Elgan: Dispatch from gadget fantasy land

Why does the blogosphere cover fake products like real ones? And why does the media follow?

Leading gadget blog Gizmodo posted a story this week that set the gadget world on fire: "Courier: First Details of Microsoft's Secret Tablet."

The post claims "Courier is a real device, and we've heard that it's in the 'late prototype' stage of development." The poster, who writes under the name "The Paperboy," doesn't even tell who he is, let alone who his source is or how his source gained the exclusive information.

The post is accompanied by a slick, computer-generated video showing a device that has somehow solved all the latency, UI and performance issues of all known computing devices. The post also features clearly computer-generated illustrations of the concept, which Gizmodo does not claim are photographs or regular video.

Microsoft won't comment on "Courier," and no other publication or blog has any source other than Gizmodo's "Paperboy." But that didn't stop anyone -- including otherwise respectable publications -- from reporting "Courier" as if it were a real product. (It also didn't stop just about everyone from claiming that the computer illustrations were "photographs.") For example:

"Microsoft developing new tablet PC: report," announced Reuters.

"Microsoft readying Courier touch-screen tablet," reported the U.K.'s Telegraph.

"Microsoft tablet snatches the spotlight," proclaimed Australia's Sydney Morning Herald.

Really? All based on a single, unsourced post from someone called "The Paperboy" and accompanied by easily manufactured computer-generated images that don't even mention Microsoft? Really? (Computerworld also published an article on online media reports of a Microsoft tablet.)

In fairness, nearly all major media stories mention that Gizmodo is their source. But should major organizations even be mentioning such flimsy rumors, given the important news elsewhere they have no space or time for? Shouldn't the headlines contain the words "rumor," or "blog says" or "may be developing" rather than "developing"?

The cause of this media tragedy is a growing confusion between the real and the unreal in our culture.

Computer-generated imagery is so dazzling, and the functioning of real technology so unknowable, that, well, what's the difference? It's all pretty much magic anyway, so why nitpick about unimportant distinctions between design and engineering, between imagination and invention, between fact and fiction?

Given computer graphic skills, I could win 'design' contests

Electrolux Design Lab held its annual design contest this week. The winners were all beautifully rendered ideas based on fuzzy, unknown "black box" technologies.

For example, the contest's winner was a device that grows meat. Just place a packet of "cells" into the gadget, press a button, and voila! Smoked salmon!

How does it work? How does it taste? Is it good for you? What happens if I put my cat in the machine? Don't worry your pretty little head about all that. Just look at that cool picture!

Other finalists included:

  • A refrigerator that teleports food.
  • A flying baseball-shaped robot with hummingbird-like wings that flies into the clouds, "catches" rainwater, then flies back down, hovers over your glass and dispenses drinking water.
  • A printer that prints 3D food you can eat.

I'm very impressed by the computer-generated images. The ideas behind these images? Not so much.

The Watercatcher
The "Watercatcher" is among the finalists in an Electrolux Design Lab contest.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against people dreaming about futuristic devices, or the imagining of them using computer-generated tools. This stuff is all very cool. What I don't understand are the self-imposed limitations. These ideas aren't based on, well, anything, so why hold back?

For example, why grow just meat? Why not grow the whole burger? And can I get a side of fries with that?

Why not "invent" a refrigerator that teleports food right into my stomach so I don't have to waste time eating?

Why not imagine a baseball that flies up into the sky, catches rainwater, then converts the water into a wad of $100 bills?

Why print food when you could print a clone of yourself to send to work in your place? This would free the real you to climb into your refrigerator, teleport yourself to Vegas, and have fun with all that cash the flying baseball pooped into your wallet.

Why come up with random limitations for non-existent technology?

The mother of all concept blogs

The best Web site I'm aware of that covers beautifully illustrated concept gadgets is called Yanko Design.

The site blogs about perfectly realistic ideas that don't require vague hocus pocus to work and that also solve real problems. One example is a party dish shaped to hold a wine glass and spoon so you can grasp the lot with one hand. Another is a desk with compartments to hide your laptop, lamp and other things you need for work, so you can use the desk as a table.

But most of the stuff on Yanko is pretty, computer-generated pictures that show products with no explanation as to how they might work. For example:

  • A clear cell phone. Sure. Why not? It'll go great with my clear PC.
  • A holographic, interactive PC monitor. The display isn't really there, it's just beamed into the air like Princess Leia. You can manipulate on-screen objects by inserting your hands into the display.
  • Or how about the "Napkin PC," which is a high-def, high-powered PC that uses a stack of paper napkin-sized wireless displays?

Why does this happen only on gadget blogs?

Why don't food blogs show, say, a computer-generated picture of a slice of chocolate cake, then explain that this "concept" is the most delicious dessert ever created and provides complete nutrition with zero calories!

Why don't real estate blogs show computer-generated palaces, then tell you they cost only $5, then appreciate by 1,000% every year forever?

Why don't political blogs show computer-generated dream politicians who are honest, intelligent, don't care about power or money and will ignore powerful interests and look out for the people. (Oh, wait. That pretty much how every political blog presents their favorite candidates.)

Here's an idea. Let's make the effort to separate fantasy from reality and inject the same measure of skepticism and realism in consumer technology that we do in other areas of life.

I'll start by telling the truth about Microsoft "Courier": To the best of our knowledge, "Courier" doesn't exist. What does exist is a rumor started by a single blog post written by an anonymous writer and based on an unspecified "source." We have seen neither photographs nor video showing even a prototype. Instead, we have seen only computer-generated, make-believe images. We have seen only a vague idea that may not even be Microsoft's.

OK, media. Your turn.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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