I love James Ball’s colourful photographic history of computers.
These machines are grossly under-powered compared to the devices we use today. Still, they’re a wonderful reminder of how far we’ve come, and what lies ahead for us in technological terms. This Telefunken RA770 (circa 1970) is one of my favourites:
Our son recently received a Gear VR headset as a birthday gift. He doesn’t have a phone to use with it so he borrowed his grandmother’s Samsung Galaxy S7 to try the headset out. Actually, we all tried it out and it is an amazing piece of technology.
At the moment our kids have old smartphones and an old iPad 1 they play with at home. They watch videos on YouTube (our daughter started using YouTube Kids after I “upgraded” her iPad 1 experience to an old iPhone 4s that supports it and she loves it – thankfully), play games like Clash Royale and build stuff in Minecraft.
They only use their devices on weekends and, usually, only after they have finished their homework. Even with that limitation, we have to come up with things to do with them to make sure they don’t spend their entire weekends staring at a screen. I came up with a couple rules to impose some sort of limitation on their device use that include both kids putting devices when the first device’s battery runs flat.
Still, our kids can disappear for a couple hours at a time and spend all that time staring at their devices. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because some of what they do on their devices is somewhat educational.
I’ve noticed that devices tend to make them pretty anti-social and detached from the rest of the family. Heck, that happens to us parents too so I make a conscious effort to limit my screen time when I am around my kids (and generally).
The VR headset made our kids disappear
VR headsets are only going to aggravate that tendency to detach, I think. You physically can’t see the world around you. The virtual environment can be so consuming, you can easily become oblivious to the world around you. For kids who already have a propensity to be sucked in by screens, I can already see we will need to supervise how much our kids use VR headsets very closely.
Fortunately, they don’t have a device that is compatible with the headset so they simply can’t use it unless someone with a compatible headset is around. That helps!
I’ve been thinking about the phones our kids have (or will have in the case of our daughter). At the moment, our son’s “daily driver” is a very basic Nokia feature phone that can make calls and send SMS messages. Many of his friends have smartphones but I’ve already told him he won’t receive one for a while still. You just have to look at how kids are today with smartphones to guess why (or just watch this interview with Louis CK):
By contrast there is a real world to engage with
Another gift our son received was a dense chalk egg with a plastic crocodile (I think) embedded in it. It came with two plastic tools and the idea was for him to basically chip away at the egg until he uncovered the toy inside.
He spent the better part of the day chipping away at the egg. It looked like a lot of fun and it was the sort of thing that involved everyone, either as spectators or by helping him along.
By the time he finished it in the evening, he had a pile of dust and this little toy. He also really enjoyed doing it and was talking about getting another one. What struck me about this toy/project is that it is a stark contrast to a VR headset. Chipping away at that egg, he was firmly rooted in the moment in our physical space and interacted with whoever was there with him. With a VR headset, he is sequestered from his physical space and from everyone sharing that space with him.
I don’t think that he would be content only doing this sort of thing and I wouldn’t want to prevent him from using devices for play too. I just found the contrasts between the two activities to be pretty indicative of the challenges of VR headsets, especially when it comes to kids.
When it comes to new technologies, I much prefer augmented reality over virtual reality. At least AR takes its cues from the space we occupy and augments it with additional digital and information overlays. I think AR would probably be more beneficial for our kids than VR and I really like the possibilities presented by Corning’s “A Day Made of Glass 2: Same Day. Expanded Corning Vision”:
Just looking at how kids are with smartphones, I am more than a little worried about what we will see if/when there is a VR headset in every kid’s room. For one thing, our kids will stop interacting with each other (at least, relative to the varying degrees of interaction they manage today). They won’t learn to recognise those very human and physical cues we rely on for so much sub-vocal communication as a species.
Go outside and play (and channelling our parents)
Like any generation, I think this comes down to figuring out the balance of the potential of the technology with the harm it could do to our children socially. I am also acutely aware that I probably read like our parents did when we started using gaming consoles back in the day. I’m pretty sure they also lamented that we’d never go outside and play.
To a degree they may have overstated the harm of us playing video games and watching TV. I don’t think the answer is forcing our kids outside and forbidding them modern technology.
On the other hand, I think that the rapid change we witness from year to year makes our jobs as parents that much harder. We have to keep up with the changes, anticipate the risks and try and manage them as best we can.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I think the VR headset is terrific technology and it offers our kids opportunities they didn’t have before. It also has a troubling flip-side and that requires us to keep a foot in both worlds if we have any hope of raising the kinds of humans who won’t be among the first to go when some wild beast attacks because they never learned basic human survival and communication skills.
Some days have themes, at least for me. These are days when a collection of related things go pear-shaped.
Most of my thematic days tend to be Technology Days. On those days all my technology freezes, crashes or otherwise fails to be usable for at least an hour or three in the morning.
On these days, the only thing I can really do is take a few deep breaths, acknowledge the day and go make a cup of tea while my laptop reboots. I’m beginning to see these days as reminders that control is just an illusion and sometimes the Universe does conspire against you.
Yesterday was a Misplaced Things Day (By Proxy). Our daughter misplaced her jersey and, about 15 minutes later, herself (I found her, there were stern words about that). Our son misplaced his key and his watch.
It definitely felt like one of those days. Thankfully the only thing I misplaced was my sense of humour and not my temper (although it was touch and go there for a bit).
Like I said, some days have themes. Hopefully not today, though.
Have you seen Jamboard yet? Future tech, particularly interfaces with our data, fascinates me. I love the visions we see coming from the likes of Corning and Microsoft’s research teams.
Many of the visions look like something right out of the Star Trek reboot movie series and we could well see that as our reality in the coming years. Two new devices bring those visions a little closer.
Google just launched a product called Jamboard which looks like a step in this direction, for sure. Jamboard is a step forward for team collaboration and data interfaces but it is still rooted in our current, clunky interfaces.
Watch the video from about 01:00 in and you see what I mean. As progressive as the interface seems, the moment you see a person pushing this big screen on wheels with a power cable out of one room and into another, you can see the limitations of the technology right away.
Jamboard looks terrific. I like the design and I am very curious about it’s capabilities and whether it can support remote teams. At the same time it seems a lot like the enterprise Google Goggles of 2016/2017. It feels very much like an intermediary technology designed to test real-life use cases and inform the design of the next thing.
On the other hand, just look at Microsoft’s latest release: Surface Studio. Isn’t this even closer to Microsoft’s own vision of our future tech? Leaving aside that the Surface studio looks a lot like a really big iPad or slimmer iMac, I love the interfaces in this video:
Realising these future tech visions will probably require big steps forward in high-bandwidth data availability; ubiquitous and smarter interfaces along with a new generation of highly capable and multi-modal devices.
I have little doubt this is on our horizon and both products like Jamboard and Surface Studio, along with visions from the likes of Corning and Microsoft are really exciting peeks of what may lie ahead for us.
Our son is fascinated with electronics kits and we bought him a really basic electronics kit with a light bulb, motor and a couple wires and other components. He also has a couple great kits we or family have bought for him to work with.
He built a solar powered helicopter (it doesn’t actually fly but the rotors turn in direct sunlight), has a light chemistry kit and my mother recently sent over a kit which he can use to create a sort of cable car using a used can.
I came across this segment from SA radio (702?) on SoundCloud about the resurgence of interest in these kits. My mother has worked at Wits University for years and I remember playing with little kits her engineer colleagues helped put together for me. This brings some of that back and it’s pretty exciting.
His current project is building an Arc Reactor (as seen in the Iron Man movies) and we have been getting some help from one of the engineers my mother works with. He has sourced a couple resources for us which I’ll share in another post. As much fun as this stuff is, it definitely requires some planning.
As for electronics kits generally, I’d really like to get into some of the other kits available. I have a few recommendations from friends on Facebook including littleBits, Arduino and Raspberry Pi but we haven’t gone down that road yet. Some of the kits can be a little pricey. Of the three, I like littleBits the most but that is a pricey option.
It’s great to see kids interested in this stuff. I sometimes worry they will wind up spending all their time glued to a screen of some kind (we all spend too much time staring at screens as it is). Working with hardware is also a good way to learn about software and how things work, generally. Seeing my son so excited about physical components and building things is really fantastic. What do your kids play with? Any recommendations or tips?
I just watched the JPL live feed as the Mars Rover landed on Mars and began transmitting data back from the red planet’s surface. Aside from being able to watch this historic event (well, live from JPL, the data from Mars is delayed due to the distance to Mars), I got a huge kick out of my ability to watch the live stream on my iPad on UStream. I know this isn’t new but it is amazing technology nevertheless. Anyone remember the old footage of families crowded around little TVs watching the first Moon landing?
I finally attended a Heavy Chef event this evening and listed to Don Packett talk about similar themes to Joe Kraus’ talk recently. One of the comments I made after Don finished his talk was that our approach should probably be more about better choices when it comes to our technology rather than becoming Amish.
At the time “going Amish” seemed like the antithesis of where I thought we should be going (that is, mindfully incorporating technology into our lives in a way that better enhances our lives rather than abandoning modern technology altogether. This evening I was chatting to Kym (the young lady who tweeted the tweet above) and I realised that, perhaps, the Amish (and similar groups) are onto something. They seem to have developed deeper and more meaningful connections with each other and their environments.
Perhaps, in this modern age, we should emulate aspects of those cultures by shifting our focus to more meaningful connections to each other, our communities and environment and use modern, social technologies to help us achieve that rather than simply getting caught up in the buzz and frenzy of the social Web without any sort of anchor in some semblance of mindfulness and considered choices?