Physical Computing

Back in the 1990s, cyberpunk literature envisioned a virtual world, where people could leave their physical bodies and merge in a posthuman reality.

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and William Gibson’s Neuromancer led the wave of the future: a plane of virtual existence where someone’s avatar acts as ambassador into a new realm with different rules for interaction.

According to James Patrick Kelley and John Kessel in the introduction to Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, cyberpunk was defined by several obsessions, most notably “the way emerging technologies will change what it means to be human” and more to the point, “that we are no longer changing technology; rather it has begun to change us”.

What then, is physical computing, and how does it relate to the literature of cyberpunk? Where cyberpunk embraced the virtual to the fullest extent possible, even going so far as to reject the physical body, seeking to replace the physical with the virutal, physical computing seeks to extend the physical presence through computer operation. Physical computing tends to bring about behavioural changes. From what I’ve seen and read, there is no attempt to “merge” with the computer, but instead to allow it to extend human capabilities.

As the name would suggest, physical computing is very much interested in interactions with the real world. Many physical computing projects are based around small microprocessors, like the Arduino. More important than the controller, however, is the way in which these projects interact with the environment. Numerous sensors measure the environment, which then provides meaningful feedback.

Some of the more interesting examples of physical computing change the way we interact with technology. Take the GPS locked treasure box, which will only unlock at particular coordinates, telling the user how far away the correct location is.

Another interesting example of physical computing is a gumball machine that only dispenses candy when a particular code is knocked on the case. A shave and a haircut isn’t only good at getting cartoon rabbits out of hiding.

Physical computing is interesting precisely because microcontrollers can be used to influence behaviour. This promotion of interactivity is likely one of the reasons why physical computing has been embraced by artists and tinkerers. One of the more innovative ideas includes e-textiles, like the LilyPad Arduino, where electronics are embedded in clothing.

While the cyberpunk literature of the past presented a world where the virtual was embraced, where skill and craft was expressed through digital code, divorced from the physical world by engineers and hackers, physical computing fully engages the physical. Microcontrollers now provide the heart of interactive art projects, and form the focus of new engaging projects by educators.

Aurora Award Finalists

The finalists for the Prix Aurora Awards has now been announced.

While I’ve only read two of the nominated works for Best English Novel so far, (Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay, and Watch, by Robert J. Sawyer), I’ve read the previous two novels in the series by Hayden Trenholm (nominated for Stealing Home, previous novels reviewed are Defining Diana and Steel Whispers.), and have attended readings by Sawyer, Trenholm and Marie Bilodeau for their nominated works.

I’m also pleased that Suzanne Church (a writer here in the Waterloo Region),  Matt Moore, and Hayden Trenholm are finalists for Best English Short Story. Sawyer is also a finalist for Best English Poem, as are Carolyn Clink, and Helen Marshall.

Douglas Smith (of whom I’ve mentioned the story Radio Nowhere from the Campus Chills anthology) has a nomination for Best English Related work for his collection of stories (Chimerascope), and John Robert Columbo and Brett Alexander Savory are finalists for the Tesseracts Fourteen anthology.

There’s a good article in the Metro News about an Ottawa based group of writers named the East Block Irregulars which includes Trenholm, Moore and Bilodeau which shows how a great group can challenge writers to excel. All of the members of the group have reason to be proud of these accomplishments.

Matt Moore holding Steel Whispers

A photo of SF writer Matt Moore holding his colleague Hayden Trenholm’s novel Steel Whispers. Both Moore and Trenholm are nominated for Best English Short Story.

Shifting Bits With Arduino

I’ve recently started back into electronics. I took an electronics course back in high school, but I’ve dealt mostly with software since then.
I’ve had a Freeduino-SB sitting around since last year, until I finally soldered on the through hole components a few weeks ago. The Freeduino is an Arduino clone made by Solarbotics.

So far, I’ve managed to power a dual digit 7 segment display using two 74HC595 shift registers. These can be chained in series to provide more outputs from the same three output pins from the Arduino.

Arduino Countdown
Continue reading

Book Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel Tigana was first published back in 1990, although I first read it in 1999. It has remained one of my favourite novels. I have a signed first edition hardcover, in addition to my paperback reading edition.

Tigana is a wonderful novel which examines the power of memories. The theme of remembering is woven throughout, starting with the opening prologue, where the Prince of Tigana muses on what legacy he leaves his country: “Oh, our pride. Our terrible pride. Will they remember that most about us, do you think, after we are gone?” to which his companion states that “the one they that we know with certainty is that they will remember us. Here in the peninsula, and in Ygrath, and Quileia, even west over the sea, in Barbadior and its Empire. We will leave a name” (16). The novel quickly opens to the tragedy of Brandin of Ygrath’s great wrath, where in his magic he ripped away the name and cultural heritage of the province of Tigana, such that only those born in the province can comprehend the name.

There may be spoilers after the cut, but the book has been out for over twenty years. It’s still a worthwhile read.
Continue reading