isn’t quite here yet. For an example of the sort of universal gadgetry I mean read the sublime Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code by Eoin Colfer.

Processing power and RAM should be sufficient to play games to a standard similar to that of, oh, say an old Gameboy Advance, after all, if you could play PSP games with PDAs there would be no need for a device designed specifically for gaming – right?.
The device should come with a hard disk of a type similar to that found in the current generation of iPods. Flash memory is still at the 2-4 GB stage, and I’d use flash over a vulnerable hard disk any day, but the disk would of course be cushioned, buffered and have a facility similar to those of Powerbooks, whereby an on-board motion sensor removes the stylus from the hard disk when a sudden motion is detected. The top-end iPods currently have 60 GB hard disks, so I’ll go for one of those.

Among the many ebooks that should be included with the device include a static version of Wikipedia, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, The CIA World Factbook, IMDB Movie Database, US Army Survival Manual, The Bible, Koran, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, the Encyclopedia of Mythology, Foldoc Dictionary of Computing, Buddhist Dictionary, BBC Health Medical Notes, and How Stuff Works (all currently available for Palm, Windows handheld and Symbian users in TomeRaider format – now you know why I need the 60 GB hard drive).

It would be nice to be able to receive TV on a mobile device (in a ho-hum, should be done sort of way) and to be able to view all the freeview digital channels and record them and transfer them to a PC.

Thinking about it, I have absolutely no preference as to size and form. Something like the P series from Sony Ericsson or the old Nokia we-swear-its-not-a-brick would be fine, although the Orange SPV M5000 is almost perfect.

If you happen to be sitting in the park and an idea for an absolutely killer SF short about cyborgised spiders infiltrating an extreme-extropian libertarian enclave in a decrepit habitat in orbit around Pluto and you just have to write it down, fast, ’cause the words are right there in your head… Then an external keyboard would be good, something like those supplied by Palm and Nokia, amongst others. Ideally the keyboard would be foldable and not much larger than the device itself, so that you could whip one out of one interior jacket pocket and the other out of another interior jacket pocket.

GPS navigation facilities are obviously a must-have, and while we're talking about satellites and whatnot, why not have a satellite phone built in as well?

There is no doubt that such a device is entirely feasible with today’s technology, but usually when you try to put too much functionality into a device it becomes a jack of all trades and a master of none. I think (hope) that my perfect gadget (or something very like it) will be on the market before 2010, and shortly after that there will be all the eVisors and singularity-gifted consumer goods a presingularity liberal capitalist could wish for.

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