Want to Know What the Future of Media Screens Are? Try Looking at the Past

futureevolution411The way people use media - especially screen-based media - has been shaped by advances in the science of computing and occasionally, in science fiction. That's a life imitating art fact. Remember the scene in Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Minority Report, in which Tom Cruise's character was standing in front of a transparent screen, moving objects around using nothing but his hand gestures. Geeks like me were thrilled to imagine ourselves using such an interface in the distant future.

Now fast-forward from that 2001 science fiction classic to five years later, when Microsoft's Jeff Han demonstrated the Surface technology, showing the movement of hand-gesture-manipulated objects on a horizontal screen - kind of a computer table. The crowd at the TED conference clapped and whistled as Han drew squiggles and circles on the screen. But audience members and the hundreds of thousands of people who watched the video of the event on YouTube, could only dream of someday actually getting their hands on such power.

That day came barely three years later, with the debut of the iPhone and the iOS operating system. Gesture-based manipulation of objects on a touch-sensitive screen was suddenly within the reach of millions of people. Many of them had either never used a personal computer or had tried and failed to use a keyboard- and-mouse-controlled PC, lacking the time or aptitude to learn. Even the real-world metaphor of the file folder was prohibitively difficult for some to grasp.

User interfaces featuring direct object manipulation have sparked a sharp increase in the number of people using personal computing devices. Sales of iPads in 2010, the year it was released, were reported to have negatively impacted sales of "traditional" desktop and laptop computers. I think this trend will continue and the day will soon arrive when there are more gesture-based devices - powered by iOS, Android, Chrome and others - than there are devices that depend on an operating system controlled by a mouse and keyboard. This has huge implications for Web site owners. It's conceivable that many smartphone owners will never use a browser. Why should they, when applications can satisfy most of their needs? And "search" as we now know it may morph into "search in small spaces" - that is within an application.

For example, searching within a recipe application for the term "date" will lead the searcher directly to what she's looking for: recipes made with dates. She won't need to wade through pages of search results referring to all of the alternative meanings of the word "date" that are far afield of her objective.

More and more smartphone users will want and expect to conduct their lives and business in small, safe Internet-enabled places. Present-day examples of these include Facebook, Xbox gaming, Skype sessions - and the list will grow.

How can you prepare for this shift? Start thinking about how the objectives of your Web site can be accomplished outside it. Create an iOS or Android app that will allow customers to convert right inside the app. Experiment with in-game advertising (Google AdWords advertisers can do this now.)

Try to require a bare minimum of user input for the conversion. Easy, ubiquitous payment systems will facilitate this like the ones enriching the coffers of Apple and Amazon. "Off-browser conversion" will be even easier to implement after the next tipping point in the evolution of personal computing: voice input and output.

Yes, we're about to enter the age foreseen by the Knowledge Navigator video created by John Sculley and others when I worked at Apple. We may not see the video's anthropomorphic agent on the screen too soon, but the act of talking into a handheld device - and getting a vocal response from it - has already started and may be in full swing by the time you read this.

Get a taste of this by using Google Voice Search. Try the new iLingua application, which accomplishes real-time aural translation. For added comprehensibility, the app, having taken a photo of your mouth, will show a picture of your mouth moving - in the translated language!

You can prepare yourself and your business for this breakthrough by starting now to get experience with "unattended conversion processes." Many site owners have gravitated to Web-based transactions because they feel they're more convenient for the customer - and cheaper for the site owner.

But with the growth of smartphones as the only computer device of the majority of people, consumers will prefer or even demand transactions via a phone call. Can you afford to ignore them?

Wait - go back and re-read the first sentence of the last paragraph. Could that possibly be true?

My friend Alexis Gerard of Future Image told me several years ago that, for most people on the planet, their first camera was in their phone - and they would never own a camera. Likewise, we may already have passed the point where, for most people on the planet, their first personal computer was their phone - and they will never own a desktop or laptop computer.

You might find this far-fetched. After all, a U.S. family of five could have 20, 25 or even 30 computer devices - laptops, desktops, phones, tablets, game machines and more.

But when you realize that the vast majority of the world's population holds a tiny fraction of the wealth of the average U.S. citizen, you'll understand why the "one person, one computer" phenomenon is very real. Example: according to Google, the average Hispanic smartphone user responds to mobile advertising at a rate that's three times that of the rest of the U.S. population. The reason is socio-economic: many U.S. Hispanic consumers rely on a Web-connected phone than a computer.

A few years ago, in response to a question about future directions for the company, then Google CEO Eric Schmidt said " advertising will generate more revenue than advertising on today's Web." At the time he was accused of hyperbole, but he was really talking about the phenomenon I just described. Even affluent people will find it more convenient to own and carry just one personal computer device. Why bother owning several when the CPU in your smartphone operates at a rate 500x the 1990's-era Cray ­- and when storage is unnecessary since all data and documents are stored in "the cloud?"

Within the next year, many smartphones will be equipped with two cameras ­- one front-facing and the other rear-facing - and a front-facing projector. At that point we'll see applications that act just like the crazy-futuristic ones Pattie Maes demonstrated at the 2009 TED Conference. We may even see devices like this one, prototyped by Samsung in 2008: a pen that morphs into a tiny device that projects a screen onto a nearby vertical surface and a working keyboard projected onto the horizontal surface on which it sits.

Remember the words of Apple Fellow Alan Kay: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." Or, at the very least, stay close and follow those who are inventing it.

1 comment about "Want to Know What the Future of Media Screens Are? Try Looking at the Past".
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  1. Robert Pemberton from zepfrog, May 20, 2011 at 9:59 a.m.

    Good article. Viewpoints spot on. Only correction is re Jeff Han who never worked for Microsoft but was at NYU when he gave his first TED talk and then founded Perceptive Pixel and gave a second. The point was good though.
    Microsoft went on to put multi-touch on a table of all things which says more about Microsoft than about the technology.

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