May 11 2007

Flying Cars

There was a commercial years ago — I don’t remember what it was for — with a guy saying, “Where are the flying cars? I was promised flying cars.” I don’t particularly need a flying car, but there are some products that I wish would go ahead and get here.

At least ten years ago, I read an article in Games Magazine about a thing called the MindDrive. It’s a bio-feedback system that plugs into your computer and has a sleeve that slips over one finger. The sleeve senses a bunch of different things in your skin, like the temperature and electrical impulses, and uses that to determine your thoughts, in a very rough sense, then uses that to control movement on the computer screen. Is that cool or what?

At the time, they released it with a bunch of games, like skiing and pinball, and you’d play by thinking left, right, forward, and so on. Apparently it does work; I’ve found several articles by people who tried it out. Unfortunately, that’s all they ever did with it. A decade or more later, they still have the same dozen games, for DOS and Windows 3.1, and the MindDrive itself and the games are all still the same high price. The web site is in Italy and is horrible, with slow-loading blinky graphics and some pointless Java cruft.

How could this not be a hit? I’d love to be able to wrap a thing around my arm or somewhere and control the cursor on my screen with my mind while I have my hands on the keyboard. No more reaching back and forth between the keyboard and mouse. I think they made a huge mistake by only creating games for it. They should have released it with a “mouse” driver, so people could install it and use it with any program. As long as you can only use it with their games, it’s a toy for geeks; but if it were a general-purpose controller, anyone could use it. I also don’t understand why some other company hasn’t bought it up and done something useful with it by now.

In any case, I want one. I’d prefer one that I can use with my web browser and other software, but if I can’t have that, I want a MindDrive that I can play with, and try to hack together my own general-purpose controller for it. It’s over $300, so it probably won’t be in my Christmas stocking, but one of these days…..

The other thing is electronic paper. This is something people have been working on since the 1970s, but it’s finally starting to hit the market for consumers recently. In short, it’s an attempt to come up with something portable that reads as comfortably as paper, because a back-lit computer screen wears out your eyes much more quickly than paper.

There are different types, but in general, electronic paper has zillions of microscopic black-or-white beads suspended under a thin clear layer. Beneath the beads, an electronic grid tells the beads at each “dot” — thousands of dots per square inch, just like on a computer screen — what to do. The beads don’t move around on their own, so once they’re in place, they stay there until told to move again, without any need for continuous power. The “paper” is as thick as a few sheets of ordinary paper, and I don’t think you’d want to fold it(!), but it reads just like paper.

Of course, you still have to get the data on the paper somehow, so all the products that have come out over the past couple years have one piece of electronic paper contained inside a frame that includes batteries, memory, and an interface to communicate with a computer. That way it can contain entire books, turning the “page” electronically at the press of a button. Since the display doesn’t require power except when turning a page, the battery can last for months without charging. One product is the Sony Reader for $300, but there are several others, and they don’t all use the same technology, so the competition should bring prices down. (Fortunately, Microsoft doesn’t appear to be making one.) One that runs about $800 even allows you to write on it with a stylus and then transfer those pages back to your computer.

So they’re a little like a Palm Pilot or something like that, except that they have bigger “screens,” they don’t use nearly as much power, and they read like paper. Very, very cool. When the prices come down — or I find one reasonable on eBay — I’m getting one.

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