Does anyone remember this?
Say hello to the original Nintendo Game Boy. That in itself is exciting. However, what makes this device exceptional is the casing. Look at it! Clear and transparent, exposing all the beautiful electronic wizardry inside this 1989 gadget.
Yes, the inside easily gets filled with dust. The plastic cracks and gets dirty. But that does not diminish the fact that for most kids and adults alike, such transparent casing is incredibly cool. Not only can you see everything inside, but you have an earnest sense of excitement using the device; you can almost feel the gears churning inside, tingling your fingers, responding.
Nowadays, transparency is generally frowned upon. It is seen as unclean, unfinished, unaesthetic. Manufacturers strive for ‘ease of use,’ ‘accessibility,’ ‘simplicity!’ in their products. If you can see the electronics, that might turn users off. They only want a screen. A glossy metal finish. Occasionally, some buttons. Nothing more, or people begin to freak out, calling a device overcomplicated, or ‘broken.’
Even Nintendo, a company unafraid of doing something different, gave up on transparent Game Boy models past the Game Boy Advance. Nowadays, their DS is just like any other gadget – plasticky, glossy, opaque.
Why? I, for one, would like to call for a renaissance of the see-through. Not only do I believe that transparent electronic devices can be aesthetically pleasing, but clear casings can be used to enhance the user experience, enriching the device for little extra effort.
Let us take the example of the Game Boy. Just re-imagined in the 21st century. You take out your portable game player. It’s completely transparent – you can see every single electronic bit; they are labeled, but you have no idea what any of the labels signify. Well, what gives? You plug in a game cartridge and flick the button conveniently labeled ‘ON.’
A basic 8-bit version of Space Invaders flickers on the screen. You stare, bewildered, at this machine you heard was a gaming powerhouse. You beat a level, two, and the game has you hooked. But reach a certain high-score, and the screen fades to black, a single line of text staring as if from the depths of an empty void:
A second later, and the message is gone. Fix CPU. Fix CPU. Apparently, you have to fix something! Oh dear, let’s hope this isn’t something that’s going to ruin the new device forever. You just payed a fortune for it!
You unearth your toolbox, find the right screwdriver, and carefully, cautiously, unfasten the lid. Thankfully, the case is transparent, and you quickly pick out the part labeled ‘CPU.’ Otherwise, you would never dare break open a new device like this.
You unscrew a few extra pieces, then focus on the CPU. What a tiny piece of electronic machinery! Wonder what it’s for, anyway? You finally notice a loose wire, bang yourself on the head for not seeing it through the case sooner, plug it in with little effort, refasten everything, screw the case back on, and flick the ‘ON’ switch.
“Central Processing Unit fixed. More horsepower unlocked.”
The cartridge launches something akin to Mario Kart DS. Sleeker graphics, faster gameplay, an overall improved experience. Cool, you say! So that’s what CPU stands for. And, you guess correctly, it’s what runs the most core functions of the device, determining its power. These errors aren’t going to brick your machine, you realize. They’re going to advance it, make it even better.
You can see where this is going. One by one, the user learns about each of the device’s parts, each fix unlocking more exciting features, incentivising the player to keep on innovating. Different game cartridges may require you to completely rewire the system or rearrange the components. Not only does the player have fun, he/she learns about the device they are using through the process. They gain some fundamental skills necessary for engineering and innovation: the ability to learn and analyse, not be afraid to tinker, and to be able to think outside the conventional way of doing things.
This does not have to be restricted to gaming devices. Consider a fridge. Ask anyone on the street about how one functions, and you will be hard-pressed to find a decent reply. (I would probably not be able to explain it well either.) Make it transparent, though, and have all the components – possibly the basic processes, too – labeled, and you will instantly have kids analysing it from a young age. “Daddy!” they would go, “What’s a vapor-compression cycle?” Daddy would look it up on Wikipedia, refer to the label behind the clear fridge casing, and explain it to his kid. This would pass down generations, and eventually, everyone will have a pretty good idea of how the modern refrigerator works.
Why not have see-through televisions? Computers? Cameras? Mobile phones? Digital clocks? Cars? (OK, the last one may take a few more decades of materials manufacturing advancement.) Transparent devices are not a 90s fad. They have the potential to redefine our future relationship with technology, advance education, train a new generation of innovative thinkers and tinkerers. Perhaps, we should be bringing see-through back.