Category Archives: Just for Fun

Olfactory Pen Creates Giant Stink, Fails to Make it out of Research Skunkworks

Microsoft has shown incredible stuff this week at \\build around Pen and Ink experiences — including simultaneous Pen + Touch experiences — as showcased for example in the great video on “Inking at the Speed of Thought” that is now available on Channel 9.

But I’ve had a skunkworks project — so to speak — in the works as part of my research (in the course of a career spanning decades) for a long time now, and this particular vision of the future of pen computing has consumed my imagination for at least the last 37 seconds or so. I’ve put a lot of thought into it.

It’s long been recognized that the sense of smell is a powerful index into the human memory. The scent of decaying pulp instantly brings to mind a favorite book, for example — in my case a volume of the masterworks of Edgar Allen Poe that was bequeathed to me by my grandfather.

Or who can ever forget the dizzying scent of their first significant other?

So I thought: Why not a digital pen with olfactory output?

Just think of the possibilities for this remarkable technology:

Not only can you ink faster than the speed of thought, but now you can stink faster than the speed of thought!

And I’m here to tell you that this is entirely possible. I think. I’ve already conceived of an amazing confabulation called the Aromatic Recombinator (patent pending; filed April 1st, 2016 at 2:55 PM; summarily rejected by patent office, 2:57 PM; earnest appeal filed in hope of an affirmative response, 2:59 PM; earnest response received: TBA).

Nonetheless, I can understand the patent office’s reticence.

Because with this remarkable technology one can arouse almost any scent, from the headiest of perfumes all the way to the most cloying musk, simply by scribbling on the screen of your tablet as if it were an electronic scratch-n-sniff card. A conception on which I have another patent pending, by the way.

Admittedly, some details remain sketchy, but I remain highly optimistic that the obvious problems can be sniffed out in short order.

And if not, rest assured, I will raise one hell of a stink.

[Happy April Fools Day.]

Field Notes from an Expedition into the Paleohistory of Personal Computing

After a time-travel excursion consisting of thirty years in the dusty hothouse of  fiberglass insulation that is my parent’s attic, I’ll be durned if my trusty old TI-99/4A computer didn’t turn up on my doorstep looking no worse for its exotic journey.

Something I certainly wish I could say about myself.

So I pried my fossil from the Jurassic age of personal computing out of the battered suitcase my Dad had shipped it in, and — with the help of just the right connector conjured through the magic of eBay — I was able to connect this ancient microprocessor to my thoroughly modern television, resulting in a wonderful non sequitur of old and new:

TI 994A on my large screen TV

Yep, that’s the iconic home screen from a computer that originally came with a 13″ color monitor — which seemed like an extravagant luxury at the time — but now projected onto the 53″ larger-than-life television in my secret basement redoubt of knotty pine.

This is the computer that got me started in programming, so I suppose I owe my putative status as a visionary (and occasional gadfly) of human-computer interaction to this 16-bit wonder. Its sixteen-color graphics and delightful symphonic sound generators were way ahead of its time.

Of course, when I sat down with my kids and turned it on, Exhibit A of What Daddy’s Old Computer Can Do had to be a reprise of the classic game Alpiner which requires you to spur your doughty 16-bit mountaineer to the top of increasingly treacherous mountains.

In my mind, even after the passage of three decades, I could hear Alpiner’s catchy soundtrack  — which takes excellent advantage of the 99’s sound generators — before I even plugged the cartridge in.

Here’s my seven-year-old daughter taking up the challenge:

Alpiner on the TI-99/4aAlpiner redux after the passage of three decades — and in the hands of a new generation. Unfortunately for our erstwhile mountaineer, he has dodged the rattlesnake only to be clobbered by a rockfall which (if you look closely) can be seen, captured in mid-plummet, exactly one character-row above his ill-fated digital noggin.

Next we moved on to some simple programs in the highly accessible TI-Basic that came with the computer, and (modifying one of the examples in the manual) we ginned up a JACKPOT!!! game.

And yes, the triple exclamation points do make it way, way better.

Here’s one of my 8-year-old twins showing off the first mega-jackpot ever struck, with a stunning payoff of 6,495 imaginary dollars, which my daughter informs me she will spend on rainbow ponies.

Powerball ain’t got nothin’ on that.


My daughter awaits verification from the pit boss while I capture photographic evidence of the first ever mega-jackpot payout for striking five consecutive multipliers with a sixth $ kicker redoubling the bonus.

I’m not quite sure what will come next for our paleontological expedition into this shale of exquisitely preserved microprocessors. My other twin daughter has informed me in no uncertain terms that we must add a unicorn to the jackpot symbols — a project for which extensive research is already underway, despite a chronic lack of funding — and which will presumably make even more dramatic payoffs possible in the near future.

And if I can get the TI’s “Program Recorder” working again — and if enough of the program DNA remains intact on my old cassette tapes — then in Jurassic-Park fashion I also hope to resuscitate some classics that a primeval version of myself coded up, including smash hits such as Skyhop, Rocket-Launch, and Karate Fest!

But with only one exclamation point to tout the excellence of the latter title,  I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much for the gameplay in that one (grin).

Interacting with the Undead: A Crash Course on the “Inhuman Factors” of Computing

I did a far-ranging interview last week with Nora Young, the host of CBC Radio’s national technology and trend-watching show called Spark.

But the most critical and timely topic we ventured into was the burning question on everyone’s mind as All Hallows’ Eve rapidly approaches:

Can zombies use touchscreens?

This question treads (or shall we say, shambles) into the widely neglected area of Inhuman Factors, a branch of Human-Computer Interaction that studies technological affordances for the most disenfranchised and unembodied users of them all–the undead.

Fortunately for Nora, however, I am the world’s foremost authority on the topic.

And I was only too happy to speak to this glaring oversight in how we design today’s technologies, one that I have long campaigned to redress.

Needless to say, Zombie-Computer Interaction (ZCI) is an area rife with dire usability problems.

You can listen to the podcast and see how Nora sparked the discussion here.

But to clear up some common myths and misconceptions of ZCI, let me articulate seven critical design observations to keep in mind when designing technology for the undead:

  1.  Yes, zombies can use touchscreens–with appropriate design.
  2. Thus, like everything else in design, the correct answer is:
    “It Depends.”
  3. The corpse has to be fresh. Humans are essentially giant bags of water; touchscreens are sensitive to the capacitance induced by the moisture in our bodies. So long as the undead creature has recently departed the realm of the living, then, the capacitive touchscreens commonplace in today’s technology should respond appropriately.
  4. Results also may be acceptable if the zombie has fed on a sufficient quantity of brains in the last 24-36 hours.
  5. MOAR BRAINS! are better.
  6. Nonetheless, the water content of a motive corpse can be a significant barrier in day-to-day (or, to speak more precisely, night-to-night) interactions of the undead with tablets, smartphones, bank kiosks, and the like. In particular, touchscreens often completely fail to respond to mummies, ghasts, vampires, and the rarely-studied windigo of Algonquian legend–all due to the extreme desiccation of the corporeal form.
  7. Fortunately for these dried-up souls, the graveyard of devices-past is replete with resistive touchscreen technology such as the once-revered Palm Pilot handheld computer, as document in the frightening and deeply disturbing Buxton Collection of Input Devices and Technologies. These devices respond successfuly to the finger-taps of the desiccated undead because they sense contact pressure, not capacitance.

So let me recap the lessons:
Zombies can definitely use touchscreens; brains are good, MOAR BRAINS are better; and if you see a zombie sporting a Palm Pilot run like hell, because that sucker is damned hungry.

But naturally, the ground-breaking discussion on Zombie-Computer Interaction sparked by Nora’s provocation has triggered a flurry of follow-on questions from concerned citizens to my inbox:

What about ghosts? Can a ghost use a touchscreen?

A ghost is an unholy manifestation of non-corporeal form. Lacking an embodied form, a ghost therefore cannot use a touchscreen–their hand passes right through it. But ghosts can be sensed by light, such as laser rangefinders, or the depth-sensing technology of the Kinect camera for the XBox.

However, ghosts frequently can and do leave behind traces of ectoplasmic goo, which can cause touchscreens to respond in a strange and highly erratic manner.

If you have ever made a typo on a touchscreen keyboard, or triggered Angry Birds by accident when you could swear you were reaching for some other icon–chances are that “ghost contact” was triggered by a disembodied spirit trying to communicate with you from the beyond.

If this happens to you, I highly recommend that you immediately stop what you are doing and install every touchscreen Ouija board app you can find so that you can open a suitable communication channel with the realm of the dead.

What about Cthulu–H. P. Lovecraft’s terrifying cosmic deity that is part man, part loathsome alien form, and part giant squid? Can Cthulu use a touchscreen?

Studies are inconclusive. Scott’s great expedition to the Transantarctic mountains–where records of Cthulu are rumored to be hidden–vanished in the icy wastes, never to be heard from again. R. Carter et al. studied the literature extensively and promptly went insane.

Other researchers, including myself, have been understandably dissuaded from examining the issue further.

My opinion, unsupported by data, is that as a pan-dimensional being Cthulu can touch whatever the hell he wants–when the stars are right and the lost city of R’lyeh rises once again from the slimy eons-deep vaults of the black Pacific.

A lot of PEOPLE are WORRIED about Lawyers. Can lawyers use touchscreens as well?

Sadly, it is widely believed (and backed up by scientific studies) that most lawyers have no soul.

Therefore the majority of lawyers cannot use a touchscreen at all.

This is why summons and lawsuits always arrive in paper form from a beady-eyed courier.


Other noteworthy challenges to conventional INHUMAN FACTORS design wisdom

I’ve also fielded a variety of questions and strongly-held opinions from the far and dark corners of the Twittersphere.

Needless to say, these are clearly highly disturbed individuals, so I recommend that you interact with them at your own risk.

All right. I think I’ve put this topic to rest.

But keep the questions coming.

And be careful tonight.

Be sure to post in the comments below, or tweet me after midnight @ken_hinckley and I’ll do my best to give you a scientifically rigorous (if not rigor-mortis-ish) response.