I started working with computers at the end of the 80′s. At the time I worked with a text based screen and was shortly after introduced to the mouse. The mouse taught me to use my hands in a different way, but it really was not very useful before the Windows came around in the early 90′s (at least not for me) and the mouse became a useful tool in applications with graphical user interfaces. Over the next 10-15 years, the whole concept of User Interface (UI) design did not really evolve much. Companies such as HP, Apple and others tried with different hardware designs to leap forward with ‘touch’ enabled computers, but these concepts where largely mimicking the mouse just using the hands. For users things such as “double clicks ” got harder (did you ever try to double-click using touch?). For a period of 10 years, we saw really no significant changes in the way we interface with our computers. When companies thought of improving the UI, they came up with new controls, new styles.
At the beginning of the 2000′s we saw emergence of voice recognition, first in dictation software, such as Dragon Natural Speaking which recognized spoken words fairly well and was able to turn them to text. This resulted very quickly in voice enabled commands that we later used on our cell phones. Other technologies such as biometric data for identification, GPS to determine geo location, 3-D screens and webcams made computers quite senseful machines. They can now see, listen, talk, locate themselves (orientation), sense tilt, they can pretty much do anything but smelling and tasting, but I am sure that this is also just around the corner.
Touch re-emerged in 2007 with the introduction for the first generation iPhone. Part of what made it so successful was the fact that it did not mimic the mouse as an entry device, it reinvented the way that we are interacting with a touch screen in a very natural way. The way we zoom on the iPhone screen while reading emails or internet browser content was ground breaking at the time, and it started a new very natural way people interact with computers.
With IBM’s Watson Super computer beating the best Jeopardy contestants in history, we saw already that we are now on the verge of usable artificial intelligence applications. Apple took this concept basically a step further, enabling us to use a Watson like computer on our cell-phones in its latest iPhone iteration 4S, calling this virtual assistant ‘Siri’. Both of these concepts mean that we are now in the most natural way using our speech to interact with a computer in the most natural way, in the same way humanity interacts with each other. For most this seems to be abnormal to awkward, but this will be the new normal.
While this is all happing, we are redefining “normal’ in fundamental way. There are actually plenty of videos out there that are illustrating that this natural way of dealing with electronics seems more normal to 1 year olds that older and traditional media. Having ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) is not really a disorder anymore. It is for the generation that is in their 20s today the new normal. They switch between media types, media channels and devices faster than ever. I cannot remember when I watched a movie at home the last time without my iPad or iPhone handy to quickly fact check while I am watching.
We are just at the beginning. Windows 8, expected for next year will reinvent again the way we deal with technology and interface with computers. If you want to have a sneak preview on what is coming at us, check out the videos of the Build 2011 conference that happened about a month ago in Anaheim. Microsoft posted all conference speeches on Channel 9, where you can download them, synch them with your tablets and watch them. This will be the most ground breaking release of Windows coming at us, the user interface design of the so called “Metro Style Apps” is ground breaking. Windows 8 will unify our cell phones, our tablets and our PC world. It will make the tablet a business solution, a feat that Apple has not been able to pull off just yet. Leading the charge will be applications build on HTML5, which is as of today the only way to create these rich and natural user interfaces that will run on all platforms, on Android, on IPad’s as well as the forthcoming Metro Style Desktop in Windows 8. Starting next year, we will think of PC’s and applications that we cannot talk to, that do not support touch in a natural way as ‘broken’, as the one year old in the video above considers the paper magazine broken.
The reward will be gigantic, especially in terms of training. We will get to the point that our business applications will interface with us in a natural way. Most of us do not refer to a manual anymore when we buy a new piece of house electronics. We just open the box, connect the wires and start using them. We rarely get in trouble where we need to refer to a user manual or we need training on how to use it. Since the start of the Apple revolution we learned that we can build sophisticated electronic devices that a 1-year old can use. With these new natural user interfaces we will get the same in our applications that we use every day and the question on how people get trained will be as dated as a user interface that is not working in a natural way.