The retro-tech revival

Posted by Mike Walsh

2/14/17 10:09 PM

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I still can't quite get my head around it, but for some consumers, it seems that the future of technology lies in its past. Ancient feature phones, 8-bit video game consoles and even cassette players are all making a comeback. So is the retro-tech trend just sad Gen X'ers trying to relive the glories of their youth, or something more interesting?

All of us probably owned a Nokia 3310 at one point. Built like a tank, ugly as hell and virtually indestructible, it was like the mobile equivalent of those 70s Mercedes sedans that still serve as taxis in dusty, wild cities far from your comfort zone. Anyway, later this year, 17 years after its first introduction, and long after the demise of its original maker - HMD Global, a Finnish company that bought the rights to the Nokia brand, is bringing the 3310 back, 'Snake' game and all.

Old school cell phones are not the only retro-tech devices enjoying a revival.

Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition, a dimunitive plug-and-play box with 30 preinstalled games for the price of $145, was 2016’s hottest Christmas item. And for those willing to spend three times as much, you might consider the Analogue Nt mini - a solid block of aluminum and solid state electronics, that will play all 2,000 of the original Nintendo cartridges on modern televisions.

Both the Nokia 3310 and the 8-bit Nintendo are as much slow-tech as retro-tech.

Like a typewriter, they are relatively simple, reliable, and focused in their application. There are no software updates, social sharing buttons or background data leaks. They are distracting in their own way, but distraction-free compared to the 'Skinner box' nature of modern devices.

And yet, in my view, this current resurgence in obsolete hardware is more than just nostalgia - it is part of an emerging subculture around re-purposing or 'retro-modding' old technologies into new forms.

If the retro-modding scene in America has a ground zero, it is Ben Heck.

Millions have watched his YouTube show where he hacks devices from phones to wheelchairs. Generally his targets for adaption are old game consoles. Heck deconstructs them and morphs them into new, miniaturized, bonsai-like configurations. Whether it be turning an old Super Nintendo into a handheld or reincarnating an Atari 2600 game system, Heck’s adaptions incorporate modern components, better screens, and smaller, less power-hungry elements. Heck himself simply calls his work 'portabilizing'.

Another way of thinking about retro-modders is as an example of what sociologist Henry Jenkins calls 'participatory culture', where gamers cross the threshold of consuming content to re-mixing it. But as 3D printing, low-cost components, and online knowledge communities make modifying old technologies easier to accomplish - modding may shift from being a garage hobby, to being a powerful springboard to disruptive innovation.

Palmer Luckey is a case in point.

Inspired by Heck, he set up a forum called Mod Retro, and in between repairing and selling old iPhones for money, started buying up and modifying old virtual reality gear from the 90s.

In classic modding style, he took the equipment he bought apart to see if he could put it back together with more modern parts. He cannibalized components from his collection of head-mounted displays, and created prototypes with brand new screens. These projects were the basis of what would eventually become Oculus Rift, bought by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014, just 18 months after raising $2.4 million on Kickstarter.

There are close parallels between modders and the Maker Movement. Both modders and Makers refuse to see technology as a hermetically sealed package, but rather as a book to be opened, studied, adapted and re-purposed. As as was the case with virtual reality, companies may abandon a technology for economic or strategic reasons, but this doesn’t mean that their prior investments can’t be a platform for continued innovation by a community of hackers and tinkerers.

So here's a thought for you to consider: what discarded technologies in your bottom drawer might contain the seeds of the future’s next big idea?

Topics: Innovation

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