Codebreaking: Cyborg Eye from HAL 9000 to Droid Smartphones

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Verizon is currently rolling out its 4G LTE network (better, faster, more, etc) and is heavily promoting the phones that support that network. The latest of these is the Samsung Charge, rechristened by Verizon as the Droid Charge, indicating its flagship status in that carrier’s product lineup.

Here’s the ad:

Gunmetal grey, distressed concrete and stone, heavy-handed references to experimental science. The Charge may be on the cutting edge of phone technology, but this ad is very much par for the course for Droid ads. Only one thing is changing from the earlier Droid ads to now.

Below is an earlier ad for the Droid X which featured a James Cameron-inspired sci-fi setting, where the brave and intrepid astronaut stick his arm into some floating metal only to have his arm undergo a cyborg metamorphosis. The ad ends with the trademark Droid red circle flickering to life, reflected in the astronaut’s helmet. Notice how the astronaut’s expression doesn’t change, almost as if there were looking for some new technology that would augment them.

A later ad for the Droid 2 presents a similar theme but in a more conventional setting. However notice that here too, the conference room is decidedly “dead-tech”: steel, concrete, glass, heavy on the greys and blacks. Again, the commercial ends with the characteristic glowing red circle on the screen of the Droid phone.

Finally, the most recently commercial for a Droid phone prior to the Charge, a Verizon ad for the Motorola Xoom tablet:

What characterizes the Droid campaign from its inception is not simply it’s use of scientific imagery and dystopian sci-fi, which are found in commercials for all kinds of products ranging from 5 Gum to Heineken beer. What distinguishes this campaign is its heavy reliance on a very specific motif: the Cyborg Eye.

Cyborg Eye is a visual motif in which images are projected onto the eye to express the idea that in the postmodern world, we no longer perceive reality directly but through simulated and mediated images of it. What Verizon historically did in the Droid campaign was to extend the Cyborg Eye metaphor beyond the idea of projection all the way to augmentation. In the following teaser ad for the Droid X, the transformation of Cyborg Eye from mere projection to augmentation is made explicit:

The ads suggest that not only does the device project to you all the images, videos, and information you then perceive but the device itself becomes part of your perceptual apparatus. The metaphor is not so far-fetched; apps like Layar, Google Goggles, and camera-enabled QR and bar code scanning apps are among the most-downloaded apps for Android smartphones. The devices are becoming a key component of an industry trend known as augmented reality in which technology augments your apprehension of the world in real-time with additional information, almost all of which are related to advertising, marketing, or commerce.

Now that we understand that the dominant metaphor of advertising for Droid phones is augmentation through the extend motif of the cyborg eye, we can understand that those trademark glowing rotating concentric red circles on the screens of the phones at the ends of the ads are themselves the other end of the cyborg eye. They are the eye of the machine doing the projecting; the eye of the device looking back at you. And like the name “Droid”, those red eyes are not original either:

HAL 9000: the original smartphone

The most recognizable cyborg, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The inspiration for the “Droid eye” counterpart to the Cyborg eye of the user can be clearly found in HAL 9000 from 2001 and the glowing cyborg eye of Arnold in The Terminator. Both fictional machines were superior to humans in either intelligence or strength and both represented what was to replace humans in the future. As the cellular phone market moves away from differentiation based on call clarity to increasingly jargon-laden technobabble, Verizon sees an opportunity in summoning technofetishism: associating its advanced devices to some perceived magical power of “futuristic technology” that can render the user more powerful and more intelligent.

The Droid Charge ad is different from the earlier ads in that whicle the earlier ads made the Cyborg Eye and augmentation metaphors explicit, this latest ad relies almost exclusively on the experimental science metaphor, with only a fleeting reference to the red Droid eye at the end. Why do you think this is?

(In contrast, consider the new iPad2 campaign.)

Related posts:

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  3. Codebreaking: Pristiq treats you like the automaton you are
  4. Codebreaking: Imported from the Rust Belt
  5. Codebreaking: Playing Spot-the-Difference in new Acura ads

4 Responses to Codebreaking: Cyborg Eye from HAL 9000 to Droid Smartphones

  1. JohnJ says:

    Because they’re trying to appeal to the mass market now that they have their established base?

  2. Guy Fox says:

    Okay, I’m clearly infected, may even be contagious, so protect yourselves, but here goes.

    Showing the machine transform the user gives power to the machine. You become an extension of it. You may be younger, sexier, healthier, wealthier and a shade cleverer as a result, but you’ll still be stuck on the yellow brick road looking for that heart. You’re not you anymore, which is to say that you’ve lost the ability to determine how you’ll be perceived. You’re just a droid.

    Presenting the machine as a forbidden fruit, however, gets you all that oh-so-desirable, pre-early adapter cachet while leaving you your autonomy to brand yourself as you please. If it’s something that Ian Fleming’s Q would trade his whole workshop for, you become an initiate by acquiring it, and it’s not like they let just any teenager find the secret phone hyperaccelerator under the vending machine. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t also be a hippie, an artist, a Steve Jobs acolyte, a Kiva investor, etc, as is implied if you’re a droid. It becomes your very own Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring. Hurry to Best Buy now, while supplies of secret you-enhancing knowledge last. And be sure to drink your Ovaltine.

  3. squid says:

    Well, what does it mean to ‘meet the gaze’ of a machine? “Grab it, and it grabs you”. Or, the machine stares back. The parallel Nietzsche is perhaps unintentional, but the Abyss of the machine-eye is over bearing. You are reduced to the passive element: you just have to show up. The device will take it from there. But also, we know there is nothing ‘behind’ the eye – to follow Zizek’s deconstruction of Psycho in Pervert’s Guide to Cinema – we don’t even have to question weather it is a window onto the Soul, and it isn’t even a “crack into the Abyss of a netherworld”, it pure Abyss / void: there is no deeper layer, the eye is the thing-in-itself.

    Or, the machine is also passive, it needs you: grab it, and it becomes you.

    So, why the atom smasher? Why is this a departure from their previous approach? Because machines do not stop, they are relentless, blank and perpetual – the premise of dystopia si-fi. Once the machines have augmented you, they will move straight on to reality. The reference to sub-atomic physics reflects that these devices are to become the very material underlying our phenomenal reality. But, augmented reality doesn’t ‘actually’ modify some existing reality, it creates a whole new one. Which is neither here nor there, but, “gaze not…”

  4. These people have an experimental lab with a cyclotron, and they use it to make a phone. Every bit of technology from the moment they enter the secret lab is way more advanced then the Droid, yet that’s what they build. A stupid phone?

    So as a technology metaphor, it screams silly. But it’s not tech, it’s alchemy, creating a spirit. Yin/yang, man/hot woman, red/bule, smashing together from left to right. All witnessed accidentally by a naive boy who wouldn’t be amazed at new tech– he’s amazed at something else. What’s the next phase in evolution? Life.

    If it helps you imagine it, consider that when the actors showed up to make this ad, the only thing they saw was each other. Everything else is CGI and blue screen. What were the actors told was their motivation? “Imagine you’re about to make a new phone?” No. “Imagine you’re about to run a cyclotron?” No. “Imagine you’re about to bring a robot to life.”

    As you pointed out, the Droid’s red eye has evolved from being HAL to being cyborg. Now the eye actually can look at you, and think about you, and plan for you (through all the various google apps the I have to constantly track down and shut off.)