September 25, 2008


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Unified Gadget Theory
What Higgs bosons and the iPhone have in common
By John “jaQ” Andrews

When the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland came online Sept. 10, the world did not end. Microscopic black holes, despite the fears of naysayers, did not erupt from the world’s biggest particle accelerator to swallow the Earth whole.

Fortunate for all of us.

The goal of the LHC — of all quantum physics research, really — is to understand how the subatomic world works. Many physicists hope to consolidate the myriad equations, observations and hypotheses into a single, simple theory. Rather than a complex and seemingly arbitrary group of laws, they say, it seems like there should be one basic core from which they all follow naturally. This core is referred to quite undramatically as the Grand Unifying Theory of Everything.

Just as this theory would be a marvelous tool for understanding the world around us, having a single device that does many things is tremendously useful. The sheer number of electronic gizmos on an average college student today would stun a scholar of just a couple decades ago. A cell phone is practically required; a music player is nearly as common. You might also find a camera, a PDA, a game console, a laser pointer or other things in random pockets, along with a laptop in the oh-so-stylish messenger bag.

A few of those things already come packaged together. A cell phone without a camera is as hard to find these days as a car without cupholders. Smartphones are also getting the calendar and organizer capabilities of PDAs built in, along with the ability to add your own programs. At least a rudimentary music player is standard as well, and the iPhone, while not the first to highlight that combination of features, certainly set the standard for it.

So why do we still need multiple devices at all? These are just the portable things; back home there might be a more powerful desktop computer, a television, a stereo system and more. Wouldn’t life be simpler with a single unified gadget for all our data-centric needs?

This isn’t a theoretical challenge, but an engineering one. It’s certainly possible to build something with all the functions mentioned above, but it wouldn’t be portable, and it would be expensive. Part of the hardship isn’t even the miniaturization of components — we’ve gotten pretty good at that. But things can only get so small before they become useless. Cramming a QWERTY keyboard on a phone is easy, but getting your big lumpy fingers around it isn’t. And we all love our big screens at the same time we love things that can fit in our pockets.

What we need are technologies that bring small devices into the large human setting. Today, you can buy a computer accessory that draws a keyboard onto any flat surface with lasers. It tracks your fingers’ movement through that keyboard to interpret your “typing.” Similarly, miniaturized projectors could supplement or replace screens. A future gadget might just be a tiny box with a single power button, while the input and output interfaces would both be projections.

To really increase convenience, though, we need to replace some of the other things we normally carry around with us. Instead of a ring of keys, a software application on our unified gadget would send a coded radio signal to our car or house to unlock the doors. A payment program would replace the cash and credit cards in our wallets with secure transactions that move money directly from our accounts to the gas station, grocery store or restaurant.

All these separate technologies exist in some form now. Getting them in a single pocket isn’t too far off