Sensuous Electronics

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May 2013

The entrepreneur had finished talking about the software and processing algorithms for a new camera that he was marketing, and as he came down from the stage he left the camera on the podium, perhaps forgotten, but perhaps suggesting that it wasn’t expensive enough to worry about.

I was contemplating those processing algorithms when a woman who had been sitting behind me pushed by, heading up the aisle and muttering to herself.  As she passed by me, I heard her saying urgently under her voice, “I have to touch it.”

On the one hand, it seemed a curious urge.  All the magic was in the software and algorithms; the hardware was simply a lens, a sensor, and a few chips with firmware.  Yet I understood exactly what she was saying.  I felt the same way myself; I had to touch it too.

Why did I have this need to touch, I asked myself?  I started to think about the look and feel of electronic gadgets instead of their functionality.  Meanwhile another speaker was showing a small intelligent thermostat that promised to learn your heating trends and usage.  She said it had been designed to be “pretty and fun.”  Indeed, it did have a certain innate beauty, consisting simply of a circular face with a small touchscreen and no other adornments.  It seemed to me to be the hardware equivalent of the Google homepage -- minimal and clean.  When I remarked on this, someone said to me that the insides of the thermostat were equally beautiful.  I was surprised to recognize the truth of this observation.  The uncovered circuit board inside resembled a work of art, having the clean geometric lines of a Mondrian painting, compressed to a minimal size, but with no appearance of clutter.  Nonetheless, it appeared to exude a powerful latent functionality. 

This artistic design contrasted with what I have seen of disassembled laptops, smart phones, and other electronic gadgets, all of which look as if the designers had put together a bunch of random electronics and thrown it into a compactor.  When I take one of these gadgets apart, my overpowering feeling is that I will never be able to put it together again – all the parts are going to spring out into the room and never be found again.  No sense in designing for inner beauty when all the labels warn of the dire consequences of opening the product.

I remembered taking old radios apart back when I was a child.  Most of the space was taken by the vacuum tubes on top of the chassis.  Underneath was a rats’ nest of wiring, full of dust, careless solder, lumpy capacitors dripping wax, and blackened resistors.  I remember also the distinctive smell of overheated components.  Nothing there resembled beauty, but there is nevertheless a nostalgia in the remembrance.  Integrated circuits and printed circuit boards have done away with all that mess, and now I find a kind of beauty in motherboards.  But by the time they are stuffed almost carelessly into a box with cables, power supply, drives, and I/O, it all looks like a kludge ready for the junk pile.

Electrical engineering today is mostly a lot of math and physics, and sometimes we forget about the physicality and appearance of electronic design, the urge to see, touch, feel, and smell.  The importance of this esthetic dimension is evident in Apple stores.  They are always very crowded, but it is a different kind of crowd, where the hubbub is muted and the focus is intently on the gadgets themselves.  I study the concentration of the shoppers, but perhaps they study me, because I also am affected by the magnetism of those gadgets.  Somehow they have become jewelry, while their poor cousins across the street in another store are being made into orphans, in spite of what may be equal functionality.

But excuse me now, because I must touch them.