Thirty-three years later, artist Robert Tinney's concept smartwatch is worth at least a thousand words
If you were passionate about personal computers between the
mid-1970s and mid-1980s, the odds were high that you were a reader of Byte magazine. And if you read Byte, you were surely a fan of Robert Tinney, the artist whose cover paintings were one of the magazine’s signature features for years.
Tinney’s work was imaginative, technically superb (he is a master of the airbrush) and, sometimes, very funny. Byte
lost a little bit of its soul when the publication started phasing out
his work in favor of standard-issue photos of standard-issue computers.
While rummaging around the web last week looking for something else, I came across his cover for Byte‘s April 1981 issue at the Internet Archive. I immediately shared it on Twitter,
where it got about as enthusiastic a response as anything I’ve ever
tweeted. There it is at the top of this post, with the artist’s
This is, obviously, an amusing image. The notion that a wrist
computer might have a floppy-disk drive, a QWERTY keyboard and a tiny
text-based interface was a good joke in 1981, and an even better one
when seen through the lens of nostalgia. (If you’re tempted to assume
that the image was actually a serious depiction of what a future wrist
computer might look like–well, no. Inside the magazine, which only had a
brief editiorial about future computers, the editors pointed out that
it wasn’t a coincidence that it happened to be the April issue of Byte.)
First, it reminds us that the smartwatch is not a new idea. Even in 1981, tech companies had been trying to build them for awhile: Tinney’s creation is a pseudo-logical extension of ideas expressed in real devices such as HP’s HP-01,
a “personal information assistant” introduced in 1977. (Of course,
people have been obssessed with the notion of strapping advanced
communications gadgetry to their wrists since at least 1946, when Dick Tracy got his wrist radio.)
Here we are in the 21st century. The tech industry has lately made
progress on this smartwatch idea, but it’s still not a problem that
anyone’s completely solved, which is why it still isn’t part of everyday
life. You could do a “Future Computers” cover today and put a concept
smartwatch on it, just as Byte did in 1981.
Second, for all the ways technology has radically improved in the
past 33 years, the current crop of smartwatches actually have a lot in
common with Tinney’s concept. The industry is still struggling with
questions of display technology, input and storage, and one of the best
efforts so far, the Pebble Steel, even looks eerily like the Tinney watch, sans QWERTY.
But most of all, the Tinney watch is a wonderful visual explanation
of why human beings–most of us, anyhow–aren’t very good at predicting
the future of technology. We tend to think that new products will be a
lot like the ones we know. We shoehorn existing concepts where they
don’t belong. Oftentimes, we don’t dream big enough.
Tinney’s painting is a gag, but it’s not that far removed from what a serious futurist might have predicted in 1981. It’s a PC of the era, downsized to fit the wrist.
Back then, a pundit who started talking about gigabytes of storage or
high-resolution color screens or instant access to computers around the
world or built-in cameras and music players would have been accused of
indulging in science fiction. Even though some of the earliest ancestors
of modern interfaces existed in laboratories in places such as Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, I don’t know if it would have even occurred to anyone to envision them being built into a watch.
And today? Much of the thinking about smartwatches involves devices
that look suspiciously like shrunken smartphones. That’s what we know.
But I won’t be the least bit surprised if the first transcendently
important wearable device of our era–the iPhone of its category–turns
out to have only slightly more in common with a 2014 smartphone than it
does with a 1981 computer.
when my god daughter (she is only 1) eats and she thinks its good...she actually starts popping her shoulders/back like she wants to bust out and do the percolator lol...she's been around me too much...sigh....
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