Computer :(

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Body Computing System: A Redux, and a Dream

Back before the dawn of mankind, in the month of April, I wrote about1 my struggles with the body computing system and what I was going to do to build a system that actually worked for me; since then, I've gone back to just using my Thinkpad full time, and carrying it in a backpack with my smallbag. I had plans to build, essentially, my own laptop, with my Ergodox and a Raspberry Pi. I've been playing on and off designing something that worked like this, and even came up with some decent solutions. The most promising in recent memory was this briefcase system2 which would have worked and been good but wasn't really the style of something I want to carry every day. I just need a way to mount the screen on the top half, and I could use this today. I've also designed a number of printable Ergodox-computers along lines like this3. Overall they are nice, functional systems, and useful interfaces, but they failed to scratch the real itch that I have: ubiquitous, easy to use personally-controlled computing.

Over the last four months, I've sold, in my head, the issues I've had that led me to a dead-end on the Body Computing System last time:

  • Power Constraints: The big issue with the body computing jacket, was that I'd end up carrying high-capacity batteries protected only by a thin layer of fabric; over the last month, I replaced my jean-pockets and small-bag with a fanny pack. First a stupid ridiculous one4 that I bought as a joke, but lately a more undertoned5 and useful one. This is a great place to hold a high capacity battery, it stays out of the way and is well padded.
  • InterfaceKit: This was a really cute custom handheld I was going to build, but it relied on slow systems and was too bulky to be useful. I ended up scrapping this entirely, and moving toward using a pocket bluetooth keyboard and Emacspeak6, a great text-to-speech system that is tightly integrated in to Emacs, my computing environment of choice. It's going to take a lot to get used to, but it also solves my notification-sleeve system that I wanted to build, by virtue of my always needing a headphone in one ear; I may get a contact headphone like this one on Amazon7, to keep my ears free, but that can be after I verify that this is actually useful.
  • Dedicated Routable Network: The fanny pack also can hold a wifi hotspot in it, and without needing an InterfaceKit, I can get away with using the crappy one that I have; it has multiple days of battery life, but it isolates each client on to their own VLAN. To facilitate routing, I've recently embraced a neat system called Matrix8 to create a series of peer-to-peer RPC channels that are thinly disguised as chat rooms. I am working on tight integration between the Body Computing System and homehub9, another one of my Omega Projects, and Matrix is proving to be a key lynchpin in that system.

With these big issues routed around, I've begun working on my MVP again, and have had some promising first results; I've integrated Emacspeak in to FSEM10 and begun working on good patterns to work with it, and generally starting to understand how fucking hard it is to use computers if you're visually impaired. A post for another time, though. I've also worked on the hardware, with some pretty good first results.

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The really really cool part about this implementation is that the HDMI port and USB ports are easily accessible at any time. This means that I could build a dumb terminal with just a display and the Ergodox and just plug it when I want to use it. It's a very promising pattern, if I can put together a small mobile thing that fits those needs, a la the printable computers I am designing.

Essentially this idea of creating a ubiquitous computing platform is starting to become a bigger project than just that -- a compute fabric for all of my systems, not just when I'm on the go. It's also becoming much more attainable system. Matrix has proven11 , 12 really simple to work with so far, and the effect is nice. I'm excited about this project and am carving out more of my personal time to hit this project as hard as I want to.

At the Emacs-SF Coffee.el meetup last month, I met one of the engineers behind Avegant13 a neat personal projection unit, and I'm really looking forward to seeing that ship, I may even pre-order one and integrate it in to this whole system, at which point I would have a fully-functional personal computing system which even could do display. Exciting times.