The smartphone has become a default item to carry, absorbing the diverse functionality of cameras, wallets and fitness trackers, as well as being a communications device and pocketable networked computer. Growth in raw compute power and storage, coupled with mostly reliable internet access to further services in the cloud, have allowed an app and services ecosystem to flourish. This has been accelerated by a shift in revenue-sharing from giant mobile network operators to small software developers.
But despite continued improvements in apps and the development process, much of the recent innovation in the hardware platform itself has been incremental rather than revolutionary. There is increasing cynicism among those following or attending major hardware launches, whether by Apple, Samsung or anyone else, about the lack of novelty. It is true that certain incremental improvements, especially those that relate to security, lead to new application opportunities, but this often fails to sufficiently enthuse industry watchers.
Many have looked to wearable devices for excitement. The smartwatch was once thought by some (including Dick Tracey fans, perhaps?) to be the next generation of universal device. However, most smartwatches have been companion devices, attempting to add value via a symbiotic relationship with a smartphone. Finding value has proved elusive; specific use cases are there, but most are too narrow. Perhaps as a result, a number of smartwatch ventures have folded or development effort has shifted elsewhere.
Although desktop and mobile screens have grown over the last couple of decades (or shrunk in size but grown in resolution), demands on screen real estate have grown or at least remained steady. Switching to a tiny screen on the wrist is a challenge, and without a great deal of app developer effort and user experience expertise, wrist-worn app usability is typically not great.
Beyond the smartphone
Recent advances in immersive screen technology offer a different way of thinking about what we are trying to do with digital information. After all, why do we think that data must always be presented in a single, rectangular image? Perhaps the smartwatch is not the killer device replacement to the smartphone after all. There are other technologies worth taking a closer look at, and Google’s return to its Glass technology (perhaps that’s a bit of ‘double-gazing’?), along with Microsoft with its HoloLens and Epson with Moverio, might indicate a new interesting phase.
Fully immersive virtual reality (VR) systems been around for quite a while, but only recently has technology innovation made the experience sufficiently high-definition, responsive and affordable. There are a number of compelling applications beyond gaming and entertainment, such as pre-experiencing reality (looking around a car or apartment before buying, or configuring a super yacht) or collaborating with others in a virtual working environment. There are also tasks that involve hazardous or difficult-to-reach working environments, during manufacturing or maintenance, where immersive simulation could have significant business benefit.
However, the need to wear something that encloses the eyes means that this is not something to do without a bit of physical protection. There is an important area of VR development that involves the physical space to safeguard the user and make the experience ‘feel’ real, including harnesses, omni-directional treadmills and walking platforms. This is fine when the work is specific or justifies the need for immersion, but this is not likely to be for the everyday casual access to information.
Augmented reality (AR) on the other hand might be. Heads-up and projected displays of simple data are equally not recent inventions, and there have been plenty of pop-up data examples in sci-fi and movies, but AR probably gained most awareness from the game Pokemon Go. Overlaying graphics on mobile screens for entertainment is one thing, but there is sufficient capability to create more complex visualizations that overlay and complement the real world and project them into highly wearable devices (such as smart glasses) without obscuring reality.
This does not need to involve an entire screenful of data, but simply the most relevant and timely information, related to context and the need of the individual at a given moment in time. It can be delivered so that those needing to access and interact with information, in order to do another important or even critical task, can operate hands-free, with overlay, not overload.
Screens or screen projection?
There are some interesting concepts being explored using screen projection which then pick up gestures for user interaction by camera or radar. But the challenges, such as keeping a device steady if worn on the wrist, combined with the increased investment elsewhere, put the advantages in the VR/AR ‘eyeware’ court.
Glasses, not watches or goggles, are more likely to fit with more general purpose use cases and scenarios, but they will require a different way of thinking about applications. But for the sector to grow, the broadest possible development community will be needed. Not everyone can afford the most sophisticated new products from industry giants, but there are a number of low-cost AR tools appearing, such as Zappar, Layar, Blippar, Aurasma and others.
The smartphone and other mobile devices might not be declining yet, but it is time to think about how to interact differently with IT going forward. We used to be tied to our desks, but we no longer are. Perhaps we no longer need to be tied to the machine in our hands, either?