When the Interface Ends

Although the computer is a normal part of our lives, it is still something we notice is present. We open our laptop and go to a browser to go to a Website to gather information. Notice how we really aren’t going anywhere in reality. We’re actually navigating around within the computer, or other computers we are connecting with. Everyday we go to the computer and sit there tethered for hours. We are at the mercy of our technology.

It’s very sad to think about how much of my day revolves around this hunk of metal with all these tiny electronic elements processing what comes down to a 1 and a 0. My life is spent hovering around this damn thing. It won’t always be like this though. There will be a day soon that technology works for us. It will truly evolve into the fabric of our world.

The term “ubiquitous computing” was first coined by Mark Weiser around 1988, when he was at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). It referred to not just smart devices that we are seeing more of today, but a network of devices that are integrated into common pieces of everyday life. Some examples were of refrigerators that were aware of the food items inside and the potential menus based on them, or, rooms that were aware of the biometric measurements of the occupants and they might adjust the lighting and temperature appropriately.1

“First were mainframes, each shared by lots of people. Now we are in the personal computing era, person and machine staring uneasily at each other across the desktop. Next comes ubiquitous computing, or the age of calm technology, when technology recedes into the background of our lives.” — Mark Weiser

Think about that. Someday we won’t think about the computer. We won’t go to it; it will be everywhere. The few interfaces will become hundreds of interfaces throughout our day. Everything will be a computer. The interface as we know it, will someday disappear.

We Are Ubiquitous Computers

It amazes me how unimpressed we seem to be with things like the human body that should leave us quite awestruck; every process running smoothly to keep this complex machine of ours functioning without an error. After seeing a small horse in the Apple store that no one seemed to notice, Frank Chimero came up with a term for this phenomena. He writes: “Since then, John and I have a term called a “tiny pony.” It is a thing that is exceptional that no one, for whatever reason, notices. Or, conversely, it is an exceptional thing that everyone notices, but quickly grows acclimated to despite the brilliance of it all.”

Look around you, and you’ll find that ubiquitous computing is already here in other forms. The airplanes that take us through the clouds. The beautifully designed products that appear on the shelves. The complex words we write and speak. This is what ubiquitous computing might look like. It is an amazing world full of technology in our background that we live without right now, but will someday soon be unable to live without.

If you wonder how this is possible, you only need to look in the mirror to see this at work. We are walking proof of ubiquitous computing. We are many small parts that make up a holistic, conscious being. Humans are made of an estimated hundred trillion little intelligent “computer” cells. If you took one of these individual cells and looked at it, it would not be conscious, nor would it be aware of us or really care. Yet together, these individual cells all make up our singular being; our thoughts, hopes, dreams.2

A World of Screens

A recent article on Smashing Magazine talks about what it will mean to be a (Web) designer in the future, and if there is a need for them. The article is a bit singular in approach, because it assumes we will live in the same world we do now, only slightly more advanced and that we will continue to see the interfaces around us, rather than live within their fading presence. The screens we are dealing with are splitting into other ones by the minute; some larger, some smaller.

Most designers create work for the GUI, or Graphical User Interface. This is only one type of interface that we will be working with in the age of ubiquitous computing. There are also touch interfaces, which we are now familiar with due to the popularity of the iPhone. There are voice interfaces for things like in-vehicle systems. There are tactile interfaces which involve controls that offer haptic feedback like in aviation. In some cases, we might need to create an interface that uses a combination of these inputs.

In his paper written almost 20 years ago, Marc Weiser outlined the types of devices we would encounter in the new century. At the time I am certain they seemed far off for everyday use. Today we are seeing them come into our view. It is truly unreal how accurate he was in his essay, “The Computer for the 21st Century.”3

Tabs “inch-scale machines that approximate active Post-It notes.” Basically tiny, and potentially wearable devices. Something like a smart phone or digital cameras would fall into this category.

Boards “home, video screens and bulletin boards; in the office, bulletin boards, whiteboards or flip charts. A board might also serve as an electronic bookcase from which one might download texts to a pad or tab. For the time being, however, the ability to pull out a book and place it comfortably on one’s lap remains one of the many attractions of paper.”

Pads “in contrast, use a real desk. Spread many electronic pads around on the desk, just as you spread out papers. Have many tasks in front of you and use the pads as reminders. Go beyond the desk to drawers, shelves, coffee tables. […] Someday pads may even be as small and light as actual paper, but meanwhile they can fulfill many more of paper’s functions than can computer screens.”

I can name examples of these today, which are all quite obvious to us. The iPod Nano, Microsoft Surface, and the iPad. There are many other devices out there that fit in to these categories that are either in the hands of the consumer, or being designed currently.

In the article, “A Taxonomy of Device Forms” author Dan Saffer talks about some other device forms we might see:

Dots: “tiny, nearly- or completely-invisible devices.”

Boxes: “devices that are slightly too large, bulky or heavy to be portable. Kitchen appliances such as toasters and many consumer electronics like stereo equipment fall into this category.”

Chests: “large, heavy devices that do not move, such as dishwashers, stoves, and refrigerators.”

Vehicles: “large, heavy devices that do move. Yes, cars are devices too, writ large.”4

Designers Still (Will) Matter

It seems like only a few days ago we conquered Web standards, and now we are starting over with all these new devices and thousands of little apps. The iPod Nano now has a touchscreen interface which is only a little bigger than a quarter. Some of the latest car dashboards have capabilities that rival most laptop computers.

The surge in activity has transferred from the heavy old desktop to those. When the iPad came out the main question everyone asked was: “Why do I need an in-between device? I already have a laptop and a smart phone.” Now within months the question is not about where the iPad fits in, but where doesn’t it fit in. Schools can use this thing in the classroom, publishers can deliver content in exciting ways, and immersive games are no longer just for the PlayStation crowd.

As designers and developers we are so closely tied into Websites and applications, so this ubiquitous computing world seems closer. For those outside of our industry, they are still foreign objects that sometimes help, and sometimes frustrate.

The interface as we know it will end someday. The term designer will always shift in meaning based on what we are actually designing. The interfaces of our future will still need to be designed. It just might not be what we mean by design in today’s world. In future the designer will still matter.

1. Ubiquitous computing – Wikipedia
2. Dan Dennett on Our Consciousness – TED Talk
3. The Computer for the 21st Century – Mark Weiser
4. A Taxonomy of Device Forms – Dan Saffer