Justine Haupt never expected that a project she’d been working on for the past three years would suddenly cause her website to crash. But when Haupt published photos and schematics for her handheld rotary cell phone yesterday, that’s exactly what happened.
Haupt, who works as an astronomy instrumentation engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, detailed how she took the rotary mechanism from an old Trimline telephone, paired it with a microcontroller and an Adafruit Fona 3G cell transceiver, put it all into a 3D-printed casing, and built something that could replace her daily flip phone.
Correct: A flip phone. Haupt is firmly anti-smartphone, she told WIRED in an interview, and for a long time she’s used an LG flip phone for her basic mobile needs. But even that felt like too much, so Haupt’s goal with the rotary cell was two-pronged: She wanted to strip a mobile phone down to its absolute essentials, while giving her an even more legitimate excuse for not text messaging her friends. “The point isn't to be anachronistic,” Haupt wrote on her website. “It's to show that it's possible to have a perfectly usable phone that goes as far from having a touchscreen as I can imagine, and which in some ways may actually be more functional.”
In our interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, Haupt talks about tech products as novelties, the similarities between cellphone trends and ChapStick, and why she’s excited about our tech’s rapid release cycles, despite some obvious downsides to it.
Lauren Goode: Let’s talk about your background first. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you do at Brookhaven?
Justine Haupt: I’ve worked on mostly instrumentation development for cosmology and astronomy projects. For example, I've been working on a large ground-based survey telescope for dark energy and dark matter for the past 10 years; that's winding down. I’m working on a radio telescope now and and some other projects, including a possible NASA mission and a quantum information experiment, which is not astronomy-related but it's interesting so I've been getting more involved with that. So it’s, you know, basically building experimental hardware for those kinds of things.
LG: How much of your free time do you spend on your own experimental hardware?
JH: It’s pretty hard actually, though I do make time for it. I'm also trying to start a company, so I reduced my time at Brookhaven to 80 percent so that I’d have an extra day a week to work on that. I'm pretty strict with myself about not taking too much work home with me.
LG: What kind of company are you trying to start?
JH: You know, it’s a shame because I was so surprised when this [rotary phone] went viral, I didn’t intend to do anything that would make that happen, I just put the thing up on my own website which I didn’t think anybody ever read, and then this happened. I would have made sure the website for my new company was up. My first product is basically a kind of two-channel brushless motor controller for domestic robots. And my next project will hopefully be an actual full-size domestic robot because robots are, you know—they’re awesome.
LG: You talk a little bit about this on your website, but why did you decide to make this rotary phone? What problem were you looking to solve?
JH: It’s funny, I usually love [having] problems to solve … But this wasn’t intended to be a product or an invention or anything like that. I just thought for a long time that rotary dials are so cool, they don’t have a use in modern society, and I’d love to make myself some device that uses it for data entry. And then I thought, Well, it might as well be a phone. And if I'm gonna do this, it should be something that I could really use. It wouldn't just be a novelty. It would be something I could actually fit in my pocket, that I'd want to use as my primary cell phone.
That would probably be a tough sell for most people who live with their smartphones. But I'm anti-smartphone, despite working in technology development. All of my friends know that I have a flip phone, or have had a flip phone until now, and that I don't text. I don't. I just don't like being that connected. I don't want to have to respond to people at any point of the day. So this is kind of a way of downgrading my flip phone even more. And then if people say, "You don't text? Why don't you text?" I could just hold up the phone and say, this is why!
And also, you know, smartphones are one thing—you have this finicky annoying touchscreen interface, it drives me crazy, it really does. But then even my flip phone does things that I don’t ask it to do, unexpectedly, because some weird button got pushed. I wanted physical keys or buttons I could push for every function and not having to guess whether or not it was actually going to do what I told it to do. You know, when you hold down the power button–is it turning on right now? Is it turning off? I have a switch. It’s a toggle switch, it’s either on or it’s off. That’s it. I just wanted to control the technology. I think people have gone too far acquiescing to the standards of dealing with smartphones.
LG: What kind of flip phone have you been using?
JH: Oh, OK … Do I have it with me? This is so new, it’s only my third day of using my rotary phone over my primary phone, but I’ve been keeping my flip phone in my pocketbook. It is an LG branded flip phone, it’s on a T-Mobile pay-as-you-go-plan, but I don’t even know the model number.
LG: It sounds like what you’re describing is a kind of yearning for a tactile experience.
JH: Exactly. There’s something to be said for tactile interface, actual switches and buttons. Even simple things, like, a little FM radio that has a dial so you can listen to stations, even that’s been replaced by electronic keys that only let you increment left and right. I guess it’s fine, but it does come with its tradeoffs, and no one seems to care and I care.
LG: What would you say was the biggest challenge in building this? You were not only working with the rotary dial but also the 3D-printed enclosure and the micro controller and the cell transceiver and—was it a Raspberry Pi?
JH: Actually it was an Arduino custom board. First, I’ll say that this has been a back-burner project for a long time. I first had the idea years ago. Now if you Google rotary cell phones, a few other people have done it, but none I don’t think could be used as your primary phone. Adafruit has some stuff that makes this easier—for example, a cell phone radio development board, which I started with. I got it working in a very basic way on my workbench, without it being enclosed in the cell phone casing, and proved it wasn’t too crazy.
But the hardest part was moving from that, which was minimally usable, to something that was truly compact and light enough and sleek enough so I could slip it into my pocket and really use it. And know that it would be reliable and have long enough battery life. That took awhile, I think about three years, and only in the past couple months did I pick it up again. It’s still a work in progress.
LG: What’s interesting is that you still have an e-paper display [on the phone] so that you can see messages and missed calls. Which is funny because, when you think about it, with the old rotary phones, you couldn’t see any of that. It just rang and rang, and if you missed it, you missed it.
JH: Right. The main point I think is that I didn’t do it just to be a throwback novelty thing, to reproduce a rotary phone for the modern era. I wanted it to be a usable, functional phone, and you can’t really do that without having some kind of display now, especially because of robocalls. You know, you want to be sure it’s a number you’re really interested in before you pick it up.
LG: It seems like an important point to make, because there is a lot of nostalgic tech out now. Motorola’s just resurrected the Razr. Of course, it has this new flexible polymer display, but it’s a clamshell phone that flips open and closed. Nintendo has resurrected the original NES in a new form. There was even an app for iPhone recently that mimicked the click wheel experience on an old iPod. What do you think all of this says about the way we’re looking back to tech from 10, 20, 30 years ago, right as we’re being inundated with new tech?
JH: I was just thinking about this the other day. You’re right about this resurgence of older-feeling technology. Even cameras, you know, mirrorless single-lens cameras are being stylized in this '70s and '80s film SLR style of camera, more bulky and boxy with more buttons. And in some ways it’s perceived as a kind of hipster mentality. I do like it, even though I don’t identify as a hipster. And then things like the Motorola Razr, which I just found out about today … I think the point of these throwbacks is that novelty wins. People love novelty so much that they’re willing to overlook functionality.
Take, for example, a really simple thing: ChapStick. It’s been around forever. My parents used it. It’s not a technological thing. And then all of a sudden these egg-shaped ones appear, and everybody starts using them. If you think about it, an egg-shaped applicator is a lot less precise and annoying to use than the little pencil one. But gosh darn it, it looks like an egg, it’s colorful, people want it! And it wins. Given enough time, people circle around again and then the older stick-shaped ones become the novelty and then you go back to that. But none of it is really based in logic or how usable the thing is. It’s just trends. And you certainly see that with phones. I mean, maybe people are finally ready to explore a form factor for phones other than what Apple invented with the iPhone. And maybe with other things too. I don’t know if we ever stabilize, or if we keep oscillating between different styles.
LG: What do you think about the fact that production cycles for some of these new products are compressed, and not only that, but purchasing cycles are compressed? When I think back to the rotary phone, the family PC, the VCR … people had those for years.
JH: I’m sorry that we always have this bias that your childhood, your nostalgia, is the deepest one. But also, being in technology and developing technology, I wonder how it might affect one’s ability to understand technology. When I grew up, I could easily take things apart. They were hard to understand, but at least there was something to take apart and you could see mechanisms and understand that there was circuitry inside. And now technology is increasingly like magic, so you really can’t disassemble things. So I do wonder how the next generation of engineers, how they’ll bridge the gap between being interested in something and being able to actualize it.
On the other hand, I’m so excited that release timelines are so compressed and how fast the future is coming. Just in the past ten years I’m seeing things I never thought I’d see and I’m recalibrating myself to expect even greater things. For example, things like gene editing and what biohackers are doing. And space exploration, which is a passion of mine. And all of that. So on the other hand I’m just so excited. I think we live in an amazing time.