On Alpha Geeks and Gadgets

Earlier this month, Benjamin Stein observed that “alpha geeks” are now using the same hardware as normal people. I have a hypothesis for why this is.

Today, there are three main computing devices that people use: Laptops, which fit in a backpack and are fast enough for most stuff; smartphones, which fit in a pocket and are a tradeoff of size and speed/features; and desktops, which can have more storage and better graphics than laptops.

Now which one of those three things can an individual assemble and customize?

That’s why nerds/hackers are using the same hardware as everyone else. It used to be that almost everyone had desktops. Alpha geeks built custom machines from parts. Now, people use laptops and smartphones. Alpha geeks don’t have the resources to build or modify such tightly-integrated devices. Instead, they buy whatever best satisfies their needs. Lately, those products have been Macs and iPhones.

So are alpha geeks done with hardware tinkering? I doubt it. I think a new type of device will show up: the wearable. Recent advances in microdisplays and embedded computing have made wearable computers a borderline-practical idea. And individuals can build them for about the cost of a laptop. A few people have already hacked their own together from video goggles (like the Myvu Crystal) and single-board computers (like the BeagleBoard).

An often-heard objection to wearables is, “I already carry a computer with me. It’s called an iPhone and I can use it any time.” That’s true, but most people don’t realize how much trivial inconveniences can affect their behavior. Every time you want to look something up, you have to pull the phone out of your pocket and unlock it. You lose eye contact with anyone you were conversing with. It takes time for the phone to come out of hibernation and run whatever app you want to use. The screen is visible to those nearby, so you can’t message a friend, “What’s the name of this person next to me?”, or search your e-mail archives for a forgotten message that has come up in discussion.

Two major issues with wearables are fashion and software. Fashion will probably be resolved as technology gets better and people become more used to seeing wearables. Software is going to be a bigger problem. Wearables have to be extremely responsive. The idea is to completely integrate the computer with your life. Smartphone software has a similar constraints, but not to the same degree.

A wearable with good software would be outrageously useful. Imagine having a local cache of Wikipedia, e-mail, personal notes, and other data sources. Add a camera to the mix to get lifelogging and augmented reality. While AR is more of a toy, people completely underestimate the utility of lifelogging. I know of one case where a lifelogger had video of the first time he met his wife. A lifelog would also come in handy if you were witness to a crime or accident. To get some idea of what you do all day, you could put the lifelog data into something like RescueTime. If automated transcribing gets better you could build a searchable database of all your conversations. With these new sources of data and forms of interaction, the possibilities are quite vast.

Note: This post is expanded from a comment I made on Hacker News.

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