Tech fad or real trend? Seattle’s Living Computers Museum + Labs places bets in newest exhibits

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Robotics, one of several interactive Living Computers exhibits. (GeekWire photo / Dan DeLong)

What makes a tech development a fad or a trend? Sometimes, the answer isn’t clear.

Yet trend-or-fad math appears to be a never-ending calculation for Lath Carlson, executive director of Living Computers: Museum + Labs in Seattle’s SODO neighborhood. One year ago, Living Computers re-branded itself by changing its name from the more staid Living Computer Museum. It also simultaneously expanded, adding a main floor of lively, interactive exhibits that showcase trends indicating where technology may be going, as a complement to its upper floor of historically significant — and working — computers.

“We really think about what’s something that’s going to be relevant for a large population for at least a year or two, rather than something that’s kind of quickly come and gone,” Carlson said of the main level about contemporary technology. That approach led to an exhibit mix that ranges from robotics and virtual reality to artificial intelligence and the internet of things.

Living Computer’s Lath Carlson with GeekWire’s Frank Catalano. (GeekWire photo / Clare McGrane)

Living Computers is best known for having the world’s largest collection of operating vintage computers, starting with 1960s mainframes and minicomputers and continuing through recent minicomputers (a.k.a. personal computers). Established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Living Computers opened its doors to the general public in 2012.

Carlson joined GeekWire for an episode of our special podcast series on pop culture, science fiction, and the arts. We walked through both exhibit levels to discuss the stories behind Living Computers’ interactive collection, and how its staff decides what’s worth highlighting.

“The ethos of this floor is the same as upstairs,” Carlson explained during a main level walk through. “It’s direct interaction with the technology. So as much as possible, we want you to use the real thing.” That means exhibits are hands-on using, for example, real robots and real data visualization tech.

“How we pick the topics really comes down to what are the things that people have heard of, but maybe not had a chance to go hands-on with,” he said. “One of our most popular exhibits is room-scale VR. Because everyone’s heard about it. But a lot of people have not had the chance to do it yet.” The exhibit, he says, is running various kinds of software, including VR content built by a Seattle-area 14-year-old.

The past and present of VR headsets. (GeekWire photo / Clare McGrane)

Still, not everything in virtual reality lives up to the hype that can accompany nascent trends. When asked what didn’t, Carlson pointed to one VR headset in a wall-sized case of eye wear examples: Google Glass. “I wore Glass for about three days and that seems to be the average for people I know,” he said.

Another current tech exhibit seems to tuck one trend inside another, like digital Russian nesting dolls. Ostensibly an exhibit about self-driving cars, the sleek black vehicle surrounded by a wrap-around screen turns out to represent an additional trend: 3-D printing.

Self driving? Yes. And 3-D printed. (GeekWire photo / Dan DeLong)

“This is from a company in Arizona,” Carlson said. “They print essentially the entire car in one piece. So it took about 44 hours to print this car, and you can see some of the layers.” Onto that ABS carbon fiber composite, autonomous components were added, and Living Computers found a company in Germany that makes a simulator that tests self-driving cars.

“They have one of these installed in Silicon Valley. Companies will bring their car and test it out in that environment,” Carlson added. “You can experience what it’s like to drive it manually, and then have it switch over to autonomous mode.”

Living Computers Executive Director Lath Carlson. (GeekWire photo / Clare McGrane)

Not everything Carlson would like to showcase can be shown, easily, in a hands-on exhibit. “We’re really trying to figure out how to do something with blockchain,” Carlson said, noting its complexity and the lack of a physical component. “It’s easier if we can tie it to an historic artifact or even a contemporary artifact and latch the experience onto that real thing. With blockchain, it’s all virtual.” Carlson’s open to ideas on how to make blockchain hands-on.

It still could happen, as the pace of technological development — trend and fad —  hasn’t lessened, and Living Computers’ exhibits need to follow suit. “We’re working on our first big refresh for this coming year,” Carlson said. “So only after a year of being open on the first floor, we’re already changing things.”

Listen to the entire interview — including tales behind Living Computers’ unique collection of running, vintage computers — in the GeekWire podcast above. Download the MP3 here.

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