Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Digital Abacus

So there I was in the San Francisco International Airport recently, blithely killing time by laughing at hapless travelers as they frantically undressed and redressed themselves at the security area, or rushed through terminals like sex-hungry salmon against a raging river, or, you know, lay in a helpless heap of eye-bleeding insanity from the nightmare that is often intercontinental travel. I had traveled to the City By The Bay to attend a science workshop, and now had two hours of down time before my delayed flight was to leave. With a shrug, I decided to walk through one of the concourses.

There, sandwiched between human conveyor belts on a particularly long corridor were largely-ignored display cases showcasing the process of making prototypes into nifty products. They featured useful things like mp3 players, artsy lamps, and modern game systems, and their early design phases. But amongst these great, utilitarian inventions was an oddity which made me stop dead in my tracks. In the case in front of me was a digital abacus:


It was like looking at a pile of snow in the middle of the Mojave desert in July. It was a freak of technology. "Digital" and "abacus" are two words I thought I would never find together. Like a Frankensteinian mutant, here before me was an unholy marriage of modern technology and ancient relics seen nowhere else in the world where electricity is common (except Japan, but what can one expect of a land where raw fish is eaten with gusto?).

Like beaming Beatles songs into space (which NASA did today), the digital abacus is a shining example of excellent technology used for non-excellent purposes, a glaring example of a waste of good mindpower and scientific intellect, more art than science acumen. A gag gift. If you're going digital, buy a freakin' calculator.

What's next? Talking slide rules for the blind? Electronic finger counters? Holographic rulers? The digital abacus LED readout mocks all that is noble and timeless. Its tickertape printer is a waving flag of innanity. The sleek, waveform shape defies the stark utilitarianism of its predecessors.

Oh, sure, the abacus (or the soroban, for you Japanese folks) is still used in many parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa (HERE is a video on how to use it, and HERE is a video of someone using one for complex addition). There are highly-trained people (abacists) who can use it faster than most people would use a calculator. There are people who stack cups faster than I can, too, but I wouldn't say I'm jealous when I put away my washed dishes.

But, hey, I shouldn't knock something that's still in use after 4500 years (apparently invented in Babylonia). And when the next asteroid knocks the Earth back into the Stone Age, guess which counting device will still be around. The digital abacus will still be useful, even if it doesn't have batteries for the LED readout.

But don't expect me to give up my Texas Instruments science calculator anytime soon!


Anonymous said...

I was happy to see the Abacus at SFO too. I remember the guy who designed it from school. This was a student project created by Industrial Designer David Shaw when he was a student in 1989 or 1990? David has since become an accomplished professional and runs an award-winning consultancy in San Francisco called Metaform Product Development where he's worked on everything from LucasFilm Star Wars toys to eco-friendly computers. Actually, the one designed for Sun Microsystems was in the same SFO exhibition and shows his abilities to create very practical designs meant for real world production and use. The Abacus was not meant for production so it should not be judged in that vein. It was a conceptual exploration; a 3D sketch of a thought or inspiration.
I remember he built the model from scratch. Actually it was his very first design project in school. The introductory class assignment was to design a calculator. Others in the class submitted the predictable box with buttons and esoteric, cosmetic external case styling of a typical electronic calculator. Instead, Dave took creative license with the assignment. One classmate protested that the Abacus design should not be accepted by the teacher. I remember the teacher said that this "may hurt his grade but not his career."
All of his subsequent school projects were different from the norm and unexpected. The guy would cover 3 walls of the classroom with idea sketches when the rest of the class produced one wall of sketches combined. In design school you have to have the "balls" to take chances and not be afraid of being different. School is really the time to do something with deeper meaning that provokes discourse. Something that shows you are thinking and not just hashing out another boring assignment. It’s time to explore and push boundaries and not settle.
If you think about it in that light, it was successful because people are still noticing it today. In fact, it made you stop in your tracks and post it in your blog. Beyond all the other projects shown at SFO, you remembered this one. Out of all the other 15 or so calculator designs from that class, none are being exhibited or remembered today.
Design school is when you have the luxury of exploring wild ideas and expressing what makes you unique as a designer. This is exactly what design students should do to have a portfolio that stands out and is memorable. They'll have plenty of time in the real world to do the highly constrained stuff. Out of all the students in that class, David turned out to be the only one still doing industrial design professionally. It's a really tough and competitive field where people are weeded out fast.
If you read his project description you will see why he used those forms. It's a metaphor of an ocean wave going from East to West and the form goes from sculptural hand-crafted on the right to a geometric machine aesthetic on the left. It is meant to symbolize the intersection of ancient and modern, East and West, human interface and machine. Basically a bridge merging cultures, generations, and technologies. I remember he said he got the inspiration from watching a race where children using the abacus were beating adults using electric calculators. It pays homage to an ancient invention that is still valid today and was not meant to mock that which is noble and timeless.
This project won the prestigious ID Annual Design Review for Concepts back in 1991 which rarely happens for a beginning design student with a first project let alone seasoned professionals. It's like hitting a grand slam in your first ever at bat.
Something created in 1989-1990ish is still being requested by museum curators in 2008-2009. It’s amazing that this project is still being exhibited around the world a couple decades later. That's not too shabby for a first time student design assignment.

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Sildenafil said...

wait a second...who need a digital abacus? men there calculators and computers that do that thing for us, OK I like to keep my brain working but this is totally ridiculous.

Anonymous said...


I think the Abacus project is a conceptual design/exploration and not meant to be a real product. Kind of a statement piece to make people think about art and technology, eras and cultres, etc. I don't think the designer intened it to be a real product at all. Kind of like a sculpture that holds some interesting meaning that promotes discourse and thought.

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