Outdoor Fire Pit Goes Digital

apple iFire, digital campfire, some rights reserved, http://flickr.com/photos/jelles/471147583/Mountainview, CA – As with rubbing two sticks together to make a fire, the days of scraping flint are long gone. So are, for that matter, lighter fluid and matches. The next time you go camping, all you’re going to need is your computer.

A new Apple device coming out this winter will be the first digital form of the outdoor fire pit. Essentially functioning as an extremely compact, high-powered heating lamp, the iFire© will be hot enough to boil water and heat a radius of 10 feet to 80° in 30° weather. But that’s not all it can do.

The small box (12 in. x 12 in. x 6 in. and weighing a paltry 4 pounds) will have speakers and an iPod dock compatible with any generation and type of iPod. The machine is also a computer, much like the Minimac, but with a screen. There won’t be a modem, because the country doesn’t yet have sufficient wireless coverage in the remote areas one typically camps in, but the iFire will come fully loaded with survival tips, wilderness education tools, ideas for outdoor activities, and an extensive range of folklore, scary stories and camp songs complete with guitar tablature and karaoke recordings. There will also be a digital encyclopedia and a comprehensive list of classical literature, both of which can be downloaded to an e-book.

“We were trying to create the ultimate camping tool,” says Brian Witching, one of the iFire’s creators. “I got the idea from watching Kubrick’s 2001. I saw all those monkeys jumping around the big black thing that’s supposed to have given them intelligent thought or something and I thought, ‘Well, what if that big black obelisk was portable and you actually knew what it did and it was easy to use?’”

“We envision the iFire as an all-in-one tool you can use to bond with your family, friends and the world around you,” says Leah Roodles, a senior marketing official for the project. “Imagine a whole field full of families all huddled around their own little machine, quietly absorbing digital enlightenment in the dead of night. Ok, imagine that image doesn’t seem so ominous, but instead inspiring. It’s time to bring camping into the 21st century.”

Facing criticism that the iFire will actually disengage users from their environment by pulling all of their attention into the abstract realm of information rather than forcing people to exist in a more natural state as camping has traditionally done, Apple spokespeople are quick to point out that the iFire can be used an educational tool.

“You can learn a lot about your environment on this machine, and you can then go out and explore in the nature that surrounds you,” says Ms. Roodles. “The iFire is like any other digital tool; it is at its most optimal use when acting as a supplement to enrich human life, rather than the sole focus.”

Still, some critics point out that kids these days know a lot more about computers than they do about nature. Even if the computer is a tool for learning about nature it could prove so distracting that kids might spend all their time camping reading about their environment instead of participating in it. Also, says Gene Hickman of the digital culture magazine Compy2000, “Kids these days are computer whizzes. They’ve grown up in the digital age like no one else before and it would be easy for some savvy little brat to hack the iFire and install games.”

Regardless of the iFire’s ethical merits, it is an incredible feat of engineering and a big step forward in the Digital Age. The iFire is weather-proofed and protected to a point unheard of in computing to this point and it is one of the first commercial machines to use solar power almost extensively. The machine draws power from the solar panels on its outside, but can also be hooked up to a car adapter. Beefed-up versions of the iFire are already in production for military and field research purposes. These machines are larger and more powerful and come equipped with a satellite modem for constant GPS and weather updates. They also cost a lot more, starting at 10,000 dollars, 3.5 thousand more than the civilian model.

“At 6,500 dollars, the iFire does cost a fair amount of money now,” admits Ms. Roogles, “but for what it can do, it’s entirely worth it and will only get cheaper and better as time goes on. What other machine is going to give you access to the best of human thought while deep in the woods at the same time that it tells you when the hot-dog it is roasting is browned to perfection?”

For better or for worse, the future is here and there can be no better representation that the iFire. For those concerned with the loss of a previous century’s aesthetics, fear not: the iFire comes with a campfire screensaver complete with hours of recorded crackling and a simulated smoke smell.

Real eye-watering, suffocating smoke not included.

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