On September 11, 2012
This post is a little different from my others, in that it’s pure unadulterated speculation.
We’ve made some crazy progress in technology, particularly in the last 20 years. What will the next 20 (or even 10) years bring? And most importantly, how do we prepare ourselves for it?
Right now there are engineers and scientists working on what we once thought were ridiculous technologies. E-textiles that have a cell phone embedded in the fabric and beam the audio straight into your ear. Google Glass and augmented reality. Siri and speed recognition. Machine learning everywhere.
I feel kind of left out in the face of all of this. The lowly web software engineer. The hardware engineers are doing all the cool stuff! At first I was a little disappointed that I didn’t pursue a career in hardware, but then I realized: once the hardware guys do their job, it’s on the web developers to make it useful. When AR glasses become popular, web designers and engineers will have to figure out how to create a real user experience. Sure, at first all the software will be proprietary, but eventually it’ll move to the web. That’s just the way it goes. And that brings up some interesting challenges: after all, how do you browse the web in a pair of glasses?
Siri can already understand you speak, and she’ll only get better at it. Eventually she’ll be able to browse Facebook for you, read your stream out loud, and take instructions. (I’m already calling Siri “she”!) But it would be silly to have to build technologies from scratch to do this. It’ll all start with proprietary tech (the iOS Facebook app), but eventually the W3C will just have HTML specifications for how Siri should read your webpage out loud. There’ll be a spec for taking speech commands and gestures.
What does this mean for designers and engineers? It means that if you don’t want to be left behind, you need to start thinking about this stuff. Start by opening up your mind to the possibilities of interface-less human/computer interaction. Every once in a while, you should be doing a thought experiment: how will people interact with websites 5, 10, or 20 years from now? Maybe your webcam will have eyeball tracking built in, and all you have to do is look at a link to follow it. Maybe physical keyboards will be replaced by on-screen keyboards, and all you have to do is look at the right letters until it can auto-complete the word you want.
We don’t know what the web is going to look like in the future, but we all know it’s going to change. You can teach an old dog new tricks, but I think we need to start mentally and creatively preparing ourselves for some sort of paradigm shift in the upcoming years.
“Grandpa, how did you used to go on Facebook?”
“Well, Jimmy, we had this thing called a keyboard, and we had to type in ‘facebook.com’ and then put in our email address and password.”
“It’s something we used to type letters into a computer.”
“You had to type letters?!”