The future is Perspex

Two devices have recently launched aimed at the sizeable retro, or nostalgia markets. One is the Nokia 3310, a kind of glossed-up redesign of a classic dumb phone, snakes and all, which was so popular and ubiquitous back in its day that even people who didn’t own one think that in fact they probably did. The other is the Gemini, which looks a lot like the Psion Series 5 pocket computer of the nineties, which hardly anyone owned by today’s standards.

Both of these devices boast having been created to some extent by people who worked on the originals, in the case of the Gemini by the main man himself, Martin Riddiford, the designer of the Psion Series 3 and Series 5 keyboards. So you can see what all the excitement is about.

Or maybe not. My own view is that consumer technology devices don’t age well, even in concept. The appeal is ephemeral, and you soon get bored of the limitations. It’s like when you pay a visit to the neighbourhood where you were born. As you approach your old house, the anticipation is thrilling, as is the awkwardness you feel when the current occupant peeps through the curtain wondering who the hell you are lurking outside the gate.

But after sitting on the wall for a bit, remembering those grazed knees and games of hopscotch, and after the police have turned up and asked you to move along, you wonder what the point of the exercise was. In a way you’re left feeling empty and cheated.

Pong, one of the first video games ever created (let there be light!), involved knocking a ball (a clump of white pixels) back and forth between two moveable paddles (bigger clumps of white pixels) on a black background. Play it today and it’s great fun for a bit, especially while it’s bringing back all those memories of the seventies, evoking the smells of plastic and teak TVs, stale wallpaper paste, and brillo pads. But you soon start to think: is that it? You wonder how the hell Atari sold 150,000 units. And so back in the attic the console goes.

I recently looked at a photo of my old Treo 650. It was the second smartphone I owned (my original Treo 500 got stolen – I imagine in those dumb phone days the thief spent a long time asking around to find out what it actually was that he had acquired), and I was taken by how it looked not retro as you might expect from a 12-year-old phone, but futuristic.

The Treo 650 was space-ship sleek with a projecting antenna that suggested powerful long-range subspace communication. It had little solid keys that felt profound when pressed, as though actually engaging with the strange ether that was the early online universe of the mid-nineties. Above all, it was old, it was quirky, but it was different. And I think that’s what mattered more than anything.

Phone enthusiasts are perhaps tired of the march toward uniformity, (which began around the time Apple accused Samsung of blatantly copying the iPhone), of physically featureless phones differentiated by only the roundness of their corners, the thickness of their bezels, the premiumness of their price. Thus a keyboard on a phone, and even a redesigned dumb phone, might in some sense appear a step forward rather than a step back.

There’s no stopping this trend toward the featureless slab though. Anyone who’s watched the Sci-Fi TV series ‘The Expanse’ has seen the probable conclusion of smartphone design. Characters in this future world use ‘hand terminals’, which when not active look like phone-shaped slices of clear Perspex sheet. And how much more featureless can you get than that?

But when in use these devices light up dazzlingly with a holographic interface that hovers slightly above the surface of the device. All the usual functions – calls, videos, maps – take up position seamlessly and boldly, and it even projects 3-D content into the air.

So there it is. A slice of clear Perspex. That’s the future. We don’t yet know if our descendants will have a sense of nostalgia similar to ours, whether they will gaze at their plain pieces of Perspex and long for metal and glass, for texture and bezel, for a 3.5mm audio jack. Nor do we know whether a galactic crowd-sourcing company will resurrect Steve Jobs out of brand new atoms, and invite him to design a retro iPhone. We just don’t. But don’t, please.