For every good design there’s at least a dozen of concepts that didn’t catch on. Nothing illustrates that better than a great online vintage gadget collection, published yesterday by Microsoft Research team. The collection is a brainchild of Bill Buxton, one of the principal Microsoft researchers, a guy who’s been through 30 years of continuous tech design. Awarded with three honorary doctorates and several professional awards, Bill also likes to gather things – the vintage, geeky kind of things, to be precise. Over the years, he has gathered an impressive collection of prototypes, probably the best I have seen online. Every exhibit has some nice, high-res photos, a description and sometimes even some PDF downloads of original leaflets or brochures, for added flavor.
Seriously. It’s like a candy store in there, but with gadgets instead of candy. And no risk of diabetes.
Bill Buxton said: “Look at the collection and then try and convince me that our slow rate of progress is due to a lack of technology rather than a lack of imagination”. It’s hard not to agree, most exhibits had plenty of imagination behind them. Perhaps too much for their own good. Here’s a short recount of our favorites with a short commentary (images courtesy of Microsoft). Be sure to visit the full gallery for much, much more.
1) Writehander chord keyboard
That’s probably the geekiest keyboard I have ever seen! It’s based on an idea of chorded input, where instead of having 101+ keys, you only have a couple of them. Every character is a combination of those several keys. The idea is quite old, it started with 19th century telegraph machines that used five or two needles to send letters faster than a Morse code. The drawback is obvious, you need to remember all the codes to use the machine.
But there’s an added twist in this prototype. The codes for this beauty are 8-bit ASCII codes, and there are eight keys – a single pressed chord gives you one byte. And typing in bits is probably the geekiest thing you can do, short of going to Blizzcon.
2) Foot mouse
If you think about how many miles your right hand travels every year, going from keyboard to mouse and back, this concept becomes obvious. You need two hands to type properly. You need one hand for your mouse. Typing with feet is impossible, but controlling a single pointer? That’s a completely different story.
I would definitely take this device for a test spin – after all, the manufacturer dubiously claimed that a FootMouse can increase your productivity by 100%…
3) Virtual Glove
This one looks much better than an infamous PowerGlove from Nintendo. It not only senses your hand position and orientation – it also registers the flex of each finger. Unfortunately, the Lawnmower Man fantasies about virtual reality never came to be, so there was not much you could do with this controller.
But maybe the concept was just a bit early? With recent push towards 3D, we might see the return of similar devices. Maybe one of the console manufacturers will buy this patent? It would be so much better than Wiimotes or a PS3 wand. I believe it could also be better than Kinect – people like the tangible input devices, and waving your hands around gets tiring fast.
4) Smart pen
A very interesting concept: just write anything on a piece of paper with this motion-sensitive pen, then connect it to your computer, and your hand writing will be digitized and transferred. You could probably do the same with a tablet but this thing is cheaper, smaller and can operate even if you have no PC around. If you need to capture some hand notes, it seems the smartest way to go.
The only problem is, no one really needs this sort of functionality. With more and more schools dropping cursive writing in favor of typing, handwriting might soon be a thing of the past.
This device aimed at replacing both keyboard and a mouse with a single, two-hand controller. The idea seems interesting, but… Hmm… There’s no other way to put it: this thing looks like a pair of rubber boobs. Putting your hands on them and playing around with them would make most people feel awkward. Although I’m quite sure there are those who would find it enjoyable.
I just wonder how many chuckles this thing caused during presentations and IT exhibitions.