Computers

40 years of gadgets come out to play

An exhibit in New York reunites stars from technology's past -- from the "laptop" that's heavier than an automobile tire to computers you don't even need to touch -- and puts them at your fingertips.

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Finding a Commodore 64 computer wasn't difficult for exhibit curator Kimon Keramidas. The challenge was finding a monitor. Initially, he bought a 1985 RCA television for $5 to use as a monitor and paid $85 to ship it. Joan E. Solsman/CNET

Technology, even equipment that's long outdated and shunted aside, can still strike an emotional chord.

Just ask Kimon Keramidas, curator of "The Interface Experience," an exhibit that rounds up tech milestones from 40 years of personal computing for visitors to see and touch. He said almost everyone has a favorite item they make a beeline to and greet like an old friend.

"It's either 'Oh my God, it was so great!' or 'Oh my God, that was so hard to use,'" Keramidas said. "It's an emotional thing. People are connecting at more than just an intellectual level."

The show, which opens Friday at the Focus Gallery of the Bard Graduate Center in New York City, offers visitors a trip through history with what is essentially a gadgety greatest hits. On display are more than 25 different devices, as well as a wall of more than a hundred mobile phones (what Keramidas calls his cell phone "petting zoo") -- all of which can be touched and, in some cases, played with.

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Keramidas, left, spearheaded five years of work on the exhibit. Joan E. Solsman/CNET

"Most computers in museums sit in a corner behind a glass wall; they're not turned on, and you can't touch them," said Keramidas. "I wanted to stage things so people could experience them and watch each other working on the devices."

The centerpieces of the exhibit are five particular technologies that serve as markers for major stages in the development of interfaces for personal computing: the Commodore 64 as the first computer for the masses, the Apple MacIntosh for the introduction of a graphical user interface and the mainstream debut of a mouse, the PalmPilot as the first competent mobile device, the Apple iPad for introducing the touchscreen in tablet form and the Microsoft Kinect for making motion sensing accessible in the living room.

Keramidas, a professor and director of the digital media lab at Bard Graduate Center, spent five years and worked with students over the span of three courses to put together the exhibit, though the gadgets themselves were all bought for $6,300 on eBay.

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Keramidas created a wall of cell phones held up by Velcro as the exhibit's "petting zoo." Joan E. Solsman/CNET

That's some thrifty time-warp shopping, considering that just one piece, the 1973 Xerox Alto, originally sold for $40,000 -- or $225,000 when adjusted for inflation.

With the five central examples, Keramidas asked his students to create programs for each device, so visitors could use the items as they were meant to be used. The Commodore 64, through command-line prompts, asks you questions about your favorite computer, for example. The PalmPilot has a game to teach you Graffiti, the stylus-based shorthand handwriting recognition system the handheld employed.

For the true gadget connoisseur, the exhibit also has a companion website, and dives into each device's history, significance and connections to other gadgets in the show. For the most part, Keramidas wanted to avoid exploiting the retro appeal of these items, but the site's collection of old ads and commercials for all the devices does let users dabble in a little nostalgic fun.

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Adam Osborne, the creator of the Osborne 1, is said to have rankled Apple founder Steve Jobs by boasting his 24-pound "portable" computer would easily outsell the Apple II. (Three years later his company was in bankruptcy.) Bard Graduate Center

Though the five centerpiece items represent evolutionary leaps in personal computing, some of the most gleeful pieces to see are those that have since gone extinct.

The Osborne, a "portable" computer from 1981, has a screen about the size of two credit cards and, at 24 pounds not including the separate battery pack, it was more "luggable" than "portable."

The Minitel was a French computer the country's government distributed for free starting in 1982, with a text-based system that presaged the advent of the World Wide Web. Designed as a way to save on the printing costs of telephone books, it allowed people to search a national phone registry, make train reservations, buy clothing, read the news, check bank accounts and exchange electronic messages. "You could actually look at a lot of ASCII porn, it turns out," Keramidas said, referring to the staid, alphabet-focused ASCII encoding system for text on computers.

"The Interface Experience: Forty Years of Personal Computing" is on view starting Friday through July 19 at 18 West 86th Street in New York. It's open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. ET to 5 p.m. ET, with Thursday nights staying open late until 8 p.m. Suggested admission is $7, and it's $5 for seniors and students.