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Ebook Retrospective: When PCs Were Exciting and Creative - Wordulator : Wordulator

When I was just a kid I asked my mother for a Dymo label maker for my birthday.  I just thought it was the coolest thing and started making labels for everything in  wood grain, black , and red peel-off tape with embossed lettering in white.  Such a simple device but I had to figure out how exactly it worked so I took it apart.  BOING! The trigger spring jumped out and my labelmaker was no more. In tears I called the company and the somewhat amused woman upon hearing my sob story sent me out a new one that I have to this day.   (Aside from a few, my subsequent customer support experiences have been downhill ever since.)

While my husband resist my working on him, I still love taking things apart and finding out how things work.  I thought David Macaulay’s book, The Way Things Work, was a gift to inquisitive kids like me who always like to know what goes on inside of things.  Increasingly  I became fascinated by the digital world and cobbled together a PC or two myself…mostly in a big beige standard box.

So when chipmaker VIA just published its eBook,  Small is Beautiful: Ten Years of Mini-ITX, full of  the PC mods and projects people have created with the VIA Mini-ITX board, I was thrilled.  The 7″ x 7″ motherboard was unique in that it had a complete chipset:  audio, video, communications, and a built-in x86 CPU that used so little power that it immediately became the darling of modders who saw the potential of the board for robotics, car PCs, dorm PCs, and even in-wall PCs because it ran quietly and needed little cooling.  But then things got kinda crazy and PC enthusiasts latched on to the board and started shoving it inside things that were never meant to be a PC:  Accordions, model cars, gas cans, encyclopedias, even a model Millenium Falcon.   What VIA experience next was a flood of artisans who created unique cases, probably the most memorable being Jeffrey Stephenson’s cigar humidor PC and 1946 tabletop radio made out of splendid woods.

There were plenty of serious projects in the book too including SRI, which used the Mini-ITX for Centibots – autonomous robots that could be used in search and rescue where it was too dangerous for humans to venture.  And the DARPA Grand Challenge, another autonomous robot project, this time courtesy of the Department of Defense with a $1 million purse to the winning design.

I seized the VIA Mini-ITX and a lovely oak roll-top breadbox.  The Mini-ITX was easy, but my dexterity with a Dremel tool and woodworking was lacking.  My husband Russ had much greater luck with his World Vibrations radio station in a box, that continues to run his international radio station,  Connected Traveler Radio 24/7 with nary a blip on our utility smart meter.

So where does that leave us today?  Laptops are laptops and tablets are…well…tablets.  And they come in pretty standard configurations, though the quality varies wildly.  But you can’t take them apart.  You can’t modify them.  But with Internet Everywhere, we’re back in a place where things you don’t expect to be computers really are, with embedded PCs that will turn signs and kiosks into information devices (think of the display that recognized Tom Cruise in the movie Minority Report) and guide someone with a Starbucks app on their phone to the nearest barrista.  Consider pill boxes that alert the user that they’ve not taken their pill that day (and tattle to the patient’s doctor).  Sensors and cloud computing come together with GPS devices that let parents track remotely track the travels of their children on a school field trip.

And now as computers becomes ubiquitous, we may take them  for granted.  That said, we tip our hats to the creative people who took the VIA Mini-ITX and ran with it.  Early.  At a time that art and computers were rarely seen in the same sentence.

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