Mind/Iron Blog Articles

Back to Basics — The Universal, All Digital Device isn’t Necessarily Nirvana

January 2015
By Bryan Bergeron

I recently acquired a handheld loop magnifier from eBay for $8. Not a bad deal, considering it has glass optics and provides about 30X magnification. Of course, I could have picked up a more versatile USB microscope for about $40 and have the full power of PhotoShop and other image processing software at my disposal. Thing is, I already own two rather high-end USB microscopes.

It’s just too much of a hassle to boot up an application and plug in a USB microscope when I want to quickly examine a solder joint or make out the part number on a chip. My new 30X loop magnifier, in contrast, is always on my workbench, ready for instant use. True, I can’t save a copy of the optical image and send it to a friend or use it with this article, but most of the time I don’t need to.

This is just one example of what I’ve come to realize is the failure of the do-everything smartphone or tablet. In theory, it makes sense to have everything available through a single device — why have multiple LCD screens, multiple processors, and multiple keypads when you can do everything with a single set? In practice, however, the digital equivalent of a Swiss Army knife isn’t necessarily nirvana.

Like a physical Swiss Army knife, a digital device capable of doing everything isn’t usually optimum for doing any one thing in particular, and certainly isn’t good for doing things in parallel. For example, I have a package that transforms my iPad into a digital oscilloscope. While this is great for traveling, when I’m home, I use the dedicated o’scope, DMM, and other instruments on my workbench.

I suppose the real issue is workflow. While I love the idea of having a single device that can serve any purpose I imagine, I have yet to find such a device that truly supports my workflow. It could be that I learned electronics and robotics using stand-alone devices. Perhaps I need to alter my workflow to suit the most modern digital tools available — but I’d rather not. I’d prefer to keep my programming intact.

My bias to simplicity is reflected in my robotics work. Instead of designing all-purpose robots with a single point of failure, I develop application-specific models. Today, the advantages of having multiple robots — each capable of performing one or more tasks simultaneously — trumps a general-purpose machine. This is likely to change in the future, when the cognitive and physical capabilities of robots approach that of their multi-purpose human designers. It’s only a matter of time. SV

Posted by Michael Kaudze on 12/18 at 01:35 PM

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