In the mid-nineties, a computer scientist at Xerox PARC theorized the concept of the Internet of Things, albeit with a different name, far before anyone else had and even further still before it had become possible.
Even though today we call it by that name, Ubiquitous Computing — as it was then coined by Mark Weiser — imagined a world wherein cheap and ubiquitous connected computing would radically alter the way we use and interact with computers. The idea was ahead of its time. In the world of ubiquitous computing, connected devices would become cheap and, thereby, would exist everywhere.
Importantly, these devices would as a result cease to become special or unique — they would become invisible.
As we near this utopian world filled with computers, our relationship with them inexorably will change. Each of us will come to interact with dozens of separate devices on a daily basis. As such, we will need to develop interfaces in a way so as not to distract us, as is currently done, but in a way in which to empower us.
Or, how Weiser put it, we will need to adopt the concepts of “Calm Technology”.
What is Ubiquitous Computing?
On the face of it, ubiquitous computing is just that, a reality in which computers are everywhere. Of course, with trends relating to IoT, we are nearing this, but we are not there yet. One of the most important implications to come from ubiquitous computing, for example, will be the changes it will make on how we perceive and interact with computers.
For instance, think of the electric motor: an old technology that is ubiquitous in the present. Today, there could be dozens of them in a single car. However, when we hit a button to roll down the windows, we don’t think at all about the motor pulling the window down. We simply think about the action of making the window go down. The electric motor is so mundane and ubiquitous in our lives that we don’t even think about it when using it. It is invisible.
It is this sort of invisibility that allows the user to take full control of their interactions with a given piece of technology. When using a piece of technology that has become invisible, the user thinks of using it in terms of end goals, rather than getting bogged down in the technology itself. The user doesn’t have to worry how it is going to work, they just make it happen.
Invisible technology keeps us focused on the task at hand.
In another example, Weiser simply states a good pencil “stays out of the way of the writing”. Now, even though technology surrounds us today, we aren’t at this point yet. Gadgets and devices are still special to us in a distracting way. We still not only still marvel at new technology, we are told to by whomever is producing it.
But why does this matter? The best way to see how ubiquitous computing will impact us is to examine the way we engineer and interact with the apps that exist today.
Apps written today are, in many cases, not created to save the user time and are certainly not created to keep them focused on a given task.
When creating a web app, for instance, you try to guide or manipulate the user into using your tool as much as possible. When you create a drip marketing email campaign for it, in most cases, you aren’t creating it so that the user needs to use your tool less. You are creating it so they can spend more time and use all of its features. That is to say, the goal isn’t foremost and necessarily to save the user time. Furthermore, there is no question asked as to whether the user aught to spend more time using whatever particular app is being optimized.
It goes without saying that the same is especially true for social media platforms.
Within a social media website, each user is given a piece of “social property”. A social media platform imbues each social property with a value system — think of the concept of likes, comments or shares — as incentive to spend time on the site. Each user interaction with a social property, whether it be a photo or a comment that is written, is then logged and recorded, so they can easily be rewarded for the time invested. Some social apps, such as LinkedIn, will have us hooked for something as simple as a pageview of our profiles.
These actions are further incentivized through the use of gamification. Apps send intrusive notifications, giving you some information about what they are about, but not everything. And this is crucial. Not knowing what is in the notification entices us to open it even further. It goes without saying, this is important for increasing the amount of screen time we give the app. For, if we saw everything in the notification, there would be no point in opening the app. It makes waking up every morning feel like opening a bunch of small presents.
The end result is that many of our interactions with technology are not determined by ourselves, but by the technology.
And, while it’s a stretch to say that developers are acting nefariously to steal our time, those building our web services and tools should construct them with respect to the user’s guilelessness. Doing so requires adopting principles of invisible or calm technology.
What exactly should an Invisible Interface look like?
Contradiction aside, the most accessible way we can get a glimpse into a future dominated by invisible interfaces is the movie “Her”. Although not the focus of the film, “Her” showcases a future wherein inputs given to devices are done so largely through voice commands. Yes, there are still smartphones, but the majority of interactions take place by simply talking to a given device using natural language.
Theodore is able to interact with technology in a manner that is completely at hand. He can ask any sort of question or create any sort of demand without getting bogged down in how the device works. Furthermore, the technology never tries to whisk his attention away from anything. The technology is always there, but it is only in the periphery.
According to Weiser, this is one of the key principles of designing calm technology. The device in question should never try to distract or pry the user away from what they are trying to accomplish. Yet, it must always be ready to accept user input. It is calming in the exact opposite way that receiving group chat notifications on your phone is not.
We can see this principle of design, in part, at play in the new Apple AirPods. Even though they have yet to be released, they promise to let us interact with the internet without ever needing to look down at our phones. And they are aware of their environment too.
They know such things like if they are in an ear or not, and, if they are not, they know to stop playing sound. It’s these small, micro-automations that will further make technology invisible and allow us to focus on whatever it is that we want from the technology and not worry about having to configure it.
Other, more simple, examples include the auto-brightness on your phone or its fingerprint scanner. They simply work without any sort of configuration or notification about what they are doing.
And more technologies like this are coming. There are, today, even advocacy groups such as Time Well Spent that try to spread awareness about how interfaces and apps can hijack the ways our brains work. Even more promising is that there are companies that are following suit in these designs principles. For instance, the upcoming Moment smartwatch is a device which interfaces with the user largely through touch feedback, instead of relying on the screen.
All that’s needed now? Better speech recognition.