A very brief history of time
As anyone involved in a computing industry will know, the next big thing is always just around the corner. Thanks to the Apple II, Xerox Star and IBM PC, home computers were the big thing in the 1980s. In the 1990s it was the turn of the Internet (with over 34% of the world’s population currently able to get online in some shape or form, it hasn’t really stopped being the big thing). Nowadays the most anticipated developments are based on mobile devices, and this has been the case since the early development in the1970s, to the boom of cheap phones and in-built games (we all remember the frustration of Snake) in the late 1990s.
Figure 1: Remember when phones were (almost) only phones, and it didn't break after 12 months!(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nokia_3210)
In 2007 Apple changed the landscape with the iPhone, finally delivering a device that integrated the communication and portability provided by mobile phones with access to the Internet (well, as long as they were in range!). The resulting boom in the development of smartphones is arguably the most recent big thing, with ownership breaking the 1 billion mark in 2012. This growth in ownership, improved hardware and better mobile data put the internet, at the time the mainstay of the computer, on the back foot. This forced the emergence of designs that flex, and the term ‘Responsive’, an approach to web design that ensured an optimal user experience regardless of the size of the device used, was coined in 2010. Now in 2014 even apps appear to be losing their stronghold due to better quality mobile web experiences. However as I said earlier, the next big thing is always just around the corner and given that it’s been 7 years since iPhone’s launch, it is about time that it appeared. So what might this be, and how may peoples’ experiences change because of it?
The next ‘small’ big thing – the smartwatch?
The current push in the technology industry is towards making small wearable devices (‘wearables’) and thanks to Pebble, Sony and Samsung, we have already seen the first versions of smartwatches - multi-function wearables with a small number of applications that sync to a compatible phone. However I see the future development of the smartwatch eliminating the need to sync and ultimately replace the phone, if some obvious usability concerns are solved.
Current smartwatches have a screen size around 1.6”, and through physical restrictions I would not expect them to grow much bigger than that. Given the problem that people had viewing websites on a 3.5” iPhone screen when they were first released, you can imagine the difficulties posed by a screen half the size. One solution to this could be ‘text streaming technology’, developed by companies such as Spritz and Velocity. This technology shows one word at a time on the screen at a variable ‘words per minute’ rate, adjustable up to 700wpm (meaning you’d be finished reading this article in just over 2 minutes, and War & Peace would only take 13 ½ hours!). Although this sounds unnatural to read, you quickly adjust to the speed and still absorb what is being displayed. However reading like this requires high levels of concentration, even blinking could mean missing 4 or 5 words. Also there is no way of selecting which words to show, blocking the human’s natural ability to instantly filter all the information shown on screen and focus on the most relevant parts. Therefore this is really only suitable for short, focused passages of information such as tweets.
Figure 2: Try reading everything on this search page like you would a book, and see how much information you have to read through to reach each result
A further drawback to text streaming technology is that it strips away all design, meaning that it is highly unlikely that web developers would want to use this to display websites. A responsive design approach may be suitable, although there is a limit before the screen becomes too narrow and the length of the page seems infinite, which I believe smartwatches are likely to fall outside of. Therefore, what’s the answer? One suggestion I’d like to make is the use of cards. Sites such as Twitter and Pinterest are already displaying information using cards, and their concise way of displaying small packets of information could work on smaller smartwatch displays. Furthermore with simple gestures, cards can be manipulated to display additional information. There would be many challenges to using cards in this way, which could necessitate a shift in thinking about site design and IA development, but I will leave this for another day.
As well as the difficulties in displaying information on small screens, inputting information will also be a challenge. Despite the technological improvements in word prediction, character recognition and predictive text on smartphones, I'm sure most of you still experience auto-correct errors nowadays. Voice recognition may be one option to overcoming this, and thanks to hands-free calls seeing people walking around ‘talking to themselves’ is not as strange as it once was. However voice recognition systems are notoriously temperamental about recognising different accents and using speech severely reduces the privacy of what the user is doing, making it impractical for inputting any sensitive information such as passwords or payment information. Most often used to interact and provide navigation on touchscreens, gestures could also be used to input information. Current exploration is focused on using the screen as a ‘digital canvas’ to draw characters. Whilst this allows increased control and security over voice recognition, it may be a slow process to write anything of length and character recognition software may struggle to identify different styles of writing. Alternatively the entire device could recognise gestures made by arm motions, which could convert ‘air writing’ into text. Although this idea is pretty awesome, the recognition of writing would be even more erratic than the digital canvas, and I don’t know whether it would be the best way of writing a tweet on a busy train home from work… Finally there are good old keyboards. Although standard keyboards found on smartphones would take up most of the screen space, new styles of keyboard and predictive text software are in development. One such example is the Minuum keyboard, using an altered layout of keys to provide a one row keyboard solution. On a small aside, the Minuum keyboard may not just be restricted to smartphones and watches – future implementation replicating functionality introduced by SixthSense technology might make it a future option for text input on Google Glass
(you didn't think I’d get through an article on new technologies without mentioning Glass, did you!) So, what’s the answer? Given how intertwined the relationship has been between computers and the keyboard, I don’t believe that people will take to a device without a keyboard to interact with unless the development of the new interface engages with users early and remains engaged continuously throughout its development. This will help to eliminate the problems of users not immediately feeling comfortable with it, as what appears to have happened with Glass.
The next ‘big’ big thing – graphene?
I have talked about wearables being the next big thing, and the drive to make things smaller raising two big issues that will need to be overcome to help wearables to deliver a great user experience. However looking a little further into the future gives cause to suggest that making things fit on displays of an ever-decreasing size might not need to be the aim, thanks to graphene. I won’t go into a science lecture about it, but there are a few important properties of graphene to highlight:
- It can be made very thin – in the most extreme case a single layer of atoms;
- It is highly conductive;
- It can optically transmit over 97% of light;
- It is incredibly light but has a high tensile strength.
Figure 3: In winning the Nobel Prize for physics in 2010, graphene’s inventors hypothesised that a graphene hammock weighing the same as a single cat’s whisker would be strong enough to support the entire cat. I’m guessing they had this picture in their mind! (http://farnhamcats.co.uk/cats-protection-events/win-a-fabulous-therapy-session-and-support-farnham-cats-protection/)
Combine these properties and graphene becomes an ideal material for touchscreens. This doesn’t just include those used today on smartphones, tablets and laptops, but it would be ideal for very large, portable touchscreens (look at the nearest wall, and then imagine it was covered in a touchscreen that you can put in your bag at the end of the day – that large & portable!). Touchscreens of a potentially unlimited size present opportunities that are almost exact opposite to what we are currently experiencing with smartphones and smartwatches, and we will need alternative ways to exploit those opportunities to create great user experiences. Therefore whilst you consider how best to apply a ‘mobile-first’ solution to a site, or if you get the chance to design for the smartwatch at some point, keep in mind how an ultra-large screen could display the same information in the future.