The Future of Wearable Tech… and of all personal computing
From the first time I "unlocked" my new 'phone, I could see that a change that I had long expected in personal tech was starting to take place.
The image is the sony xperia compact z5 - the cell phone I use. To unlock it, you touch the power button. There is a fingerprint reader in the power button.
The change I'm referring to is passive authentification.
Passive authentification is when instead of your having to enter codes or passwords, the tech identifies you. You probably already have it on your laptop computer: when you switch on, the face in front of the webcam is compared with a stored image of your face, and your account/session can be started automatically.
The technology identifies you automatically, so you don't have to.
This terrifies people - but it doesn't have to.
It has the advantage that once technology can identify you reliably, you don't have to memorize codes or passwords or carry tokens around with you.
You are your password - literally.
Literally; technology looks at you, scans you, touches you, smells you, hears you. And uses all of this to be sure that you are you.
Another promise that failed to be delivered long, long ago now, was the revolution promised by Java - that it would no longer matter what hardware we used. Your computer would be stored on the internet somewhere, and all you had to do was identify yourself to the technology, and your computer would be there in front of you.
This is shell technology. A screen, a keyboard, a webcam, that aren't part of a single computer, but become the interfaces for whatever computer you need to use them through.
Now that everyone has (or seems to have) a smartphone, everyone has a hugely powerful computer in their pocket (if it's small enough to fit in a pocket). If you want proof that shell technology is becoming a reality you only have to look at the Superbook.
The Superbook looks like a laptop computer, but it's just a keyboard, a screen, a battery and some connectivity electronics. You connect your smartphone to it. The smartphone provides the computing power, the Superbook provides the interface.
Mobile Devices Evolution
"Mike" my stick-figure-guy (as opposed to my artist galihwindu's awesome stick figures) is shown here in a mainframe computer. As it turns out, I can just about manage a clipboard but it's very difficult to do a stick-figure labcoat.
In the beginning, a computer was installed in a special room, and did literally thousands of calculations a second. A computer was a place you went to get a job done that previously might have needed hundreds of people (whose jobtitle, incidentally, was either clerk, calculator or computer!)
Mike looks excited (I hope) because he's got his first personal computer, so it's probably around 1982. The first ones were commercialized in the late 1970s but they were for specialists. The tipping point for use of personal computers for work was the invention of the computerized spreadsheet, around 1983, and everyone started using it when Microsoft Excel for Windows was released, in 1987.
At this stage, a computer came in several boxes and there were all sorts of cables to connect, and you had to understand things like config.sys, autoexec.bat and system.ini - by which I mean you literally had to understand what the configuration information in those files meant. It was like the wild west, man.
The laptop computer is named for a way of using it to which it is singularly unsuited. However it was the first serious attempt at a portable computer, and the laptop was, for more than a decade, the most portable form of multi-purpose microcomputer available.
Mobile telephony has gone through its own evolutions, at the same time. A lot of people think the cell-phone is so called because 'cell' is another word for 'battery.' It isn't, but I'll leave you to dive down that rabbit hole in your own time.
I'm reminding Mike of his first "brickphone", his first flip-phone, his ridiculous "phablet" and his "smart watch".
You remember I said that a mainframe computer, that filled up often an entire floor of an office building, could do thousands of calculations a second?
Your smartphone can do billions of calculations a second. Think about that for a second. It's more than a million times more powerful than a computer that fifty years ago, could only be bought by governments and large corporations.
The Microsoft Kinect is a device that enables you to control a game with your console without needing a control device. You don't have a mouse or a keyboard or a joystick or joypad.
The Kinect watches you, and you use gestures to control the console, making selections in menus or playing games.
It's important to understand that this technology exists, and understand how it's used, so if you want a demo:
Aside from the truly awful music, this is a good illustration of it's use.
The Smart Home?
You may have already heard of the "internet of things" and the "smart home" - all sorts of electronic devices are increasingly connected to the internet. You might not be surprised to learn that the latest printers from HP all use your internet connection to update their own software automatically, so you no longer get pestered by messages asking you to "download and install the latest firmware".
For a printer that seems pretty normal. But there are already other household devices that are run by their own software (usually called 'firmware' for unimportant reasons). There's no reason why you shouldn't see, in the near future, a message on the front of your washing-machine asking you to wait 10 seconds while it downloads an update to ensure it has a suitable wash cycle for the new pants you ARE WEARING.
All these things are leading somewhere very specific.
Right now, technology seems ubiquitous to the point of intrusive. But soon, it'll be discreet to the point of invisible.
Here's Mike in the near future, with all the tech he ever needs to carry about with him:
I'm going to try to paint you a picture of a few basic things that you do now, and what they're going to look like in a few short years' time.
Making a phone call
If Mike's at home, all he needs to do is say, aloud, "I'd like to make a call."
Whatever room he's in will have a discreet flat screen which most of the time is probably matching the patterned wallpaper of his living area. It displays his list of most recent contacts, but all he has to do to place the call is say "call Alice and Bob."
A 3 way call is set up automatically. Alice and Bob's faces appear on the screen, and they start chatting. Mike decides to fix himself a cup of coffee, so he heads into the kitchen. The screen in the living area goes back to patterned wallpaper and the screen in the kitchen comes on, so he can continue the call unbroken.
If he's out and about, he might need to take a small, portable screen/camera/microphone with him as I don't think being followed everywhere by a phonedrone will be practical once everyone wants one! Implanted microphones and speakers are probably a little further in the future, right now. But the portable device he's carrying isn't a phone, it's a shell. It has a device that recognizes him, and downloads his preferences into it. It gets his contact list from the web - no need to store anything locally. Mike probably doesn't even own the device. If he's in the city he can probably pick one up at the coffee stand and leave it (at the end of the call) in a bus depot.
Netflix and the like are already transforming the scheduling experience, which is nice. And with TVs now able to connect to the web, you can already see how a TV is becoming a shell technology. It's just another screen; the sound just another sound. And if you have screens and speakers everywhere in the house?
Mike is binge-watching Game of Thrones series 22. Partway through he gets up to make himself a meal, so the show transfers to the kitchen screen. He decides to eat his meal on the deck, so the screen out on the deck rises up from between the begonias and the one in the kitchen switches back off.
Writing your Magnum Opus
Mike heads into his writing nook and sits in his office-chair. The screen comes on automatically, and he says "picking up where we left off."
Mike is old enough to have learned to touch-type and has never got into the habit of dictating, even though he knows it works extremely well now. So he rests his hands on the blank wooden desk in front of him, and a keyboard is laser projected under his fingers.
He begins to type, fingertips tapping lightly on the teak veneer.
When he has a correction to make, he makes a few gestures in the empty air, and a word moves to a different spot in the sentence.
Later on, he's back in the kitchen and he has an awesome idea for the next paragraph. He sits at the counter, puts his hands in front of him, and says "picking up where we left off." The screen on the wall opposite him lights up, and the keys appear under his fingers...
So in the near future...
...you won't need a mobile device, because all the devices you need will be around you, but visible only when you need them
...you won't need usernames and passwords because technology will recognize you the same way other people do.
...you won't need to store anything "locally" - everything will be "on the cloud" in distributed storage (stored in multiple copies in multiple locations) so the only way you'll ever lose a manuscript is if civilization itself comes to an end.
Good or Bad?
I can't say. What I can say is that looking back on the last 40 years of evolution in technology, in society and in world culture, that there is one thing of which you can be certain:
Things change, and will keep changing.