- December 18, 2016
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What is a Device?
For tens of thousands of years, humans have used objects to augment our reality. We employ tools to do what we can’t do easily with our own bodies, to change our environment, and to reason through problems. Our devices are no different, only more powerful, with the ability to transform activities, spaces, even entire cities.
But what is a device? For the purposes of this blog/book, a device is any object whose mechanical and/or electrical workings are controlled or monitored by a microprocessor. In other words, objects that are made up of both hardware and software. This, however, is the definition of a modern device.
Historically, and even continuing into the present, devices have been objects with all of the following characteristics:
- are for personal or small group (family) use
- generally have no fixed location—they are either portable or could be moved from place to place. Meaning they are not built into structures, i.e. not architectural mechanisms.
- are powered by other means aside from human or animal muscle—that is, they aren’t tools like knives or bows and arrows, or animal-pulled objects like a plow or cart. They employ non-human and non-animal means—natural, mechanical, steam, internal combustion, and eventually electrical power—for their engines.
- are only interpreted or steered by human thought, not powered by it. Thus paper and the abacus are not devices, although they do supplement human memory, communication, and calculation.
- they allow human beings to do an activity that could not be done (or at least done easily) with the human body alone
Using these characteristics, the first devices were powered by natural means. The first devices were likely timepieces powered by water (“water clocks”) in China circa 4000 BC and Egypt circa 1400 BC. The sailboat (4000 BC, Egyptian) and the kite (800 BC, Chinese) were both powered by wind. The lodestone compass (400 BC, Chinese) relied on the magnetic poles. Later natural-powered devices include the astrolabe (150 BC, Greece), handguns (700 AD, China), eyeglasses (1284 AD, Italy), the hourglass (1345 AD, Italy?), the microscope (1590 AD, The Netherlands), the camera obscura (1604 AD, Germany), the telescope (1608, The Netherlands), the sextant (1757 AD, Britain), and the camera (1826 AD, France) to name a few.
The first mechanical devices might be crossbows (500 BC, China and Greece). The oldest known scientific calculator, the Antikythera mechanism, dates to 150-100 BC, Greece. The spring clock (circa 1400, Germany?) and the pendulum clock (1656, The Netherlands) were the next major milestones in mechanical devices. Aside from the compass, the first truly portable device was the pocket watch (circa 1500, Germany?), which were worn fastened to clothing or around the neck as pendants. Aside from the Antikythera mechanism, other mechanical calculators were the Pascaline(1642, France), the Arithmometer (1820, France), and the Curta (1938, Austria). The typewriter (1829, USA), the phonograph (1877, USA) the gramophone (1881, USA), and the movie camera (1888, England) were some notable mechanical devices prior to the introduction of electricity.
Because of the size and heat, steam engines have not been used to power many devices, instead they were mostly for large industrial facilities and for transportation (trains and boats in particular). One notable exception is the steam donkey, a steam-powered winch (1881, USA). Similarly, the internal combustable engine proved too bulky for most devices…with the notable exception of the automobile (1886, Germany) and some farming equipment. While it is admittedly unusual to think of a car as a device, it does meet the criteria for being categorized as a device above.
Electricity really ushered in the era of the device. The radio (1893, USA), the flashlight (1899, USA), washing machines (1900, USA), the refrigerator (1922, Sweden), the dishwasher (1924, USA), the television (1927, USA), the electric calculator (1957, Japan), and literally dozens, if not hundreds more categories, stretching from home appliances to medical equipment to consumer electronics to toys.
Starting around 1970 with digital calculators, electronic devices started to be made with microprocessors built into them. The laptop (1968, USA), the mobile phone (1973, USA), the personal digital assistant (1992, USA), the digital audio player (1996, USA), and many more kinds of products started to be able to utilize the processing power of microchips alongside other electro-mechanical components.
What distinguishes the devices of today from previous eras? Aside from their appearance, construction, power source, and controls, it’s these characteristics:
- Network connectivity.Our devices can interconnect where once they were independent. The washing machine can talk to the dryer and they can both talk to the smart electricity meter, or to a customer service center on the other side of the globe.
- Context-awareness.Devices can know where they are on a person’s body, the position in a room, or geo-located. Feedback can change based on location, time of day, etc.
- Devices can remember and act upon how they are used, to customize themselves or just to inform their user. Data can be aggregated from multiple devices to improve performance.
- Devices can be more aware of how they are being used, what is going wrong with them (or going well), what the conditions of use are, and accept new forms of input instead of physical controls (e.g. touchscreens, voice commands, gestures).
- Devices can transform themselves for different uses depending on the software running on them. A mobile phone can become a calculator, for example.
- It used to be you bought a device and that was what it was until it stopped working. Now, thanks to network connectivity, devices can be updated from afar, adding new features and fixing problems.
Of course, with all these new characteristics and power comes complexity, which is why we need to design our devices well. Which is what this book/blog is all about.