Smartphones are the new personal computers. Changing a song in a music streaming app, texting a friend or browsing the web are experiences that need the user’s full visual attention. So, what is the next step? Where are we heading to? Will technology become less visible? How will this affect our day-to-day lives?
Talking about the future is thrilling. We could spend hours fantasizing, making predictions and analyzing new releases. But before plunging in, let’s take a quick look at the history of UI.
The first computers were designed for computer operators. Their interfaces were designed for people who where studying them and planning to become experts on this kind of technology. Then, informational computers became organized hierarchically. Keyboards and screens were the only direct ways in which software and humans could communicate.
In 1960 Douglas Engelbart invented the computer mouse and created a new interaction model: pointing at things. This was a huge jump for a couple of reasons. The UI could include menus and allow the user to discover the software’s capabilities in a more easily understood way. For the first time you didn’t have to be a computer expert to use a computer. The computer began helping the user.
In 1984, Apple launched the Macintosh and inaugurated a whole new kind of computing. Real people could perform day-to-day tasks by using a computer. The concept of personal computers became accessible to the masses.
As technology evolved it became easier to use thus it became more popular. This created a monetary incentive for firms to investigate and improve technology. As it transformed into something more complex with many functionalities, people started understanding computers as “hard stuff”. Books “for dummies” or “complete idiots” started being published.
The computing revolution of the late 90s was exciting but tech made people nervous. Computers looked almost the same throughout the 90s. The World Wide Web brought information and connection into homes but the browser did not change much. There were infinite possibilities yet UI froze for a few years while everyone struggled to figure out how everything worked.
At the same time, there were other industries evolving and including more and more technology in their devices. In 1979, Sony launched its first Walkman. Records became cassette tapes and this gave way to discmans. The UI was dominated by hardware buttons until 1999, when Napster blended computer power and CD burning. Portable mp3 players were made first and then the iPod was released.
Cellular phones also became more attainable. Pagers got small LCD screens and then people could send each other short messages using their cell phones’ keypad. The first smartphones were had more functionalities than regular phones but their screens were resistive, this means, they required a slight pressure in order to register touch.
The iPhone brought to the table the multi-touch capacitive screen, which makes use of the electrical properties of the human body. For the first time in history, humans and computers could interact with each other through direct manipulation: touch and drag, pinch and zoom.
This was when skeuomorphism became popular. Graphical user interface emulated the aesthetics of traditional hardware. People were able for the first time to think about technology as something intuitive and simple.
So, what is the next big step? Where are we heading to?
Welcome to the post-screen world
I believe hardware and software from the user’s perspective are smoothly becoming the same thing. New tech is all about subtlety and ease. What yesterday focused on touching and typing has now turned into moving, talking and thinking.
The history of UI proves we have worked on simplifying technology for users while adding more and more functionalities since the first computers appeared. Achieving a balance between these two characteristics is hard and this is why for long periods such as during the 90s UI has remained the same. People need to adapt to technology and experiment with it before introducing another big change.
A few years ago when Bluetooth had just appeared, it seemed magical but useless. Using it was tough and some devices didn’t work well with it. Today interactive technology has found its place in the industry. It spans from AR to wearables and involves a whole new set of interactions which are not necessarily mediated by screens.
Post-screen technology will be:
- Decentralized. The reign of smartphones will end soon.
- Specific. Devices will be designed to perform specific functions.
- Human-centered. We need to connect humans not technology.
- Instant. No more menus, no more steps.
- Simple and more intuitive than existing solutions.
- Invisible. Technology won’t be in the foreground.
- Augmented and virtual. Digital and physical worlds blend into a single one.
- Passive. Sensors will do the job for you.
The central objective for every human being has always been the same: efficiently manage their energy in order to be ready to protect themselves from a predator attack.
Technology was developed around this idea with the clear goal of making life easier and simpler. Following this way of thinking, the ideal technology is, basically, magic: instantaneous and 100% effective. As technology was not able to generate experiences that felt like magic, real-life metaphors, such as interfaces, emerged. But they were just momentary ways of approaching the idea of magic solutions for the human life.
Today, we have enough technology to generate a deep, instantaneous and magical experiences. This is what I call the post-screen era.
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