Mainframe computers were such a rare commodity back in the day, people had to schedule shared time on each machine. When PCs arrived one computer was shared among a single household. Then came phones and each person had a computer of their own. Now lots of people have a pocket computer along with a couple of bigger ones at home, and some are even starting to wear computers on their wrists and heads. From the very beginning the ratio of computers to people steadily grew, and didn’t stop at 1:1. The computers, they’re multiplying!
Maybe they will diversify into single purpose computers. There are lots of potential uses for a simple computer that costs about as much as a toothbrush. At that price everyone would probably have quite a few of them at play in different parts of their life. With many computers for each person, they could be designed to act as tools that perform increasingly specific tasks. Is this overdoing it? It’s not essential to have one knife in your kitchen for cutting bread and another for buttering it, but it’s a convenience that most people accede to. These are computers melted into banal crannies, maybe feeling more like appliances.
Or like toys. My favourites as a young buck were LucasArts adventure games: Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, etc. So for fun I made a single purpose computer that does nothing but run the single greatest piece of software of all time: Monkey Island 2. It’s made from a do-it-yourself piggy bank kit that I found randomly in a toy shop (toy shops: always worth a look), a Raspberry Pi, one of those screens that you can put in a car to see where you’re reversing, a tiny speaker, and a wireless mouse. They pretty much just snap together. All this stuff is cheap: the ingredients cost about sixty bucks on Amazon, or roughly the price of a copy of Grand Theft Auto 5.
I hadn’t fiddled with the hardware innards of a computer for ages. They’ve become entombed by the seemingly unstoppable trend towards compressing everything into the form of a pure, inert black diamond.
Yes, this is silly weekend noodling, but as someone who mostly works in software I get a simple kick from messing about with the raw materials of computing. To break out of the screen and think about physical objects. There’s a world of interesting new UI opportunities to explore too. What should moving the lid do? Could I add a lock to the chest that makes something happen in the game? What software would I expect to find inside a wooden toy treasure chest anyway?
Moving from multi- to single-purpose UIs allows them to provide more specifically tailored affordances that suggest what I can do with them. There’s a big difference between grabbing a door handle and having to select Modify → Door → Open with a mouse pointer.
Anyway, single purpose computers: coming soon to a toy/hardware/clothes/food/etc. store near you? There continues to be plenty of room at the bottom.