Tablets have largely eclipsed the netbook market and some (myself included) have argued that this format of device will disrupt education profoundly. In saying this, I in no way am suggesting that radically new technologies will not emerge. In fact, they already have – even if they are not commercially available yet.
For example, in 2009, MIT Grad Student Pranav Mistry gave TED presentation in which he showed his sixth-sense technology with which a special necklace held a camera and a projector to facilitate augmented reality explorations of really neat things. For example, if you picked up a book and looked at the cover, information about that book, including reviews, would appear projected on the book itself. His video is a whirlwind tour of amazingly cool stuff that seemed like science fiction at the time – only he made it work in the laboratory in preparation for becoming products.
Fast forward a year or so and the focus shifts to Google. While the public face of Google Labs has been closed down, Google is continuing to explore cutting edge ideas. One shot over the bow was a free app called Google Goggles that lets you use your smartphone to do many of the things dome by Panav Mistry’s system. Take a photo of a book cover, for example, and it not only recognizes the book, but provides links to reviews and even a link to Amazon in case you want to get your own copy. Stand in front of a landmark building, take a picture, and get links to information about the building. Take a snapshot of a Sudoku puzzle, and it recognizes it as a puzzle and asks if you would like the solution.
Last year buzz started to build around the idea that the Google Goggles software was going to get its own dedicated hardware – a pair of glasses with a built-in heads-up display. For example, a recent article in the New York Times blog describes some of the possible features such a device would have. This would be a truly hand’s free device using head gestures to send commands to the system. While this format probably tops out on the nerd scale – which is probably why I think it is cool – it may in fact represent the new face of computing.
Only it isn’t new.
In July, 1945, President Roosevelt’s science advisor, Vannevar Bush, wrote an article for the Atlantic in which he described his vision for the future. One of his ideas was the following:
“Certainly progress in photography is not going to stop. Faster material and lenses, more automatic cameras, finer-grained sensitive compounds to allow an extension of the minicamera idea, are all imminent. Let us project this trend ahead to a logical, if not inevitable, outcome. The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut. It takes pictures 3 millimeters square, later to be projected or enlarged, which after all involves only a factor of 10 beyond present practice. The lens is of universal focus, down to any distance accommodated by the unaided eye, simply because it is of short focal length. There is a built-in photocell on the walnut such as we now have on at least one camera, which automatically adjusts exposure for a wide range of illumination. There is film in the walnut for a hundred exposures, and the spring for operating its shutter and shifting its film is wound once for all when the film clip is inserted. It produces its result in full color. It may well be stereoscopic, and record with two spaced glass eyes, for striking improvements in stereoscopic technique are just around the corner.”
Of course he was thinking in terms of the photography of the time which was film-based. He was aware of photocells and even speculated about their use in photographic elements. Instead of Bush’s “walnut” Google is opting (it seems) to use glasses – something well accepted in our society.
No matter how it all shapes up, it seems the time is ripe for wearable computing. And it would be foolish to think Google is alone. Apple’s iPod nano comes with wrist straps, using arms instead of noses as the support for wearable technology.
Of course these technologies are not going to replace computers any more than tablets have – they will be additional tools that open new opportunities for creativity and productivity – and may even have a place in education.
Only time will tell.