About the same time, devices such as laptops, pagers, phones and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) shrank so much that an alternative to the keyboard was necessary. Speech input helped, but then a major shift occurred. Computational devices started to have sensors, accelerometers and miniature Global Positioning Systems built into them. Such units let the device know where it was and what was happening. And as things shrank further–leading to “zero volume” devices–users came to know even more about their surroundings. Furthermore, people could interact with these devices using the same gestures and other practices they already used to communicate with each other. Even a person’s key chain or PDA could interpret gestures of waving, tilting, squeezing and shaking as its owner interacted with it. For instance, users would tilt the device to scroll through a Web page, shake it to erase something and squeeze it to select an item, much like a mouse click. It all seemed so natural, taking on the properties of an animated conversation. The interface became transparent starting around the turn of the century, and by 2005 such interfaces were everywhere.
Although embedding these sensors and primitive effectors into appliances was first done to enable people to interact with physically shrinking devices, a more surprising use of these innovations emerged, eventually leading to the era of ecological computing. In this era, in addition to building sensors, accelerometers and effectors into devices, designers began putting them in the environment. Literally millions of these items were placed into road surfaces so that a highway could sense the flow of traffic and then communicate that information along its surface.
Thus today, cars are aware of traffic patterns around them and use that awareness to route themselves accordingly. This helps avoid congestion and with it pollution. In similar ways, sensors in office buildings, houses and factories respond in subtle but effective ways to minimize detrimental effects and harmonize human activity with the environment. Indeed, through computing, our environment has been made aware of itself, giving rise to the era of ecological or symbiotic computing.
As we now look back we breathe a sigh of relief–for the technological “road ahead” was not nearly as straight as Bill Gates portrayed in his classic 1995 book. Indeed, a profound wake-up call was issued a short while later by Bill Joy, who, like many futurists before him, painted a one-sided dystopian view of nanocomputers and robots taking over the world and enslaving mankind. It’s true that technology remains problematic. But those who believed in technological determinism were again proved wrong. Society responded, the public became better educated about the perils of radical new technologies, and new institutions emerged to help mediate the dialogue between the utopian and dystopian views. This co-evolution between society and technology may not have come as quickly as some wished. Nonetheless, it occurred in a way that forced the technological world to become less arrogant and more humble.