Why Computers Should Be Hidden

A luxury bicycle computer forecasts a welcome future of humble, embedded systems.

The handlebars of a bicycle in front of a natural, hilly background
Julian Bleecker

The joy I used to feel when using computers has turned largely to anguish. These machines once provided a unique and compelling way to do things, from writing to shopping to communication to entertainment. But today, devices and services strive to replace every activity with computer use itself. Now I think about escaping the computer as much as using it.

To combat the machine’s draw, I’ve turned to more pastoral ambitions, like lawn care and land-use politics. And yet, to reject computers as incompatible with these and other goals seems shortsighted. Can’t these powerful, magical machines still serve modest ends?

I wondered this again atop a bicycle saddle on an unseasonably hot autumn afternoon. I’d just twisted a round, white device called an Omata One, by a Los Angeles–based start-up, onto its aluminum mount on the handlebar. It looks like a complicated watch, or a dashboard gauge from a luxury sports car. I turned a ring to power it on, and a large, red hand indicated that it was acquiring a GPS signal. A moment later, I was pedaling, and the Omata’s hand was moving: five, then 10, then 15 miles per hour.

What was remarkable was how unremarkable the experience should have been. It’s a speedometer. On a bike. So what? And yet, somehow, the result feels uncommon.

The smartphone in my pocket buzzes—a text message or a Slack notification or who knows what else—and I remember why. Today, computers wrest people from activities outside the computer to work or play back inside them. But the Omata is pushing me toward something else. It’s nudging me to to focus on the non-computational activity I’m participating in, rather than reminding me of all the other, digital ones I might choose instead. What if more computers had that same ambition?

* * *

“Riding a bike—it’s a very analog experience.” Rhys Newman, Omata’s CEO, speaks with a Welsh accent that makes the matter sound profound, almost spiritual. “It’s man harnessing the machine in an analogous way to the effort of his body.” Not a spiritual thing after all, but a corporeal one. Using technology to assist with a worldly goal, rather than to displace it.

Newman and his cofounder and chief technology officer, Julian Bleecker, met while working at Nokia. They were part of a secretive team at the company’s “Everyday Adventure” group in Los Angeles, where the two designed outdoor products, including a camera and a sports tracker.

Once the world’s biggest mobile-handset manufacturer, Nokia shed 93 percent of its value between 2000 and 2013, when Microsoft acquired its beleaguered mobile-devices division. The company was ill-prepared for the smartphone. Between 2000 and 2007, it had been focused on reducing handset size and cost while increasing battery efficiency. These were phones for the everyperson, after all, not executive tethers like the BlackBerry. When the iPhone proved that approach to be exactly wrong, Nokia raced to follow Apple’s (and then Samsung’s) lead: devices with more connectivity, bigger screens, and better cameras. Maximizing attention was now the goal, rather than facilitating communication.

Newman and Bleecker’s project spun up near Nokia’s nadir. Desperate to help reverse course, the L.A. group hoped to find a novel angle on a connected camera. The two looked to their own favorite: Leica, the storied German range-finder manufacturer. Leica’s flagship line, the M, got a digital sensor in 2006, but everything else about it remains mechanical. The photographer still adjusts focus and aperture by hand. For this reason, operating a Leica requires deliberateness, making the process of image creation an end as much as a means. That deliberateness would eventually show up in the Omata, which promises a “deeper connection to the ride itself.”

Nokia’s “Everyday Adventure” products were canceled in the fall of 2014; Bleecker and Newman were released back onto the sunny beaches and hills of Los Angeles. While at Nokia, Newman, an avid cyclist, had persuaded Bleecker to take up the hobby.

Like a Leica, Newman and Bleecker’s analog-faced speedometer exudes design craft and manufacturing quality. It also feels bespoke—designed for a particular purpose. Instead of a generic display for infinite data and apps, the face displays speed, distance, ascent, and elapsed time. The resulting face is riddled with detail, like a complex instrument. Thanks to Apple, attention to detail has become synonymous with minimalism. But is a big screen that can display anything really minimalist? It is harder and riskier to commit to specific information from the start.

The Omata One bicycle computer, in imperial and metric measures (Omata)

Looking at the markers on its face, something strange strikes me. At idle, the speedometer hand points left, to 9 o’clock. At 12 o’clock is a large 18 mph indicator. Newman was eager to tell me why. “It’s a universal truth of cycling,” he explained. “There’s a comfortable speed for perceiving the world in motion, and it’s about 18 miles per hour.” When you reach this benchmark, Omata’s main hand points straight out in the direction you are moving. It’s as if the gauge itself is cheering you on, its needle quivering with tentative pride.

Omata’s analog appearance also disguises all the electronics that make it work. “It’s hard to tell that it’s a computer on the inside,” Bleecker says. “People think it needs to be tethered to the bike.” Instead, a microcontroller, GPS sensor, barometer, and a set of motors make it work. After a ride, Omata can be wired to a computer or wirelessly connected to a smartphone to download the same sort of data that its more obviously digital competitors make available: performance, distance, mapping, and so on. “Our ambition isn’t to get rid of the computation,” Bleecker explains, “but to hide it.”

* * *

These days, people try to hide computers by escaping from them, like I escape to my lawn. The machines “hide” inside offices or jacket pockets so their owners can accomplish other goals. In some cases, the drive to get away from computers degenerates into wistfulness. The word “analog” has come to indicate retro nostalgia first, a way of resisting or even abandoning bits in favor of atoms. Certainly, Omata risks such accusation. But the line separating analog and digital isn’t as clean as popular usage makes it seem.

Writing in The New York Times in 2015, Rob Walker observed an “analog fever” in contemporary culture. A counterrevolution to the digital revolution. Walker cites the rise of vinyl records and the decline of ebook sales in favor of print as evidence of this fever.

It sounds right to modern ears. But strictly speaking, simply not being a computer doesn’t make something analog. Analog devices represent information with a continuously variable portrayal of that information. They create an analogous depiction of a source signal in physical form. A mechanical watch, for example, measures the passage of time with a set of hands, driven by a loaded spring, that traverse the watch face. In the case of a bicycle, as Newman suggests, the crankcase moves the bike analogously to the rider’s physical exertion.

By contrast, digital devices sample a stream of activity at regular intervals, converting those measures into discrete values for manipulation by an electronic device. Since computers are the machines that usually sense, store, and manipulate the resulting digital signals, “digital” has come to refer to anything that makes use of computer technology. In turn, analog started meaning “not involving computers” rather than continuously representing a signal with a physical quantity.

It’s a harmless shift in meaning, but the confusion does shroud the distinctions between the computational and non-computational worlds. Some of Walker’s examples are analog in the original sense. A vinyl record, for example, records a continuous stream of sound as grooves on the surface of a disk. The vibrations that produced those grooves are later traced by the turntable’s needle, which amplifies them for playback.

But a print book is a fusion of different methods. Offset printing is an analog process, but today many “analog” books are printed digitally. Binding them involves folding, cutting, and gluing—neither analog nor digital processes. They are hybrids. Even ebooks are hybrids—a digital file is useless without a device on which to view it, made of circuits, glass, metal, and plastic. If people tend to divide the world into computational and non-computational stuff, then it’s no wonder that computers feel opposed to everything beyond them.

* * *

Today, almost everything is a hybrid. Even seemingly analog devices are also digital ones. Modern vehicles, for example, are controlled mostly by computers. In the past, depressing the accelerator opened a throttle to draw fuel and air into the engine. But now, the pedal is just a regulator for the fuel injector, which is managed by a computer.

That’s a better likeness for Omata than a vinyl-record player or even a wristwatch. Its hands aren’t mechanically driven like a timepiece; instead, they act as a data display. The device’s GPS radio samples the bike’s change in position, translating it into speed and distance. A digital barometer calculates altitude from barometric pressure change. The Omata’s microcontroller turns those readings into data inputs for the positions of the hands. Its electronics then activate a set of stepper motors, which make the hands turn smoothly to display the right reading on the face.

This same approach is used in many seemingly analog vehicle-dashboard instruments—more evidence that supposedly analog experiences are also computational. Omata’s engineering feat wasn’t to make a digital speedometer—that’s old news. Rather, it was shrinking down the stepper-motor equipment to fit inside a handlebar-mounted computer instead of an automotive dash.

Though challenging, this step was required to hide the computer effectively. Bleecker first considered a Swiss watchmaker’s part, but it was too weak and too coarse. He settled on the type of motor used in autofocus camera lenses—they move a lot of weight but still hold a specific focal point.

Digital precision also creates the illusion of analog behavior. The sample rate of Omata’s GPS sensor calculates a resolution under one meter, which is less than the typical wheel-to-wheel distance of a bicycle. Even though the device does digital sampling, it’s got plenty of resolution to make the result appear analog. Just as an ebook is a merger of plastic, glass, silicon, and software, so a speedometer is a fusion of microcontrollers, sensors, motors, and plastic or metal faces and needles.

Why the temptation to call a device like Omata “analog,” then? Bleecker insists that the urge toward nostalgia is really a misplaced desire to have specific experiences with worldly materials. “Why would someone get a Leica when they already have an iPhone?” Bleecker muses. “It’s the context of use. How you’re compelled to use that apparatus to create an experience.” Deliberately operating the aperture and range finder to frame and expose an image is different from snapping an AI-assisted portrait to share on social media. Analog has become a stand-in for purpose—especially purpose that goes beyond just using computers.

* * *

When it comes to bicycles, the purpose of riding might be exercise, or competition, or leisure, or commuting. But those are just goals. The experience of cycling, Bleecker and Newman insist, is the coupling of human biology to mechanical movement. The feet, legs, heart, lungs, pedals, chains, and gears work together to push the bike forward. Omata, they hope, helps orient the rider to the changing relationship between body and bicycle.

The computer persists behind the scenes, sensing and storing the data that a smartphone or a traditional bicycle computer would. But dozens of data points aren’t useful during the ride. Instead, the rider is encouraged to focus on the data that helps “maintain the pleasure of the ride,” according to Newman: speed, distance, and ascent. Bleecker insists that this deliberate focus on a specific experience justifies the obsession in Omata’s design. “If a device should only do the things it needs to, then it has to do them exceptionally well.”

That obsession comes at a cost. At $550, some might scoff at Omata as just a luxury bauble for the wealthy. I took the gadget to Atlanta Pro Bikes, a bike shop in an upscale neighborhood. The shop’s service manager, John Eckert, swooned over the design and build quality before sneering at the cost. “You can get an app for free that does all this,” Eckert tells me, before also admitting that a fancy, Garmin GPS bike computer can cost as much or more. One of them hangs from the handlebars of a bike he recently serviced—the whole build probably cost more than $10,000. Lots of money is changing hands in cycling, with or without nostalgia.

Omata’s design inspirations are no less immune to criticisms of value and access. Leica cameras and Swiss watches cost thousands of dollars. Like Omata, their prices could drop at higher sales volume. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, alternatives arose: SLRs, point-and-shoots, quartz movements, digital watches. Cheaper options that produce similar results.

What they don’t produce are similar experiences. Learning to judge exposure or to zone focus with a range finder. Performing the ritual of manually winding a mechanical watch. Experiences like these fell out of favor, but not because they were undesirable. Instead, cheaper options displaced them. In so doing, experience became subordinated to purpose.

The smartphone is the ultimate example of a single context for action. It’s a watch, a telephone, a camera, a bike computer—anything at all, really. But in exchange for that convenience, the specific material experiences of the activities smartphones automate have been abandoned. Specialized devices just can’t compete with computers’ power and ubiquity. And so, computers have become both the path to all goals and the distraction that stands in the way of those goals.

* * *

I’m no cyclist, and to be honest getting the needle to point straight up to 18 terrified more than it inspired me. But even so, when I pumped hard up a hill, I could see my effort represented in the movement of the Omata’s needle. Every lurch and glide was visible, tracing the arc of the case rather than updating abstract numbers on an LCD display. I really did feel more connected to my bike and my journey.

As I return home from my test ride, I think of Bleecker’s aspiration to “hide the computation.” What if everything had the humility of the technological refusenik, without giving up on the power of technology in the process? What if the Apple Watch had been inspired by Leica rather than iPhone?

Panting, I open the front door and flip on the light just inside. Staring back at me is the Honeywell programmable switch I installed to control the porch light. It’s a little gizmo that stores the date, time, and longitude/latitude, and then automatically turns the light on near sunset and off near sunrise. It even adjusts for daylight savings, and a super-capacitor keeps it running in the event of a power outage. It does all this without requiring a smart-home hub or an internet connection. At a cost of about $35.

The switch reminds me that the dream of humble, hidden computation is very much a reality. It’s just that the hidden computers are themselves hidden. Before smartphones and the internet of things pressed computers into the foreground, these types of devices were called embedded systems. It’s a name for a computer designed for a dedicated purpose and installed inside a host apparatus.

Embedded systems are everywhere. They’re in calculators. In microwave ovens and dishwashers. Within cameras and thermostats. Inside medical devices and automobiles. Because embedded systems are built for a specific use, they can be engineered at a low level, reducing both cost and power requirements. For this reason, they also require more specialized expertise to design, implement, test, and manufacture.

Though ubiquitous, most ordinary people have no idea that embedded systems even exist. The history of computing’s rise from a tool to a way of life is also the history of making the computer more and more visible. Bill Gates aspired to have “a computer on every desk and in every home.” “Intel Inside” stickers made the company’s hidden microcontrollers visible in name, at least. Smartphones trained people to clutch computers, construing them as a part of their very beings. And today, connected devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home are turning computers into members of the family, after a fashion. Everywhere, computers are screaming at you: “Here I am! I am a computer!”

And yet, microwaves are computers too—in part, anyway. As are washing machines, automobiles, and even light switches, sometimes. All these modest, embedded systems have been “hiding the computation” for years now—for decades. Their purpose is to serve other purposes. To help people reheat coffee or flick on porch lights. Sometimes the computer disappears entirely in embedded systems, as in automobiles, and other times it vanishes after setup, as in my Honeywell light switch. Omata might look like an expensive bike computer for well-to-do cyclists, and certainly it is that, in part. But it’s also a harbinger of a return to modesty in computing. It doesn’t hope to change the world, or even to disrupt smartphones for riders. It’s just a thing that might help people enjoy cycling a little more.

Imagine if more technology were like that. Not computers for everything—but just everything, with computers in it.