Will the big generational leaps in digital devices always align with new input methods?

Will the big generational leaps in digital devices always align with new input methods?


The big generational changes in digital are often underpinned by the arrival of new input technologies.

Punch cards gave way to keyboards as computers moved from dedicated rooms to desks. The mouse arrived and computing broadened from business to personal usage. Touchscreens expanded digital to an unprecedented number of people through smartphones.

What next? Voice, perhaps?

Voice is getting good. If you want to see just how accurate it has become, try downloading Google’s new Live Transcribe app. There’s something mesmerising about the experience of watching your words appear in real-time with startling accuracy (not to mention the benefits this will bring to those with hearing impairments).

Things have gone a step further in the labs. A recent experiment (reported in detail in the Nature journal) converted brain activity into computer-generated speech. How would you feel about hearing your thoughts read aloud?

However, for all the hype around new, voice-centric devices from the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google, what if the next generational shift was different? What if this time the next generation of digital experiences resulted not from a single new input mechanism but rather from melding multiple input mechanisms into a seamless flow?

What would it feel like to finesse the strokes of your Apple Pencil by talking to your iPad as you sketched? What if your car could subtly brighten the cabin when temperature sensors and the touch-sensitive steering wheel detected the interior was becoming too cosy and stupefying?

Improvements in the way short-range and wide-area networks weave together are already enabling new capabilities. A simple example may be found in how wearing a smartwatch can automatically unlock the PC on your desk. It is an effortless and useful interface experience, but underpinned by a complex fabric of multiple sensors and inputs.

There is unifying factor when you look back at the history of successful new input mechanisms: they all deliver a greater sense of agency for the user.

Whether a single new technology or a combination of existing input methods, they succeed when they give the user a new feeling of control over the digital environment. In doing so, they facilitate novel experiences.

As we look ahead to the next big generational change, we may want to focus our attention not on its embodiment in a single new class of device but rather on what’s happening in the relationships between those devices.

If you’re working on things in this area, I’d love to hear from you and learn more.

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