After the smartphone: Designing the next generation of devices

By April 25, 2017June 1st, 2017NEWS
AFTER SMARTPHONES

Next year the iPhone will turn ten years old. To some people the past decade will seem to have flown by disturbingly quickly. Others won’t even be able to remember what life was like before the smartphone. As hard as it is to imagine how we lived before these devices, it’s just as difficult to imagine what will come next. Smartphones are so ubiquitous and so successful one might wonder if they will ever be superseded.
According to some of the biggest names in the industry the end of the smartphone is still a long way down the road. On an earnings call last week Mark Zuckerberg expressed his belief that the smartphone will remain the primary hardware for Augmented Reality applications, rather than some kind of wearable device. In Apple’s own earnings call Tim Cook was similarly hesitant to embrace Augmented Reality as the next computing platform.
It isn’t going anywhere in the immediate future, but the truth is that the smartphone definitely has its shortcomings. Recent technological advances are allowing us to imagine what the next evolution of the personal computing device may look like. I’ve observed a number of recent trends in product, hardware and user experience design, and identified the major issues with the smartphone as we use it today. I don’t know exactly what the next generation of personal devices will look like, but I have developed a profile of what I expect we will see. I believe the successor to the smartphone will have the following qualities:
A conversational, speech-based interface will be the primary method for user input
The user’s connection with the device will be ‘always present’
The device will have an ‘identity’ which will extend beyond a single piece of hardware
Let’s explore these ideas.

A conversational interface

I want to start by addressing the major user experience pain point inherent to the smartphone: the app. Apps are a fundamental component of the mobile operating system, but an abundance of research is showing that users don’t want to download and install an app for every single service they interact with. Until very recently, however, we had no better alternative.
The app is a descendant of the graphical software which we have been using on modern desktop operating systems for the better part of 30 years. Computer chips don’t speak English (or any human language for that matter) and we don’t think in binary, so we created the Graphical User Interface. The GUI is a layer that sits between computers and humans, presenting digital information in a human-readable format and turning our input into instructions which the computer can understand. This interface has become so integral to the experience of using a computer that we take it for granted today — if you’re using a computer it needs a screen.
The truth is that in using a GUI we’re adjusting and limiting our natural way of expressing ourselves so that our intent can be parsed by a computer. For humans, our most natural way of communicating is through spoken conversations. Through recent progress in natural language processing we are beginning to build computers which we can talk to, and which can talk back to us. Industry leaders have already recognised the potential of this breakthrough — Google and Apple are working hard expanding the capabilities of the chatbots which ship with their devices, and Facebook is busy turning their Messenger app into an AI assistant.
The vision is of a future in which we talk to the products and the services we use every day, just as we talk to our friends and family. We will eliminate the mountain of individual apps by creating a universal AI chatbot which connects to these services for us. The rise of the Conversational User Interface has already begun, and I believe that the next generation of personal devices will be centered around a CUI rather than a GUI.

An ‘always present’ interface

Some might argue that the next generation of mobile devices has already arrived in the form of wearable technology like the Apple Watch. I do not believe that the smartwatch will succeed the smartphone, but it is an indicator of an important trend. If we trace the recent history of personal computing devices from desktop computers, to laptops, to mobile phones, to smartwatches, we can observe a trend of decreasing functionality but increasing portability. Each generation is less functional than the one which came before it, but offsets this by being more practical. As computers become a more integral part of our lives the most important factor appears to be not how much we can do with the device, but how seamlessly and effortlessly it fits in around us.

Wearables, however, are an interesting case. Smartphones are already portable enough to be taken almost everywhere we go, and they are so much more functional than a smartwatch that it can be hard to see what purpose the latter really serves. The one thing that sets the smartwatch apart from the phone is that it further closes the gap between human and device. It forms a constant connection with the wearer’s body and, through a simple vibration-based interface, becomes an ever-present part of the user’s consciousness. Furthermore, glancing at your wrist is easier than pulling a phone out of your pocket and unlocking it. In the realm of user experience design this optimisation is enough to justify the existence of wearables such as the smartwatch.

The next generation of personal device will further blur the boundary between human and hardware. It will become an always-present part of our consciousness and graphical elements will be never more than a glance away. An obvious implementation of this kind of device is some form of Augmented Reality eyewear. Google Glass was an attempt to create a product such as this, which ultimately failed for a variety of reasons. I still believe that given recent technological advances, greater public acceptance of Virtual and Mixed Reality, and appropriate privacy considerations, a well-designed piece of smart eyewear could form a central component of the computing devices of the future.

I know it sounds like I’m contradicting my previous statement about the end of the GUI here, but there’s an important distinction to be made. GUIs are appropriate when we simply need to ‘read’ information about the state of something. We primarily interpret the world around us by looking at it, after all. GUIs become undesirable when we need to give instructions to a computer because they compromise the way we’d naturally express ourselves. A conversational interface will be used for providing input; A graphical interface will be used for displaying an output. A CUI won’t always be appropriate and there will be situations which will require some kind of handset for entering input, but these actions will be less common and this will be acceptable.

A device with a persistent ‘identity’

So far throughout this article I’ve been describing the features of a single device. If we come back to the idea that the primary ‘operating system’ will be a conversational AI, you can imagine that rather than forming an attachment with a single piece of hardware such as a phone, we will become attached to this virtual identity which needn’t be confined to a single device. Our personal virtual assistant would persist across multiple connected devices, giving us a consistent experience every time we interact with a computer.

This is not a new concept, of course. Most of us probably have an account with Google, Apple or another large technology company which allows us to synchronise our data and communications across multiple devices. The difference in this case is that it’s the interface itself which lives in the cloud, and each device we use will be a sort of ‘window’ through which we talk to our personal AI. Alternatively, devices needn’t provide a user interface at all. They could expose an API which our personal device could connect to, and provide the conversational or AR interface for us.

This will become especially important as the ‘Internet of Things’ continues to grow. We have computers in everything from cars to TVs to kitchen appliances, and it doesn’t make sense for each of these devices to have their own operating system, user interface and limited set of functionality. For some connected devices it will not even make sense to present an interface of their own.

I believe it will be necessary for everyone to own some primary device which is always present. However, the thing we identify with most won’t be the hardware, but the virtual identity which occupies it along with the rest of our connected devices.

So, if we put this all together what does the successor to the smartphone actually look like? To be honest I’m not sure, but I imagine it being some confluence of Natural Language Processing and Augmented Reality. Have I just described the Google Glass? Possibly, but I also believe that the hardware itself is less important than the software running on it. The next generation of devices won’t be a single device at all — it will be an AI assistant which lives in the cloud and speaks to us through all of our connected computers.

For now we’re comfortable with the smartphone, but we’re not far from realising the technology that will make the product I’ve just described possible. AI and NLP algorithms are improving rapidly, and AR devices such as the Hololens and Magic Leap are very close to hitting the mainstream market. Zuckerberg and Cook believe that we’ll be living with the smartphone for a while longer, but the next generation of personal devices might be closer than we think.

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