Technology advances in a lot of weird and wonderful ways, but it often seems like nothing gets the scientific juices going more than the incredible tech featured in fictional worlds. Whether it's Back to the Future's hoverboards, Star Trek's tricorder, Iron Man's armour, and pretty much everything from Minority Report.
Despite all that there's one piece of fictional tech that we should be paying a lot more attention to, and that's the Pip-Boy 3000 from Fallout 3, 4, and New Vegas. It may exist in a fictional post-apocalyptic alternate reality, but could modern gadgets learn a thing or two from the irradiated wearable?
So what is the Pip-Boy?
For those of you who have never even considered touching a Fallout game, you probably have no idea what the Pip-boy even is. Simply put, it's a portable computer that lives on your character's wrist and functions as your in-game menu. It's where you check up on your quests, manage your inventory, figure out where you need to go, and sort out your bleeding limbs when you've just come out of a particularly bad mole-rat attack.
In our modern world the Pip-Boy would likely be laughed out of the market for being a bulky, inelegant device with severe limitations on what it could achieve. The Pip-Boy has nothing on our modern smartphones, but it is the closest thing that Fallout has to the devices we hold so dear, like a 1950s vision of what a wearable would be.
Think about it really. What the Pip-Boy has isn't exactly the same as we have in the real world, but it is fairly similar when you look a little closer.
- It has a built-in map for you to work out where you are and where you need to go, just like any basic SatNav app.
- It's got a to-do list with all the basic information you need to get all your quests and tasks done in the game.
- It's got a built-in radio, which isn't too dissimilar from the playlists we listen to on Spotify and its kin.
- The inventory system isn't all that different from real-life list-making software designed to keep track of all the stuff you have lying around the house.
- It doesn't have apps, but it does have removable holotape games that you can play on the move, a bit like a Nintendo 3DS or Sony PlayStation Vita.
- Its screen also lights up to function as a torch, and a pretty powerful one at that. Not like the piddly camera-flash torches our phones have these days.
Still despite the similarities to our own gadgets, and despite how laughably backwards the Pip-Boy looks, there's an awful lot that the gadget-makers of 2015 can learn from that scrappy little wrist-borne device.
It's wearable technology that isn't virtually useless on its own
Tech companies have had you believe that wearable technology is the next big thing for years now, and while it holds an awful lot of promise, the fact is that so far the product category has been hilariously limited in what it can achieve. Pretty much every piece of wearable tech still has to play second fiddle to the smartphones we all carry around in our pockets. Things like smartwatches and fitness trackers are little more than an extension of the phone in your pocket, and the wearables that could have been useful on their own were incredibly unfulfilling and completely bombed. Yes, Google Glass, I mean you.
But the Pip-Boy? That's a wearable device that's completely independent from everything else. It is a self-contained computer that isn't completely useless by itself.
Part of that probably stems from the fact that miniature computing technology is basically non-existent in the Fallout universe. You just need to look at the very first Pip-Boy model (pictured above) to realise that there was no way this thing was going to fit in a pocket. In fact, slapping it onto someone's wrist is probably the easiest way to make sure it can be carried around and used at a moment's notice.
Whatever the in-universe reasons for making the Pip-Boy a bonafide wristable, it's something that hasn't happened in the real world. The closest that seems to have happened is using an exercise band to strap a smartphone to your wrist, and even that only happened in an episode of Community. Strapping a phone/tablet to your arm doesn't really work, and the coveted Pip-Boy edition of Fallout 4 (featuring a plastic shell mimicking the look of a Pip-Boy that you could slide your phone into for a companion app experience) wasn't really the game-changer some people expected.
How they go about making wearables tech actually useful is another question altogether. But the trick to make it work is to follow the Pip-Boy's example. Make it a device that's independent, useful, and simple to use.
The battery life is beyond belief
How long does the average smartphone last on standby before it finally dies? A few days, maybe a week? What would you say if your phone lasted 200 years without running out of juice? I think we'd all be more than happy with that result, and if the Vault 111 level in Fallout 4 is to be believed the Pip-Boy is capable of just that.
We never actually get to see what powers the Pip-Boy in-game, and it's never had to be recharged because that would be the worst gameplay mechanic in the world. Given the game universe's fiction, it seems to be some sort of small nuclear power pack. Totally safe, of course...
Still, things happen during the opening sequences of Fallout 4 that mean the Pip-Boy you use in-game has been sitting on the Vault floor for two centuries, unused and with no external source of power. Anyone not concerned with minor gameplay spoilers can see what I mean here.
Obviously there are certain exaggerations because of the whole 'video game' thing, but the point still stands. Sure a device with a battery that will still function after lying dormant for 200+ years is probably never going to happen, but it's a goal we should be at least striving for. There are plenty of smart devices out there that barely make it through a day of regular use, and nothing seriously useful lasts more than a week. Our devices live on batteries, and the Pip-Boy's ridiculous lifespan is something every gadget-making company should take note of. As we all know, battery life is the only spec that really matters. Speaking of which, that nicely leads into...
It's bulky and inelegant, but that's not always a bad thing
In terms of in-universe tech the Pip-Boy is a pretty revolutionary device, made even more impressive by the fact that the microchip doesn't appear to exist in the world of Fallout. That said, compared to our own world's sleek and shiny gadgets it's hilariously large. I've been playing around with the Pip-Boy edition of Fallout 4, and it doesn't half get in the way. But when you think about it, the Pip-Boy is a good example of why aesthetics mean fuck all so long as they don't interfere with functionality.
Think about the iPhone 6, for instance. During the period where we were all being bombarded with all those bloody rumours about what might be launching, there was one that caught my eye: A rumour that Apple was having trouble finding a battery thin enough to fit inside the device that would still make it through the day. If that rumour is true, and most of us probably assume that it is, it strongly implies that Apple considers aesthetics a number one priority* and everything else has to work around it.
Now I'm not saying a slim design and nice aesthetics aren't important. Far from it. In fact, the Pip-Boy is far too bulky to be useful in real life. Typing with one on is really rather irritating, and it has to be worn over the top of your clothes. That means you can't put on a jacket without sliding your arm out of your wrist-puter first. Still, it does show that bulky isn't always a bad thing. Especially not since the real-life equivalent sold out ridiculously quickly.
(*Ignoring the fact that the Apple Watch is rectangular and fugly)
It can be altered and programmed to do just about anything
These days companies aren't too fond of you fiddling around with your smart devices to get them to do things they couldn't do before. It doesn't matter if we're talking about jailbreaking/rooting them to play around with the software, or actually opening them up and messing around with the hardware.
The Pip-Boy is a little bit different, though, because in the Fallout games it becomes the go-to device for various wasteland jobs. In Fallout 4 there's a quest that has you collecting blood samples from Commonwealth animals, using your Pip-Boy to scan and determine which creatures are viable subjects. In Fallout and Fallout 2 there is a mod that snaps onto your Pip-Boy and gives it motion tracking capabilities. Plus, once you reach a certain point in Fallout 4's main quest, the Pip-Boy gets some extra hardware that lets you to gain access to previously unreachable areas.
Sure, warranty doesn't exist in a post apocalyptic wasteland, but the Pip-Boy becomes a vital tool for doing all sorts of interesting things. Maybe relax up on letting people fiddle and modify their gadgets? No suing people for figuring out how to get inside.
It diagnoses medical problems in real time
I'll admit, using smart gadgets for medical purposes is something that companies have been working on for some time. Last year Apple enjoyed talking up the wonderous ways the Apple Watch was going to improve healthcare, and Tim Cook also promised that a dedicated medical device was coming in the near future. You also have things like the Wii Fit sensor, the unreleased Wii Vitality Sensor, and the incredible number of fitness trackers and heart rate monitors on the market that show user health is something tech companies, big and small, are thinking about.
None of them really compare to what the Pip-Boy has, though. There has been a lot of talk of creating a Star Trek-style tricorder for doctors to use in order to treat their patients, but really researchers should be focussing elsewhere. Tricorders are great, but they still require a doctor to scan a patient and read the results. The Pip-Boy's diagnosis features don't need any of that, because it works in real time and displays results in a way that anyone is capable of understanding.
Just look at the image above. It tells me that my in-game character is rather close to being killed. He has a crippled right arm, and he's generally not very happy. if I click the 'Show Effects' button, it would tell me that I'm suffering from something called 'Mole Rat Disease' that knock 10 points off my maximum health. I'll admit, though, the Pip-Boy in Fallouts 3 and New Vegas were better when it comes to this, because they were a little bit more in depth about what's affecting your health - particularly when it comes to radiation.
Can you imagine having a device like that? Something that informs you of your physical and medical conditions so effortlessly? That's what science needs to be working to create, the so-called tricorder should only be one step along the way.
It can take all kinds of punishment
Like the original GameBoy and the Nokia 3310, the Pip-Boy seems to be basically invincible. It's completely waterproof, resistant to radiation, and can stand up to bullets, explosions, and all sorts of weapons fire. There isn't a single phone in the world that can trump that. Not even, as the internet would have you believe, the old-school Nokias.
While it's easy to dismiss this as a gameplay mechanic since it's essential to playing any Fallout game, there is some in-universe lore to back it up. Stanley Armstrong, the Vault 101 technician in Fallout 3 confirms that you could drop a bomb on the Pip-Boy and it would continue to work.
Making our gadgets more durable is also a pretty good idea, even if it is something companies have been working on. Whether it's extra strong Gorilla Glass, or extra-durable variant smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S6 Active, phones are increasingly less likely to smash if they fall off your kitchen table.
We're never going to get a smartphone that can survive a miniature nuclear explosion, but we can dream. It's probably a good idea to start by making waterproofing as standard, not just one of those things only Sony seems to care about. Not everything, of course, because a waterproof laptop sounds downright daft. But phones, tablets, and smartwatches have no excuse.
In the end, while the Pip-Boy may be a fictional device that's designed around the gameplay experience rather than realism, it's still a fantastic piece of kit. Sure it's not as advanced as real-world gadgets, but it still trumps them in a lot of different ways. There's going to come a point where the gadget makers need to figure out what's going to come next, and if they need a little bit of inspiration they should look no further than Fallout and the Pip-Boy