Getting away from screens

After yesterday’s session on multi-touch surfaces, I saw that Rhodri Thomas tweeted:

v interesting demo earlier on use of ‘Surface’-like multitouch table – but are we ever going to get away from interacting with screens?

Which got me thinking about the degree to which we already interact with computers without screens.  I was also reminded of a rather staggering (but believable on exploration) claim I heard on the radio last week from a guy from Intel, who reckoned that more microprocessors would be manufactured in the next year or two than currently exist in the world.  The overwhelming majority of these are not in computers-as-we-know them: they’re buried away in embedded applications.  So this morning I thought I’d try to note all the microprocessors I’d interacted with other than by traditional screens, from getting up to sitting down at my first traditional computer screen to type this.  Some of these are slight cheats since they do have displays (e.g. the central heating timeswitch), but they’re not the sort we usually think of.  (We do need some leeway here because if by display you mean some way in which a processor can make its state known to a human and/or vice versa, it’s by definition impossible for any interaction to occur.) Anyway – a rough quick list:

  • central heating system – the timeswitch programmer to turn it on, and more processors in the boiler itself to run the system
  • bedside clock
  • fridge/freezer (for milk) – thermostatic and frost-free control working away
  • microwave
  • kettle – not certain since older models are purely electro-mechanical, but this one’s brand new and I strongly suspect there’s at least one processor in there managing overheating/boil dry and possibly actively optimising the heating process
  • radio
  • umpteen electronic toys used by the kids
  • electric shower – controlling the flow and heating rates

Then I left home and got in the car:

  • car – engine management system, and possibly other subsystems I don’t really know about, oh, and another radio
  • streetlights – some were still on suggesting they’re individually controlled (time? light?) rather than centrally switched – must have passed hundreds of these or more
  • SID – Speed Indicating Device – measured my speed, flashed it up on a display, then a smiley face to say it was under the limit
  • Pelican crossing with lights
  • level crossing with lights

And then I got to campus and towards my building:

  • More lighting
  • Security barriers
  • CCTV cameras
  • RFID security card entry system
  • automatic doors
  • heating blower behind the door
  • building management system controlling temperature and ventilation – this does have a traditional screen view but I don’t interact with it that way
  • lighting controllers
  • coffee machine

… a pretty large haul, and that’s not taking in to account any of the processors helping deliver utilities I used (gas, electricity, water).  It rather swamps the number of traditional screens I’ll be interacting with today: phone, iPod touch, laptop, desktop.  And of course those themselves rely on a large number of less visible processors running the network and power systems, and the hundreds of computers (or more) I’ll interact with more directly online today.


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Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

3 thoughts on “Getting away from screens”

  1. Interesting itemisation, Doug. As I sit at home surrounded by the glow of screens, Mac, PC, EeePC and mobile phone, I decided to think about my morning, from getting up to commuting downstairs. The clock and radios are cheap battery portables, the non-electric kettle goes on the manually controlled Rayburn. There is no microwave or shower (or kids for toys). The fridge might have a processor, the freezer probably doesn’t. However, the wind-charger controller, solar PV controller and inverter are all embedded devices without which our house would function less well. Oh, the ADSL modem doesn’t have a screen.

  2. Interesting – clearly you’re managing a lower-impact lifestyle than I am at the moment.

    My clocks and radios are cheap portables too (though bedside radio is battery powered), but they still have processors inside them – it’s only ancient radios and spring-powered clocks that don’t. I also have a small radio-set clock (sets itself off whatever-the-Rugby-time-signal-is-called-now) that runs off a single AA battery and cost about a tenner or so, which seems astonishing.

    Very envious of your commute! I’d do more working from home except for the networking and the notworking effect of kids in the house.

  3. You’re probably right that even the wind-up Eton radio (free from the Guardian) has a processor. And, of course, once we go anywhere beyong the house the engine management system, electric doors at the supermarket, tills,… all start to get us to the level you detail.

    I was thinking more about the number of processors. My mobile has, as well as a phone, a GPS, two cameras and a music player. There’s a reasonable chance each of these has a separate dedicated processor. It’s easy to see why the guy from Intel is probably right and why they make so much money!

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