iBot 3000 at MacWorld

by Scot Hacker

OK, so here I am with towel in hand, wiping egg from face after my failed MacWorld prediction. I've been predicting the appearance of an Apple-branded integrated DVR/MP3/Rendezvous'd home entertainment component for more than a year. It hasn't come true yet, but I know it will, because it makes sense, and because so far all we've seen are underfunded entrepreneurs chipping away at the edges of the concept, rather than tackling it head-on.

Instead we got Mini iPods that don't make any financial sense (to the consumer - though they certainly make good sense to Apple). Jobs claimed they were trying to go after the upper end of the Flash-based player market, but I think the real deal is that this is a play for teenyboppers who love to accessorize. Crap deal or not, they'll sell a zillion of them.

G5 XServe, darn right. Glad to see it, but no surprises there. Had to do it. Kudos to the engineers who figured out how to cool the beast in a 1U space. Some cool footage of the G5-based Virginia Tech supercomputer. 1100 G5s. 2200 processors. 3rd fastest supercomputer in the world, at a tiny fraction of the cost of the next fastest. Apple has completely rocked the supercomputer world. The guy who called Apple to place the order for the 1100 G5s had never bought a Mac before in his life.

Arrived too late to catch the replay of the original 1984 commercial for the 20th anniversary of the Mac, but did see a variety of original Macs scattered around at historical booths. It blows the mind to see how far we've come... and to think that even those primitive little boxes with tiny screens and no hard drives were leading the industry in their own time.

The introduction of GarageBand to the iLife suite was pretty impressive, especially with John Mayer in person on keys and guitar. Anyone who's played with Soundtrack can see that Apple has basically repackaged its guts -- removed the video soundtrack-specific elements and wrapped it in hipper packaging. Nothing wrong with that. It's the most intuitive multitrack editing, looping, etc. i've experimented with. Can't wait to play with it more. As Mayer said, "If I had had this when I was 13, I never would have left my room." Ahem.

The downside: More incentive for people not to learn to make real music. GarageBand and similar apps make it too damned easy to sound good.

On the flipside, plug a real instrument into GarageBand and you can do some pretty awesome stuff. The MIDI guitar sounds Mayer was generating via keyboard were incredible - realistic attack, pitch bending, fingertips touching string spirals. Amazing. Mayer claimed it was the first time he had heard software-based guitar sounds he'd actually want to record with. Not sure what he was paid to say that, but it sounded convincing.

There are revolutionary MacWorlds and there incremental MacWorlds. In all, I'd say this one was incremental. But there was one really revolutionary thing I saw - a guy in a wheelchair at the same height as standing men and women. He was a crippled Vietnam Vet in an iBot 3000 -- a chair designed by Dean Kamen, who also invented the Segway. The iBot uses gyroscopes to balance, just like the Segway, and lets handicapped drivers climb stairs, traverse rough terrain, reach tall shelves, and stand at the same height as everyone else. Said he was riding one of 12 existing prototypes in the world. A thing of beauty to see in action (yes, I know the iBot 3000 isn't a brand new technology; in fact the Segway stemmed out of work on the iBot, AFAIK. But it was still strange and magical to see one in person.

Did you see anything at MacWorld that really turned your crank?


2004-01-07 16:15:56
Real Music
The downside: More incentive for people not to learn to make real music. GarageBand and similar apps make it too damned easy to sound good.

You're kidding, right?

alephx01 (at) mac (dot) com

2004-01-07 23:21:24
Real Music
Umm... no alephx01, I wasn't. What about that statement made it sound like I was kidding?
2004-01-08 09:04:08
failed MacWorld prediction
Nope, no Apple-branded iServe or similar :-(

But El Gato's new eyeHome looks interesting: an ethernet device to put in your living room that will feed your iTunes music or your digital video collection or your iPhoto slide show into your TV or sound system. Combined with a Mac server elsewhere in the house (especially if Airport-enabled) it goes a long way towards a 'home media centre'

simon at kershaw dot org dot uk

2004-01-08 14:23:37
Real Music
Because if you applied the same luddite attitude to the rest of the things you write about you'd be advocating a return to typing pools, the telegraph and ranks of filing cabinets since word processors, email and databases make it 'too easy'.

In reality music and technology have progressed hand in hand over the last 100 years and GarageBand will lead to unimaginable innovation just like every other mechanical aid from wax cylinders through electric guitars to multitrack recording studios. Even the favourite music-tech whipping boy, the proverbially soulless drum machine, has provided near-endless inspiration for musical pioneers.

-- not the original poster

PS How can you go from 'not making sense financially to consumers' to 'sell a zillion' within the space of one paragraph. Don't tell me you got sucked into the $99 iPod rumours too. The Apple watchers reactions to the pricing have in general been nonsensical. Is it time to start the backlash to the backlash yet?

2004-01-09 00:35:29
Real Music
My perspective is not luddite at all. I am concerned about the decline of inspiration and SWEAT in music. Where is this generation's WHO, Stones, Zeppelin? Who in the past 20 years has been able to play their instruments? Who has had an original idea? Music comes with musical thinking, which is a dying form.

Not sure what you're saying about the drum machine. What pioneers have used the drum machine? What near-endless inspiration? The drum machine is responsible for vast wastelands. The likes of GarageBand will exacerbate the trend.

There is no contradiction between "not making sense financially" and "sell a zillion." It doesn't make sense because for $50 more you could have 3x more capacity. They'll sell a zillion because they're cute and sexy and may people just love to accesorize. Nonsensical? In what universe would it make sense to buy a Mini when you could have 3x more for a bit more bread?

2004-01-09 07:00:03
Real Music
Actually, I've heard it described as hitting a sweet spot - the same sweet spot the mini-moog did. It brings an expensive but highly desirable music technology into the hands of a much wider audience without the complexity or expense of the full technology itself. It's continuing the meme 'Apple is for those who create'. In much the same way that desktop publishing initially produced tons of crap but utterly recreated an entire idustry and raised the sophistication of the entire reading world, accessible desktop studios are going to have an incredible impact on the availability of music, both good and bad. I have spent time with people who have spent their lives running around the country with tape recorders, trying to capture performances of blues, folk, bluegrass and other small-market genres from the very people who invented those genres rather than the two or three folks that the music labels can earn money off of, before their styles and skills are lost forever. No budget, no expertise, just passion. Now imagine what these people could have done with these tools. With inexpensive tools of this quality, music is about to get one helluva lot better than it has ever been before. Imagine, widespread accessibility to music of all styles without requiring the participation of a music 'industry'. THIS is the reason P2P was invented.
2004-01-09 10:18:45
Real Music
Not sure what you're saying about the drum machine. What pioneers have used the drum machine? What near-endless inspiration? The drum machine is responsible for vast wastelands. The likes of GarageBand will exacerbate the trend.

Well, I'm not sure I agree. I think you can say that Sting's newest album is definitely not a "wasteland". And it's all drum machines -- *well-programmed*.

The trend, if there is any, is to put usable musical instruments into the hands of people who can *learn* to use them -- if they want to.

And I don't think this is a bad thing at all. Should we forget about power tools because some people make lousy birdhouses out of plywood? As a reasonably talented musician, I *want* GarageBand. High-quality multitracking, loop-based arranging, integration with iTunes? I've been *waiting* for something like this that didn't cost an arm and a leg.

2004-01-09 11:45:29
Real Music
drum machines + musical pioneers: http://www.intuitivemusic.com/tguidedrummachine2.html (Kraftwerk, George Clinton and Sly and the Family Stone amongst many others, for the click-lazy) but that's not even counting the probably far wider effect of allowing single artists to produce their mini masterpieces alone. Early Prince records are probably a good example of this.

As to price, it still doesn't make sense financially yet they're cute and sexy and accessorize-able (all far more so than the standard iPod) and people are prepared to pay good money for these qualities regardless of lesser capacity. Makes sense to me, in fact it seems like damn good marketing research.

But more importantly, why buy a flash mp3 player for $150 - $200 when an iPod mini gives you 16x the 256mb capacity for $100 - $50 bucks more? It's your own logic, yet it's more powerful at this level as 1,000 songs is more than some people need or want so they don't need the capacity but few can't fill a cheap flash player. The prevailing opinion seems to be that Apple should have delivered the same (fundamentally broken) functionality but at a lower price in order to compet with the flash players, however Apple is just not set up as a company to do that even if it wanted to.

2004-01-09 18:31:22
Real Music
You imply that by using a drum machine you SWEAT less. Not at all, it's just that your sweat is applied to different things, like composition, instrumentation, etc. I could even argue that it was EASIER to compose a symphony before computers because you were limited to the types of instruments that people could build. These days, I can spend months perfecting how a particular synthesized instrument sounds, and how it interacts with the user interfaces available to me (knobs, wheels, keys, strings and touch strips to name a few). Then, I have the challenge of taking my new instruments and playing them back in a compositionally sensible way that meshes with the rest of my newly-created instruments. You may as well be arguing that designs created in Photoshop take less effort and are not considered real "art" because it wasn't done using paper and glue.

Regarding pioneers, there are many pioneers out there, and I'd dare to say that you are unfairly excluding or ignoring them because you perhaps don't have respect for electronic or machine-based music. You want to talk pioneers? What about the guy who first took a Roland TB-303, which was built to generate a single type of sound while being played, and decided that he'd actually mess with the knobs while it was being played?

What you fail to understand is that we are on a verge of a new era in music where the user interface for an instrument is being decoupled from the generation of sound by that instrument. This decoupling creates an infinite variation of new types of user-created instruments that are just as complex and rich in interaction and audio quality as a guitar or violin.

Actually, I think luddite is an appropriate term.

*the original poster**

2004-01-12 22:05:28
Real Music
George Clinton and Sly Stone are exactly the kind of bands I'm talking about that used REAL drummers of the highest, most inspired caliber. They may have experimented with electronic drums here and there, but that's clearly not waht I'm talking about. I'm talking about people who never learn about music, but let the technology do it for them, or to assist them to such a degree that inspiration is absent. Things like electronic drums are the reason we don't have anyone making music evenly remotely close to the caliber of George Clinton or Sly Stone today. The funk is GONE.

Of course these tools can be used to create great sounds in the hands of real musicians. My point is that "real musicians" are a dying breed, in large part thanks to over-reliance on technology.

GB used as a mixing studio is an enabling technology. GBj's library of loops used to substitute for kids spending summers plunking away at guitars and really LEARNING music is something completely different.

Ask yourself why Clinton and Sly Stone have been replaced with the Chemical Brothers. Music is in a very sad state today.