by Chief Creative Officer Mark Rolston
The modern city is becoming a pointer system, the new URL, for tomorrow’s hybrid digital–physical
environment. Today’s Facebook will be complimented by tomorrow’s Placebook. Explosive innovation and adoption of computing, mobile devices, and rich sources of data are changing the cities in which we live, work, and play. It’s about us, and how computing in the context of our cities is changing how we live. A digital landscape overlays our physical world and is expanding to offer ever-richer experiences that compliment, and in emerging cases, replace the physical experience. In the meta–cities of the future, computing isn’t just with us; it surrounds
us, and it uses the context of our environment to empower us in more natural, yet powerful ways.
A new pattern of computing is emerging where interactions with technology will be conversational. We’ll literally talk to them and they to us. Voice recognition is a key enabler of this. Apple’s Siri is the headliner, of course, but Ford has been employing Microsoft Sync—which also uses voice control extensively—in its cars for a few years. It’s being smart about offering it not just in its high–end models or Lincoln premium brand, but in less expensive cars that appeal to younger buyers. It’s a great way to get a new generation engaged with the Ford brand. Voice recognition technology has finally hit its tipping point of capability, and the stage is being set for a generation of users to start assuming voice control, just as touch control is now assumed for any screen. However, the spoken word is only a fragment of any conversation. Computer vision—especially depth sensing cameras—will be able to pick up non-verbal cues such as gesturing or body language that complete human communication. When both voice and gesture comprehension are paired, humans will be able to address technology naturally, without command jargon. The tactical steps being taken in 2012 are to “design the human” as the primary interface device in support of that.
We’ll see the launch of open data aggregation platforms that provide API’s for third party sensors, front-end applications, and analysis engines. A self-tracking enthusiast will be able to merge her Fitbit, Jawbone, Zeo, Nike plus, and Withings data to see a comprehensive overview of her health and lifestyle. Driven initially by a simplification benefit, the long-term power of this trend will be the ability to construct ever-greater value and insight on top of the data. The smarter the services get, the simpler and more valuable their insights will become. At a presentation level, I believe we will move beyond the current data visualization trends towards humanized suggestions that prompt and guide individual action.
Facebook is not personal. It is social, but it is evolving into the next iteration of the Internet. Today’s technologies, products, and services do not adequately serve the human need for intimacy and personal connections. The early days of Facebook and Flickr felt this way, but now our social networks and hard drives are swamped with a deluge of digital data that we can’t process. Our Internet personalities have evolved into amplified personas that aren’t truly us. The current fervor around cloud computing only exacerbates the problem: now my 10,000 digital photos are in the ether, but am I any more emotionally connected with them and sharing them with my three closest friends in a meaningful way? 2012 is about culling from the terabytes and sharing with the single digits. In 2012, product companies will deliver new products that begin narrowing the social circle and capturing intimacy and authenticity.
For the past decade we have been seeing a convergence of multiple pieces of hardware into fewer generalist devices. The smart phone is the almost perfect example of the convergent digital device as Swiss Army knife. It has absorbed much of the most common use cases for portable devices, like music and video consumption, digital photo and video capture, email and calendar, and simple things like time keeping. I read countless blog posts proclaiming that dedicated devices, like the camera and the watch, would rapidly shrivel and die. Instead, I think new technologies will provide opportunities for them to get better. When users do purchase a dedicated device, they are gravitating towards products with higher quality and better design to elevate their experience. It turns out that the convergent device is killing the commodity digital product while forcing everything else to improve. This is presenting companies and brands with an opportunity to do what designers love: make things better!
User interaction with technology is going above the glass. You no longer need an explicit tool or even direct manipulation to drive a user interface. With the ability of technology, like the Microsoft Kinect, to see users’ movements in space, gestures are being added to traditional methods in new layers of interaction. Designing for this new layer of interaction requires new thinking about dexterity, ergonomics, and whether someone might feel silly or offensive with certain gestures. We are so involved in this space right now, that we’ve had to move our design technologists’ desks to create enough room for all the hand waving design.
The recession, coupled with the rise of the so-called Collaborative Consumption or Shared Economy, has the early–adopter community abuzz with notions of the end of consumption. Companies like AirBnB and Zimride that allow people to open their homes or their cars to share or loan for a fee are cited as examples of new ways of using and exchanging goods and services. But the really interesting trend here is that new forms of trust are being enabled by social networking technology. We all joined Facebook and LinkedIn to stay in touch with colleagues and friends, but the upshot of mass adoption is that we can check up on virtually everyone we come across. Individuals who have never met or transacted with one another are using social networks to validate each other. If you are just selling goods on Craigslist, it doesn’t really matter whether the buyer is a good person or a bad one: I take the cash, you take my goods, and you are gone. But if I am renting something to you, trust becomes critical. I want to know that you are not a crook, or a thief, or a bad egg. By linking person-to-person transactions to social networks, we are reducing the need for cash deposits and other financial remedies to the bad egg problem. While logging into third party websites using your Facebook identity is now commonplace, we are beginning to see person-to-person exchanges making use of social networks to broker trust. For example, before you stay at someone’s spare bedroom via AirBnB, you have to sign in with your profile. I recently rented someone’s house in Toronto for a few days, and between our respective social networks we found enough friends, relatives, and colleagues in common for him to lend me the property with confidence. In 2012, this reputation enhanced lending and trading will become mainstream. We will lease, barter, and trade with relative strangers, banking on their reputation and connections.
Smartphones will make significant inroads into an entirely new segment: the lower end of the mass market and the “base of the pyramid.” Huawei’s sub-$100 Android smartphone has already had significant success in Kenya, and major manufacturers are quickly following suit across Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and South America. These smartphones will not be notable for hardware innovations, as they’re stripped down versions of their more expensive and feature-packed brethren. However, they’ll be notable for the fact that an eager population will be discovering the world of smartphones and apps for the first time. This population is filled with experimenters, tinkerers, and developers who will unleash a new world of apps that address their own needs and pain points—those that have been ignored by those focusing on the top end of the market.
The experience of the unstructured discovery of the physical world is about to get a lot more interesting in the next few years. 2012 will be a year of continuing to focus on the digital and material evolution of “search.” We’re already familiar with a few of the functional (software) and representational (media) components involved through the introduction of Siri and services such as Gowalla or Four Square. The confluence of complex search and knowledge management algorithms, and the growing layer of location-based applications, gives rise to a highly fluid, seamless integration between physical and digital contexts. This evolutionary mixture of Wolfram-Alpha “smarts” and location–based, contextual intelligence is the (software) basis of all future “smart space.” Meanwhile, sensors and actuators of greater acuity may define new modes of physical and architectural expression. Of course this may seem an obvious progression to the Technorati, but for the work-a-day masses soon to be living in so called smart cities in Asia and elsewhere in the next decade, the expectations about how such integrated “findability” actually feels are already beginning to be set.
The post-PC channels for commerce have come of age, and consumers will continue to flock to mobile, tablet, smart TVs, and game console platforms to conduct their business. Financial services firms would find it wise to ready themselves for this dramatic change in customer behaviors and expectations. We will likely see firms convert their successful web experience to a more streamlined mobile and tablet capability, in particular. But as consumers’ experiences with these rapidly evolving post-PC platforms matures, they will expect much more. The post-PC platform affords mobility, portability, payment capabilities, video and collaboration, location awareness, natural language processing, gestures, and so on. Clever firms will wield this fresh and evolving palette to craft engaging experiences in the real and virtual worlds. The aim will be to drive customer delight, loyalty, and engagement.
We live in the App Age and are entering new territory. The sexy math behind voice or facial recognition, real time translation, or even just assembly of a playlist of music, is no longer the realm of super computers or even desktops. Smart phones will run algorithms, and the data to feed them will also be more fluidly available. Forget Global Warming models: Consumers will pay good money for an algorithm that gathers data and solves everyday problems.
In 2012, we’ll see increasing numbers of scientists, technologists, architects, corporations, and even governments looking to biomimicry—designing objects and systems based on or inspired by patterns in nature—as an efficient innovation strategy. Why? Often, nature can provide examples of energy-saving, environmentally-friendly solutions to a variety of technological challenges. These solutions have also been “tested” via billions of years of informal R&D—by animals, plants, insects, and other participants in the natural world who have come up with ways of harvesting water from fog, for example, or possess sleek forms that are more aerodynamic than traditional man-made ones. While bio-mimicry has been an emerging field for some time, in 2012 influential thinkers will begin to apply biomimetic principles on a larger scale, including the planning of new cities and the updating of urban infrastructures. In addition, experts will also begin exploring the pitfalls of biomimicry and will also share best practices, as more case studies are available.
We’re rapidly moving into a technology space where mobility is becoming less about a set of devices, and more about the pervasive mist of data that we all generate with every interaction on the Internet. Managing, securing, and understanding this data will play a huge part in technology over the next few years. Moreover, making that data comprehensible to the consumer is key. The question has never really been “is this possible?” but rather “when will we have an ecosystem of compelling and useful devices and services that will integrate seamlessly into people’s lives?” We think that time is finally arriving in 2012.
When you work in a context where regular interaction via audio and video between multiple locations is a necessary part of your daily activities, you might have experienced great frustration as of late. With the demand for more connectivity everyday, between both people and places, it feels like technology is far behind in addressing the need to work efficiently and with the same “directness” of talking to a person in the same room. Dropped calls, poor reception, and interrupted video streams are the standard. We are so far away from a high-def experience that we may want to reconsider sending a smoke signal. Make no mistake, technology is moving fast, as shown by the popularity of Skyping with friends and family across continents. Unfortunately, the truth is that most of our conversations across distances are far from perfect and no fun at all. We need creative collaboration between design and technology to rethink these experiences so that they are more fulfilling and “direct” activities in our lives.
The way of design is only achievable via creative model-making and prototyping by the designer. Tools, both real and virtual, connect our mind with the real world. However, tools also define how we shape things: tools’ limitations enhance our deep involvement with them and the materials, and honing our skills ultimately leads to mastership. The curse of “easy” digital tools is to become complacent after relative early “successes.” This can lead to mediocrity and a loss of creative excellence. Like the new “polystyrene slates” of many new electronic products, where excellence is defined by how well the corners are shaped (a re-run of 1950‘s boxy design), our modern-day digital design software is the cause for zillions of repetitive and bland products. Charlie Chaplin’s classic film of mechanized dehumanization, Modern Times, is a déjà vu of our current state.