The goal of this article is to popularize concepts in order to share information and especially promote conversations and exchanges. The ideas and layout underlying this article were largely inspired by the excellent blog entitled “A List Apart”.
Among other things, I am currently working as a technician for teaching and research projects in the undergraduate program of graphic design at Laval University in Quebec. My laboratory classes in the undergraduate course “user’s interface and interactivity” offer stimulating experiments in order to help students master their knowledge in this specific field of information technology. I learned this technique in the 3 year program of multimedia integration techniques at Cégep Ste-Foy. I perfected my knowledge in integration, programming and project management for more than 5 years at an advertising agency called “Triomphe Communication marketing”. I have been committing to the principles of breakdancing (B-boying) and spend a lot of time (perhaps too much) working for the non-profit organization that I founded: Quebec B-Boys.
No, I am not talking about Google Glass or Apple Watch. I was referring to SONY’s earphones when they first came out in the early eighties. I don’t know about you but I don’t hear comments like that today. On the contrary, headphones have become another advertising medium.
People’s behavior in response to new technologies has always elicited strong reactions, especially when it comes to wearing them. Technology changes and people eventually adapt to these changes: it’s only a matter of time. Except for Bluetooth earphones. I will always find it strange to see a customer talking out loud while shopping at the supermarket on a Saturday morning.
The evolution of Information Technology
Let me tell you about Osbourne 1, one of the first successful commercialized portable computers. Built in 1981, it weighed 23 lbs. Many would have found the idea totally ridiculous as it was only the beginning of technology. Yet, thanks to this product, some people felt it responded to their needs.
A dozen years later, Apple put its latest creation in the spotlight: the Newton. Weighing only one pound and a half, a black and white screen with a definition of 336 pixels by 240, it was far from being a threat to what our future iPhone was going to offer. Still, it was the beginning of data exchange via modem. In the end, it didn’t pass the test of time. However, others saw new possibilities for the Newton: data exchange while travelling meant we no longer had to stay in the office to work. The device’s functions and contextual use yielded all kinds of possibilities. We no longer depended on desktop computers: it wasn’t about changing the devices that already existed but simply completing them.
Context and functions
Back then, computers were solely built for scientific purposes. People needed to be convinced to try them for personal use. In 1977, PC sales escalated up to 48 000 units. In 1993, they reached 152 million. I still remember the restricted functions of my old Mac SE/30: a few drawing tools, word processing, a few alert sounds. The PC’s potential wasn’t simple to grasp because it was a new concept. In the end, I actually found it useful: I recreated a Nintendo Power style magazine that I sold for 1$. Far from making a fortune with this small company of mine, I managed to exploit a possibility that wasn’t easily achievable before: mass production of a magazine.
Flickr, the popular online photo management application, is a good example of the triad power of a device’s contextual use, functions and possibilities. Far from being the best camera, the iPhone is now the camera that is most used by its customers. This is mainly due to the fact that we carry it with us almost all the time (contextual use) or that its Internet connection easily allows online photo management (function) or a combination of both, making online photo management (possibility) so simple that it now occurs more frequently.
The success of a new device therefore depends on its functions and the context in which it’s applied.
Experimenting with technology makes us understand its potential. More and more, new technology appears before we even have time to find out what problems it will solve. Our reluctance to adopt new technology originates from the fact that people don’t get its usefulness and will tend to argue against it. Let’s take for example Google Glass. Rarely has a product been so hyped and belittled at the same time. Instinctively, man hesitates when confronted by the unknown and prefers to repel it.
We shouldn’t view Glass as an instrument straight out from hell. We should rather try to understand the wide array of its functions. Let’s look at a few examples:
First, an accelerometer allows the detection of the user’s head movements. In order to activate Glass, Google programmed a function that calculates the angle in which the head is positioned. A simple nodding of the head and Glass will await your requests. Practical and very liberating when compared to the repetitive hand gesture of reaching into our pocket to unlock our cellphone, simply to view the latest junk mail that landed in our inbox.
Glass uses a prism on which is projected data perceived by the user, on a transparent background. Having a transparent background versus an opaque one doesn’t obstruct the user’s vision and therefore allows permanent attention to our visual field. In fact, we need to understand that the screen is not placed directly in the user’s visual field but positioned slightly higher, similar to the height of the visor on a baseball cap. Therefore, the innovation here consists of having nothing to do in order view information except to move one’s eye.
Another means of communication is found in sound retroaction. Once again you’ll say there’s nothing revolutionary here-on the contrary. In fact Google (probably) quickly realized that wearing headphones that blocked surrounding sounds would be an obstacle to the continuous use of its product. So, Google decided to use bone conduction technology to transmit sound using vibrations emitted by a device placed on the right side of Glass’ headset. This way, surrounding sounds aren’t blocked out and there is no discomfort for the user.
As far as the “famous” camera goes, there are many ways to activate it. The least practical way is of course to use our hand to press the button on the right side of the headset but that is so “year 2000-like !!”. The vocal version requires to first activate the headset, simply by slightly moving our head and pronouncing the words “Ok Glass. Take a picture” It’s already more practical, but the fact that we seem to be talking to ourselves in the middle of a crowd can appear quite crazy. Finally, the futuristic version of picture taking is done in the blink of an eye. In fact, a sensor inside of the headset allows the detection of eye blinks. In the blink of an eye, without even activating Glass, a photo will be taken. Look ma, no hands!!
All those little details make using this product magical and futuristic, like the time when I was able to display license plates to find the slogan of the state of Florida simply to answer a silly question during a conversation with colleagues; like coming home with my hands full and being able to unlock the door simply by voice command or taking a picture of a beautiful landscape without letting go of your child’s hand. All these micro interactions will now be possible thanks to technology changes.
These new interactions will not happen in a flash. It is important to introduce them progressively. Jumping directly to a device that rests on the tip of our noses does not exactly qualify as being a gradual process. However, around the wrist it does. The famous Apple watch that appeared only a few months ago could represent the iteration that we were looking for. At first glance, its use can seem common: I don’t think people will discover the success they expected from this device. However, in time, the number of interactions will be multiplied and I bet that I will be difficult to take it away from its user-as it is these days for our precious iPhone.
Wearables are devices that bring new possibilities with the combination of their functions, their omnipresence and their types of interactions. Their use was well summarized in an interview with Thad Starner, professor at Georgia Tech University, and technical director on the Glass project: “Reduce the time between intention and action”, which consists of reducing the time between intention and action. Being able to reduce that time will allow new uses for technology, and of course, their adoption. By emphasizing on solutions based on creative design, we will discover new uses and usefulness for these new technologies.