Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Demoing new products at a rave is more fun than it sounds

In the 1990s I worked at General Magic, an extremely ambitious startup that began as a project inside Apple and then became its own company. The people at General Magic wanted to make portable touch-screen personal communicators that could send and receive beautiful notes called telecards, provide access to online shopping, and make phone calls. It was sort of like trying to make an iPhone in 1993.
My badge from Digital Be-In 7
After a few years of work it was time to show off our prototype software (called Magic Cap) and hardware. We had a super funky venue: the Digital Be-In, a psychedelic San Francisco tradition that was a cross between a rave and a trade show. We set up our booth next to a few others, right beside the massive light show and huge stage, and the party started.

People were surprisingly cool about seeing neat tech that bumped up against the dance floor. The drugs probably helped. Small devices were pretty novel back then. One of our best tricks involved faxing, a very old technology with a new twist. We asked people for their fax numbers, then had them send a fax to themselves from our small devices. This wasn't wireless yet - each device was connected to a landline - but it was still cool and helped people feel connected to what was possible. Of course, we could also send email, but not everybody had an email address, especially in this crowd. We also showed an early version of a map program. We asked people their addresses, then called up a map and asked "Is this your neighborhood?" like a card trick. They loved it. I got to demo that one for Timothy Leary, which was one of the highlights of the night for me.

Then after a few hours of this, a funny thing happened: the power in the venue went out. The music and lights stopped, and most of the other booths were dead. But we had battery-operated devices. So we could still give demos, plus show how great it was to not depend on AC power. Of course, it wasn't that great - our displays had no backlights, so you could barely see the screen. Oh well.

Eventually the power came back on and the music resumed. Finally the party ended. I suddenly realized I had been showing off our stuff for 7 hours without a break. There was so much in the software, and it had mostly been a secret for so long, that I was thrilled to share it with people.

That was fun.