Dicks fail to pull Tracy

Sutherland Lyall is cynical of strap-on technological body parts. What’s the point of them, he wonders? They certainly serve no clear purpose, and if the geeks who wear all this stuff think it’s cool and impressive to the opposite sex, they are seriously

I loved all that computer/fax/ radio/tv/digital phone/headset screen stuff (Futures, DW 31 May) which you strap on to available body parts in order to impress whoever’s around.

I remember years ago when the first digital wristwatches came out and we were trying to work out how you could embed those expensive LED numerals in fingernails or even just under the first transparent layers of skin of, say, the back of the left hand. It all came to nothing when some boring person pointed out that you’d have to replace them all the time because fingernails grow and the epidermis was in a state of constant rebuilding.

This was not exactly new at the time because the idea of the cyborg, the electronics/robotics-assisted human, had entered the literary food chain already established by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Dick Tracy and his two-way wrist-radio. Interestingly, at the time of the subcutaneous numerals, we conveniently forgot that Frankenstein’s creation was normally thought of as a social and moral monster.

And then a couple of years ago Wired did an interview with a geek who wore his computer and had something sounding akin to the five-finger Agenda keyboard on to which he typed his interlocutor’s questions and, possibly, his own answers. All this was then somehow fed back into some Net-like storage system.

“To what end?” and “How do you spell obsessive-compulsive dickbrain again?” any right-minded person may well ask. Not to mention questioning BT, NEC and all those developing computing gear and body-related communications such as the Office Arm as to their motives.

There are, of course, perfectly adequate answers. One is that it’s possible. Another is that it’s a laugh and another is that it may bring back popular bespoke tailoring. And it persuades envious fellow pinstripes to make themselves ridiculous with their own strap-on electronic prosthetics: “Yah, mine’s got a 3mm display and it makes mini ice-cubes…”

But whatever happened to Louis Sullivan’s dictum that form follows function? Or the special case of form follows the limitations of human dimensions and functions?

There’s something incredibly intriguing about a fully functioning flat screen the size of a fingernail. But if, as happened to BT labs boss Peter Cochrane, people start edging away from you in the first class compartment on the way to Paddington station just because you’ve clipped it on to your spectacles, maybe people are trying to tell you something sensible. Maybe they’re saying “Wouldn’t it be smarter to devise a really big screen to view things in your office rather than one so small that you need structurally interesting specs to read it here?”

This isn’t a new idea either. Several years ago Reflection Technologies brought out the

Private Eye – a near 600 substitute for a VDU which employed a tiny led screen on a short stalk attached to a headband. The geek in me was very pissed off when, after it stopped being advertised, it failed to enter the end-of-line surplus channel. It used 50 to 100Hz vibrations and miniature switching to make it work and was a technological marvel. Actually, the most intriguing thing was that its price in the US was billed (in one review at least) as being around 75. That’s real magic.

If the Sullivan form/functional thing makes any sense, miniaturised whole body computing is a futile thing eventually destined for the mail-order surplus catalogues – and for the same reason as the Dick Tracy-esque wristwatch and the otherwise wonderful and defunct Agenda which required you to learn a new one-handed keyboard technique – which respected friends of mine actually learned. What these all had in common was that they required you to modify your normal behaviour – or at least demanded that you go through intrinsically ridiculous activities in order to use them.

The ultimate truth about body-part computers is that these things are thought up and designed by male geeks for male geeks. They labour under the delusion that suddenly whipping out an arm wrapped with miniaturised technology on the train out of Luton is going to produce an instant bevy of “gurls” draped admiringly over adjacent seats.

I’ve got news for you boys. And so, probably, has Peter Cochrane. Personality helps and, above all, the right size is still numero uno.

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