Technology is typically weird or uncanny; but weird tech goes a step beyond. Weird tech reveals something unexpected about designers’ perceptions of our needs. It surprises us with its audacity and innovation. It might make us crack a smile, say “WTF?” or shake our heads in disbelief. An automated teller machine isn’t weird tech, even though it’s weird that we need to take papers out of machines to pay for things (and indeed, soon we probably won’t ever again). But a device allowing your dog to call you up and videochat you? Weird.
Dog tech is by definition good tech. That’s right: some Glasgow scientists and their dogs have invented DogPhone, the prototype of which lets a dog shake a ball with an accelerometer that connects to a computer that video calls the pet’s owner. Purportedly designed to address separation anxiety, it might also be good for dogs who want to order lunch. Some suggest it should be socialized technology, made available to all doggo lovers.
Creating imaginary creatures is perfectly normal. Stanford University researchers have created a program to generate “endless variet[ies] of virtual creatures” that interact with one another in an effort to improve AI research by studying how intelligence is tied to “body design” and how abilities can be developed (yes, the creatures can evolve). Kind of like the Tamagotchi virtual pet, these critters have lives, needs, and drama. Those struggles can serve as models that will eventually aid in the development of “general-purpose intelligence in machines.” Do you think that different researchers favor different creatures, and that researchers might take sides and assemble those creatures into virtual armies and then do battle with other researchers’ virtual armies and bet money on the outcome and then get fired from their jobs? No? I don’t think so either.
Magnetic Fields, the keyboard not the band. Will Judd over at Digital Foundry has a regular series called Will vs Weird Tech. A post there recently featured a keyboard design replacing the collapsing spring key model with a “Hall effect sensor, which can detect the strength of a magnetic field” that then interacts with the actual key mechanisms and types the character. The difference is that this method allows the detection of key presses to happen faster, creating entirely new and much faster and more intuitive time- and touch-fields for typing or pressing keys. Gamers will obviously love it, but think of its implication for writers: Stephen King could have written twice as many books using this method.
Some gadgets are too weird to begin with. At Gizmodo, always a great clearinghouse of information on strange technology, they’ve compiled a list of 15 gadgets that were so weird, they couldn’t really gain any traction on the market when they were released. The list includes rolling wireless speakers that didn’t really move around enough to justify their existence. It includes robot dogs, which any dog lover will tell you is too weird for dog lovers. The list also includes a mouse-to-phone, which suggests other “transformer” tech possibilities: for example, maybe a mouse-to-shoulder-massager, or mouse-to-watergun to spray at your co-workers. Now that would be a weirdness worth designing a prototype.