Computer :(

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In Which I Throw Out My Phone

In the past, I've written at great lengths about disliking smart phones and wanting to get rid of them from my life.

  • On Convergence, where I wrote about how much I hate traditional computing formfactors, how I really just want a phone that will fit all of my needs of computing
  • Change of Scenery, where I write at length about my plan to free myself of Google and build an open ecosystem on top of Qt
  • D U M B P H O N E L A N D I A, where I say "fuck convergence until we figure this shit out"
  • Off the Grid, where I talk about building a VPN darknet, and make an effort to get rid of damn near every one of my cloud services

After dropping my Nexus 5 (again) after getting the screen replaced (again), I put it in a drawer and promptly tried to forget about it. So far that's worked pretty well, but a number of projects in the back of my head have got my ruminating on this whole future of alternate form-factors again.

And then I read Accelerando, by Charles Stross.

The main character, Manfred is one of those weirdos you'd see in a modern hackerspace, extrapolated out a few years. He doesn't appear to own a traditional computer, instead he has a Personal Area Network: a set of devices and agents built in to his clothing and glasses that provide him with a computing interface. Not quite cyberware, he's not playing with his wetware, but he's built a system that can do what he needs without owning a phone or computer.

I think we're close to the point where that is do-able, and do-able with agents that are independent and not powered by a corporate spy machine. This led me down the thought path of building such a system. 400$ dollars from Adafruit and Amazon later, and I'm ready to prototype this system in two parts, the Core Jacket System and the Interface Kit

Core Jacket System

The basic premise here is that I sew a bunch of pockets in to a light jacket, and I load those up with interesting peripherals. I found a decent jacket at a thrift store in Hawaii, and decided it would be a good platform to build this system.

For the first generation, I'm planning to shove in to it:

  • A Raspberry Pi Model A+ Brain. It's small and lightweight but still smart enough. I don't really need USB, just a lot of GPIO. The bad part about this is that I'll need a USB ethernet adapter for it, but that's better than having all the extra USB ports that the B+ gives us. The O-DROID platform is an interesting alternative.
  • A TP-Link knockoff router with a USB 4G modem in it. This is the connectivity of the system, and will either route everything through Tor or directly merge in to my home's network using OpenVPN.
  • A small Raspberry Pi camera module dropped in to the breast pocket of the jacket. This will have a cron job set to run every minute, giving me a full life log of my day which I can push to a backup storage and do cool things with. Additionally, it'll have two button switches, one to immediately take a photo, and one that'll record video.
  • A microphone to capture voice notes.
  • Some neat EL wires in the sleeves because who doesn't want to look cool
  • IR blasters to fuck with facial recognition and surveillance cameras
  • Some vibration motors and LEDs in the wrists for alerting and as a feedback mechanism

Past that, I have some plans in progress for:

  • GPS Logging
  • Activity tracking (distance walked a la fitbit)
  • Heart rate logging and biometrics
  • Posture recognition, retraining
  • A north paw

The big issue, and one I can't easily tackle until I get everything put together to measure the real life power draw of the system, is "how do I power this?" I'm really nervous about the idea of carrying around a few thousand mAh of lithium polymer on my person. At the very least, people will think I'm a terrorist, at the most, well, I'll self-immolate. Not great.

I think that my plan is to stick the bare minimum power systems for about 4-6 hours of life on my person, and modify my current ring-1/ring-2 bag with a Photovoltaic charge cell and the lithium polymer stores.

Interface Kit

The jacket itself provides all of the base-layer computing things, but doesn't solve the core problem my phone solves: "How do I actually look up information" "How do I communicate with others", and for that I've spec'd the parts out to build something very similar to this neat handheld linux terminal built using the RPi A+ and a TFT screen. The device will have a WiFi USB Adapter and some spare USB ports to add some useful functionality. All said and done, the device will give me a modern ARM platform on open-ish hardware with which I can build an interface to send and receive texts, idle on IRC and browse reddit. It'll probably end up with either a 3D printed case or a nice laser cut wood one, I'm not quite sure which way I want to go with it, yet, and need to sit down with some CAD software to make that happen.

The Software to back this

This whole idea of the 'internet of things' has kind of blown up recently, but it's a lot of walled gardens it seems like. There are projects that unify those, but I really really don't want my front door lock accessible via a 3rd party REST interface. Gack.

I've been playing with the idea of merging the internet of things with a bus like Fedora's FedMsg. This project is outside of the scope of my BCS kit, but I want to build the kit in the same fashion. With the thing on the VPN to my house, it could announce events to my house, even.

I envision peripherals being able to push messages in to an AMQP or MQTT bus that would then be consumed by either a rules engine or by an output or by both.

Scenarios can then be envisioned: An agent could fetch Twilio's SMS endpoint every few minutes, and when it sees one, push the metadata on to the bus. The rules engine sees that, and enqueues a "vibrate motors" event, which the pi or something like an Adafruit Flora would ingest and vibrate accordingly. Similarly, the Interface Kit would see this message and bring it up as the active buffer, ready to be displayed.

This is a huge set of projects I'm undertaking, and the first generation product will probably be incredibly simple, but I like the idea of building this out as a final "fuck you" to the idea of owning a smart phone.

I haven't even got to the part where I want to build my own laptop and home automation software. Now if only I felt like I was in a place to leave behind stock and a fun well paying job to bootstrap an insane hardware/software startup...