“The Onyx is a ‘Star Trek’ communicator for the real world,” the Verge professes. “Amazon Cloud Guru Comes Out With A Star Trek Communicator Device For Group Voice Chat,” says Forbes. The media is excited about the Onyx, which, as you may have guessed, is a puck-shaped mic/speaker that attaches to a lapel, connects to an app on your phone, and lets you tap to send voice messages to a circle of friends across the world.
Tap. Speak. Listen. And it’s all real time.
Now, it’s clear from the media response that Onyx, and its parent company OnBeep, is onto something. They’ve teased a sci-fi vision that, even in the wake of touchscreen iPhones loaded with unlimited long-distance calling, SMS, and face-to-face video chat, is still intrinsically appealing: Tap. Speak. Listen. It’s a critical half step easier than pulling out your phone, and it feels less grandiose and committal than making a formal phone call. Maybe Onyx could create a whole new channel through which we communicate.
There’s just one problem: The Onyx may be engineered to weave your voice through global data networks and operate as advertised. But its larger experience in how we actually talk to one another isn’t practical–in part because of the way Onyx is designed, and in part because of how Star Trek imagined the future of communication.
You see, Onyx users live on a private network, like a friend’s list, that lives on your phone. You could have just yourself and your wife on an Onyx, which would allow you to communicate through the day with ease. Or you could message multiple people at once, like a shared radio frequency, or an old-school party line. But if you want to live up to Onyx’s real Star Trek potential, and juggle between who you’re talking to seamlessly, it appears that you’re going to need to go back to your phone and juggle an app to do so.
Indeed, the system seems geared toward group chatter, and Onyx’s CEO is a volunteer firefigher (as well as an entrepreneur) who was inspired by walkie talkie networks and used to a general shared chatter that the average cubicle worker would probably despise. But the bigger reason is probably that singling messaging one person, as easily as they do on Star Trek, is a huge design problem that Onyx cannot solve. The best solution might have already been outlined on the show itself. You tap, and you speak the name of the receiver. Then, the receiver hears their name. At that point, the receiver says, “Go ahead, tell me your message!” And only after that point does the actual message go through.
Each solution Star Trek came up with for its own communicators adds another step of friction for each call. This takes forever!
That said, initiating a call is just one problem. Even if the Onyx did allow phoneless toggling and single or group of people you could want to talk to, is a microphone on your lapel really how you want your private conversations to reach your ears–broadcast out to an entire room first? As an alternative, you can plug headphones into the onyx, but then the Onyx becomes as cumbersome as someone’s phone was in the first place, which brings you full circle.
It’s enough to make you realize that, in the mighty year of 2014, that seamless communication solution designed for a 1960s television show probably may not be all it’s cracked up to be. But here’s the real kicker: The Onyx doesn’t even reach Star Trek’s flawed implementation! It settles far short of this sci-fi future, suggesting that we all just chatter in one big group all day, rather than attempt to have 1:1 conversations.
The Onyx is a poorly conceived product that’s riding the coattails of real imagination. And it’s just lazy to boot.
Correction: An earlier version of this article had some inaccuracies about Onyx, most notably that it couldn’t do person-to-person communication. It also said that Robbins was a firefighter rather than a volunteer firefighter.