Fuzzy-headed and inquisitive after a long night of sleep, I levitate a morning news screen to eye level.
The glowing hover-display shows little icons indicating rain; damn, I forgot an umbrella. With a slight gesture of the fingers, I slide the graphics to the left, and icons representing traffic congestion replace the weather icons, blinking yellow and red triangles that indicate how long it will take my theoretical, driver-less car to carry me to work. I rub sleep from my eyes and punch up the mood-generator screen, passing the settings for downers and relaxation. Eventually, I choose “Excited about work!”
This is the world I live in. It’s not the “real” world but a fantasy, one I have a hard time escaping. In reality, the scene above was me thumbing through my iPhone for weather and traffic information while waiting in line for a large coffee-to-go at a quick-stop coffee shop; but in my mind I live in a fantasy of science fiction, layering a dreamed-up life on top of the real life I wobble through daily. I’ve lived in this fantasy world since seeing Star Wars for the first time on VHS at my friend Ryan’s house, and wishing (oh, God, please!) that someone would invent a light saber.
Thank God no one invented a light saber. I would’ve bought one, probably wasting months of income on something entirely impractical: I’m rarely in space-adventure sword fights, and given my propensity toward clumsiness, I’d probably sizzle off a toe or open the damn thing up in my pants pocket before ever getting a chance to defend myself and a lovely space damsel against galactic evil.
The light saber is still a dream, but so much amazing technology has been invented in the past 30 years, things that fuel my sci-fi fantasy life: smart phones, scanners, flat-screen monitors and televisions, high-definition and digital cameras, portable tablet computers, music players no bigger than a pinky finger that hold every song I’ve ever heard.
Also, just up the road, in woolly Kern County, a brilliant machine, the private spaceship, is being built by a dumbly named corporation, The Spaceship Company. At this stage, space tourism is a bit of a hairball scheme dreamt up by a bit of a hairball billionaire, Sir Richard Branson of Virgin fame, and priced for other hairball billionaires’ fancies — estimated prices start at $200,000 per flight. But they’re making it: a spaceship tourism industry.
Technology is going bananas.
The guts of these slick doodads that we play with and draw information from each day — the parts, the electronic insides — are trickling down from the corporate-research and development level and becoming available for us common citizens to play around with.
When I was a kid, waiting for the next Star Wars movie to debut, science and technology was something other people did in far off places. Innovations were born in laboratories or electrical workshops then offered to regular folks for purchase. We had no idea wireless home phones or video games were being developed until we saw them displayed in the pages of the Sears Catalog and on TV commercials between segments of Knight Rider.
But now homespun technology is accessible to you and me, and it’s beginning to spread, becoming (dare I say it) a revolution. A groundswell of tinkerers, hackers, and makers is creating gadgets to automate, entertain, or beautify some part of daily life. They’re taking the tinkering of the past — small engines, electrical wiring, woodworking, and the like — and bringing it up to date, dragging the 20th-century hobby of monkeying around with gadgets into the 21st Century, the digital age, our time, now.
I was introduced to this technological tinkering and amateur tech research by my friend, Al. Last year, he and a small group of others developed a game in which the player slaps one of several tiny pods when the pods randomly light up. Think of it as a cross between Whac-A-Mole and the old memory game Simon: you set the little pods in front of you, they light up, play an electronic note, then you try to whack ’em with your palm. There’s a scoreboard, and the whole thing looks like it was created to captivate the attention of children living in the movie world of The Fifth Element. This game made by regular (but pretty smart) folks.
Al explained how. “It’s a lot of wiring,” he said. “It runs our software, those pods are ergonomic buttons that we designed and created, and we used an Arduino.” (Al lives in Sweden, so this conversation didn’t take place in person. Rather, I saw a video of the game in action that Al had posted to his Facebook page. Afterward, we video-chatted about it. He used to live here in San Diego, working at the telecom giant Qualcomm, and since he’s moved away, we’ve kept in contact through social networking and email.)
“What the hell is an Arduino?” I asked.
“An Arduino is a microcontroller,” he explained. “Y’know, you can hook up input to it and it’ll run specific tasks. It’s the tiny computer running our game here. It’s basically ‘the brain.’”
After Al and I said goodbye, I dug around on the web for more information on microcontrollers and to learn how this technology was running Al’s game.
A confession: I’ve always been a complete dork and hoped (beyond hoped) that I could someday be acquainted with an avant-garde, alternative subculture. Oh, how I wished I’d discovered Fugazi or the Pixies or Black Flag while they were still underground. But no, I was happily snapping my fingers along with a hit single from Huey Lewis and the News, “Hip to Be Square.” I wish I could say I heard Mudhoney, Green River, or even Nirvana when they were scruffy teenagers, playing a gig at the Casbah before returning to rainy Seattle, but I was content to play my Mötley Crüe Dr. Feelgood cassette so often that the magnetic tape eventually stretched and refused even one more listening. To my lament, I am a total mainstream doofus.