Pt. 2, Human integration and the death of the device

This is part two of a two part essay by Marek Pawlowski on the future of user interfaces, mobile handsets and human integration. Part one was published last Friday and can be read here.

Direct integration, it would seem, is a step too far for the technologies we are capable of imaginging today. But what about the principle of the best interfaces being invisible? Several examples from the sporting world spring immediately to mind: the connection a skier feels with the slope, the subtle balance and poise with which a rider and bike become one, the steering wheel which connects the racing driver to the track…

In all of these instances, the interface has been refined to provide the most natural connection to the medium and the most immediate results. In that sense, they share the goal of reducing latency and ‘clicks’ with the mobile environment.

Technologies exist today to help evolve mobile devices towards more natural interfaces. From simple scroll wheels to natural-language voice recognition, there are numerous ways we can communicate without pressing buttons on a keypad or holding a device to our ear. If we set aside the economic considerations (the mobile industry has always been very good at making the economics work if there is sufficient demand for something), why are these basic building blocks of seamless interfaces found in only a handful of products?

Again we come back to the complexity of human thought. For every action we take, a sub-conscious equation of possible benefit versus myriad other criteria is performed: will we look stupid, is it dangerous, will it work first time, how much will it cost?

Bluetooth headsets provide a good example. They provide a direct connection to the ear and mouth, leaving your hands free. Surely there should be no reason why they shouldn’t be universally adopted? Yet penetration has been slow, primarily because of a very human characteristic: vanity. Most people’s first reaction was to consider whether their fellow humans would think they looked stupid. Only when hands-free kits became a legal necessity for driving in most countries did penetration rates start to increase.

It would seem, therefore, the primary barrier to more ‘human’ mobile interfaces is humans themselves. We are creatures of habit and followers of fashion. We are accustomed to interfacing through keypads and soft-key confirmation buttons and we will be slow to change our ways. Indeed, there is an argument the last 20 or so years or ‘keyboard culture’ have fundamentally changed our perception of what is natural. For many young teenagers, key-based input is their first language: they text in preference to voice calls, they instant message in preference to group discussion and they type in preference to handwriting.

Owning the mobile device itself may also be additive to experience. In a society which values consumption and where marketing messages convince us to aspire towards physical ownership of the latest technology, we have come to naturally associate the best experience with the most expensive devices. Vanity, competitiveness, fashion – all of these thoughts govern our willingness to invest time in learning to work with inefficient interfaces.

Technology may one day be capable of connecting us directly to the world around but it seems most of us would prefer it to remain as a buffer between human nature and the physical environment.

This is part two of a two part essay by Marek Pawlowski on the future of user interfaces, mobile handsets and human integration. Part one was published last Friday and can be read here. Please add your comments on this topic to the blog below.

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