• 05.02.13

A Supercomputer Designed To Be Feared

As computers get smarter, should they look meaner, too?

HAL set an early precedent for how our omniscient supercomputers should look. Overbearing. Unemotive. Its brains encased in red-lit, zero-g filing drawers.


Our server rooms never quite got there. They are stark and utilitarian, for sure, but for the most part, they hold no mysteries, no romance. In short: They’re boring.

But the Nebula One is a server that rethinks how servers should work. It allows low-level IT departments to bring in stock computers from Dell or HP, then assemble these systems into a cloud all their own, instead of hiring Amazon to handle an app’s backend processing.

But the Nebula One marks another first in the industry in its foray into branded, industrial design. Nebula hired Astro Studios, best known for their work on the Nike+ Fuelband, to rethink and rebrand the black box server. And what Astro created is a glowing, geometric wet dream for geeks (Patrick Stewart himself even narrates the video). To do so, they actually had to dig deep within the psychological appeal of science fiction. Because where most servers place perforated metal for airflow, the One has overlaid that with responsive LED piping. That piping forms a nebula (or “the ultimate cloud”) that’s inherently unsettling.

“When you see something that’s fractured, random, based upon vector art or design that doesn’t have the classic proportion or symmetry, it sort of makes people just a little uneasy. That’s maybe what the One does at first,” Astro’s Brett Lovelady tells Co.Design. “You look at it and say, there are no rules here. This isn’t what I’d expect to see in an orderly, math-driven environment. But we all know the high math, like fractals and vector math of computer games have the feeling in multiple dimensions.”

That unease, counterbalanced by our assumption of a higher logic at work (captured in both the geometry itself and the lights that blink to visualize network activity), creates a pocket of awe that’s core to the sci-fi experience. It’s the vulnerability of naivety with the thrill of a greater potential at work. It’s being a child again. And while that might sound like a silly approach to creating a server, the Nebula One is touching on a deeper issue: If our smartest computers come in the plainest of boxes, how can we demonstrate that they’re smart, or listening, or any of these things?

“When you first look at a machine that’s supposed to be full of artificial intelligence, what do you expect out of that machine?” Lovelady asks. “What we wanted to do was reflect on the outside the smart intelligence…if there’s an engine under the hood, why not show that?”

So today, the Nebula One is a server that looks a lot cooler than your average IT closet. But this trend of visualizing AI is only in its infancy. Because when HAL does eventually take over the world, it would at least be nice to see him blink.


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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.