What next for the tech industry?

This blog post was prompted by the launch of the Apple iPad Mini. I’ll wait until I’ve had a chance to use one before I pass comment on how good it actually is. It started me thinking though on where the next breakthrough category of devices and interactions is going to come from. What is clear is that the tablet market is now a mature one, with actual competition and credible alternative approaches and propositions. When I wrote about the tablet wars in late 2011 there was just the iPad, a collection of uninspiring Android tablets and the first Kindle Fire (itself a little disappointing truth be told). Now we have 2 sizes of iPad, much improved Android tablets (notably the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD) and Microsoft’s Surface. Each a slightly different take on what a tablet should be, each with their virtues and pitfalls.

There’s still a huge amount of opportunity within this space for innovation, but I suspect it’s now going to be incremental, rather than radical. So while we roll up our sleeves and get on with delivering on the huge potential tablets and other touchscreen devices offer, where is the next game changer going to come from? There are a few potential areas:

1. Speech

Popularised by services like Siri, could this represent the next frontier for interactions? I’ve written about this before, but in short, I expect that the privacy and social context issues will hold speech back from being a mass market option. My own research has shown it to be effective, mainly for short commands where you need to be working completely hands free (or are using your hands for something else), so there are likely to be niche applications.

Future use: niche support for certain tasks and in certain situations. Unlikely to ever be a primary mode of interaction

2. Gesture

Microsoft has had the most recent success in this area with their Kinnect system for Xbox. Arguably this has greater potential than Nintendo’s Wii, which was the original pioneer, as Microsoft has opened up its system to third parties and expanded the potential beyond gaming (also there being no requirement for a handheld controller helps). At the moment gesture is hindered by many of the same issues that affect speech, particularly the social context, but also other factors like muscle fatigue come into play. And like speech, gesture is probably best suited to adding to existing interactions, not supplanting them completely.

Future use: will be great for certain immersive experiences, but will not work for prolonged use. Another supporting interaction type.

3. Texture

Not yet in any mass market device, but researchers have created approaches that can simulate texture on otherwise smooth surfaces. Imagine if it was possible for software designers to not only make buttons look raised and metallic, but to create that same texture. This would open up a whole new avenue in interface design, potentially adding an extra layer of emotional affect to interfaces. It’ll probably rekindle the skeuomorphism wars again.

Future use: likely to be the next touchscreen, with even more emphasis on the touch (an incremental but exciting change to an already mass market technology)

4. Augmented Reality

The most obvious recent entrant to this space is Google with their Project Glass. Although companies like Layar have been pushing this forward for much longer. AR effectively involves overlaying digital information onto the real world. The biggest barriers to mass adoption are 1) a compelling use case and 2) actual technology solutions that are straightforward enough to become part of people’s everyday lives. These don’t have to be full Heads Up Display solutions of the kind Google proposes (although this would offer the richest experience), as glanceable context aware devices would be perfectly capable too.

Future use: at least 2 years out. There are significant barriers to be overcome, most notably not looking like a fashion disaster while using AR (and this really does matter).

5. Embedded interaction

This is like AR in reverse, so instead of the digital being overlaid on reality, it is embedded into it. This imagines a world of screens everywhere, which is becoming more and more of a possibility as screen costs reduce. So instead of needing to look on your smartphone for information you could just interact with some sort of smart surface.

Future use: not going to happen. We may see a world where Kindle-type devices become so cheap they may as well be free, which could revitalise the print industry, but the smartphone removes the need for this type of world.

6. Wearables

Heavily linked with AR, but not exclusively so, wearable devices provide different ways of interacting with digital information in real world settings. Google’s Project Glass represents the AR side, but devices like the Pebble Smartwatch show how wearable devices can enhance interactions, or provide different means of accessing digital information.

Future use: maybe 1 year out. I’m hopeful for wearables, in that I can see some actual use cases that make sense. It’s an area I expect a major player to enter if things like Pebble gain any mass market traction.

7. Mind based

Well why not? We’ve covered speech, gesture, touch and overlaying the digital onto the real. Why not cut out the middleman and go direct? This is an advancing field. We can already help blind people (albeit with certain types of blindness) to regain some type of vision, we can help amputees to regain large degrees of motor control. The consultancy I work for can show how a user interface affects a user’s emotions. It is inevitable that we’ll eventually have a consumer product driven by the mind. We’ve moved beyond if, to when.

Future use: more than 10 years out. Probably more a factor of what is required in sensor technology to make this a non-invasive and reliable interface more than anything else (and of course the software to interpret interaction intention accurately).

But wait, there’s more

These won’t be the only things. At least, I seriously hope there are other things I haven’t even considered. The most important thing is that there are clear use cases for whichever technologies are adopted and that the context of use is very clearly considered.