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One Device To Rule Them All?

One Device To Rule Them All?

Time to get out the crystal ball and make a few predictions about what the future technology landscape may look like. Today's topic: Smart phones.

Years ago when mobile applications were in their infancy, even cartoons and mainstream media predicted the miniaturization of computing to a device that can fit into your pocket but only the most technologically savvy in academia and the technology world would have predicted that pocket computing would come in the form of a phone. Fast forward to today, smart phones have become our constant companion. We carry them damn near everywhere we go, spend more time communicating on them than via face to face interactions and use them to gain access to near limitless information regardless of where we are. I'd even hazard a guess that a percentage of people reading this article are reading in the bathroom. Not judging or anything, just the reality of how far smart phones have integrated into our lives. If you are older than 30 or so as of 2018 and think back 20 years and imagine showing your 20 years ago self a picture of a toilet and a phone and asked past you what the two objects have in common, you would be thorough confused while present you would just laugh and shake your head knowingly. But I digress.

As smartphones have risen in popularity, they have also consumed and replaced adjacent technologies that used to be independent devices and objects. Pagers, portable GPS systems, PDAs and even books and periodicals. My gut says that this trend will reverse somewhat in the near future, if it hasn't already, and do a complete u-turn in the long term. No, I'm not saying we will start using pagers or Palm Pilots again. There are plenty of technology devices that smartphones have killed that will remain dead, mostly due to the smartphone doing it better and being a multipurpose device. Where I believe the reverse will happen is in areas that smartphones are doing poorly or just don't fit with the nature of the smartphone.

One of the bigger areas I see the trend starting imminently is in GPS navigation. You may disagree but I have found that phone navigation apps are vastly inferior to their purpose built counter parts. As my wife and I have traveled around the country in our current full time RV adventure, every phone GPS app we have tried hasn't cut it in certain regions, particularly in the south east. When navigating in areas we just don't know, which is the core use case for GPS since you wouldn't use it if you knew where you were going, we've ended up missing turns due to poor upcoming instruction UX, receiving nonsensical directions or having the weak GPS in the phone be too inaccurate to be useful in hilly areas or downtown behind tall buildings. It got so bad that we bought a dashboard navigation system and have had little to no issues navigating since. Given that many vehicle manufacturers and dealers offer an in dash GPS option now, I imagine this is a more ubiquitous problem than many of us realize. As in-vehicle technology advances, including drastic improvements in smart and self-driving vehicles, it appears that these integrated and purpose built systems may start to take back some if not many of the functions smartphones had previously absorbed and ultimately obsolete phone based navigation entirely.

Another concept that fails on phones is AR, or augmented reality for those of you less technologically inclined. I believe that AR technology in a variety of form factors, is the the next wave of technology advancement and will ultimately replace smartphones completely as the dominant technology and will also absorb adjacent technologies, like VR, for the most part as well. I've been playing with AR tech for a VERY long time from projected keyboards to early smartphone apps and so far, the technology in its current form hasn't taken off but will begin a meteor rise once computing and power storage have sufficiently miniaturized to a point that it can integrate into every day objects. Part of the reason the technology has failed is the general reliance on multipurpose devices like smartphones as the medium of interaction. Though you may not think of it as AR, QR codes were an early form of AR as it used a device to augment your interaction with a physical object but failed to really take off, in my opinion, because it required you to go out of your way and pull your phone out to see something that could have been better addressed in a different marketing medium. QA codes younger brother, AR codes are much cooler and have seen limited use in fashion, packaging, industrial design and consumer entertainment but still rely on smart devices for the most part so are little more than a marketing gimmick, though admittedly a cool one. The small screen and flat nature of the mobile device severely limits the usage of AR, though Pokemon Go totally nailed AR within the limited scope allowed by the currently mobile based technology. Other than Pokemon Go, there just haven't been a whole lot of mainstream success stories.

For AR to truly take off, it needs to break off from mobile in a way that integrates neatly into our lives that smartphones just can't do. Sure, there have been attempts, like Google Glass, extremely niche medical devices and mixed reality (a mix of AR and VR) consumer devices but they aren't fantastic in my opinion and failed to truly address the compelling unmet demands of AR. Instead, imagine that you are wearing a fashionable pair of glasses or better yet a pair of smart contacts that allow the world to come alive with virtual interactions seamlessly. There are obvious use cases, like allowing a surgeon to integrate a MRI image into their surgery to perform what would now be laparoscopic surgery and see what is around the area they are seeing through the laparoscope to make sure critical blood vessels are left unharmed or better locate foreign matter like shrapnel and eventually advance to where the same surgery is performed without the laparoscope itself. Ultimately, I imagine surgeons will guide a yet to be invented medical robot via mixed reality via an AR platform to perform surgery that would previously require incisions, create gnarly scars and have increased risk to the patient. This same interactive technology could also apply to more mundane tasks like allowing a plumber to locate a leak without knocking a whole in the wall, vehicle diagnostics, and increasing consumer interactions with marketing technology. Imagine being able to walk into a pub and glancing at whats on tap and gaining complete information about the beer you are looking at or installing a new device or assemble a product in your home and getting step by step instructions overlayed on your own house or the product you are putting together. It would be MUCH harder to mess up putting together your coffee table but I'm sure a few of us would still manage somehow. I even foresee AR being used for graffiti and vandalism. Imagine walking around a corner and having a giant shark scream a political statement about how terrible is. That just will never happen with the limitation of mobile devices. Seriously, the possibilities are limitless.

Even the mobile phone's original intended purpose, communication, will ultimately be usurped by other technology. Interactions that are currently performed on the phone could likely one day happen in a virtual face to face way. Instead of making a phone call, you would instead see the the person you are talking with, potentially thousands of miles away, and interact with them as if they were right in front of you. The conference room of the future may simply exist as a virtual shared space. In fact, the first wave of face to face interactive technology is already here. Until recently, mobile hasn't been the greatest at communication mediums like in meetings and education environment but devices like the Solstice Pod by Mersive (disclaimer: the author used to work for Mersive) are already shoring up the deficiency of mobile technology by allowing users with a variety of devices, including mobile, to interact in meetings that were previously not possible using mobile alone. I'm certain communication technology will continue to evolve beyond mobile at a rapid pace thanks innovation companies like Mersive.

While I only covered GPS navigation, communication and AR here to represent current and future trend in breaking functions currently dominated by smartphones, there are literally dozens of functions that are likely to return or become separate purpose built technologies but this article would be WAY too long if we took the time to explore them all. Mobile will still remain a huge part of life for years to come just no longer as the center of our daily technological universe like it is now.

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