The personal computer is dying. Its place in our lives as the primary means of computing will soon end. Mobile computing—the cell phone in your pocket or the tablet in your purse—has been a great bridging technology, connecting the familiar past to a formative future. But mobile is not the destination. In many ways mobile devices belong more to the dying PC model than to the real future of computing.
Instead, the future of computing is at a very large scale. I am not referring to the room-size monstrosities from computing’s dawn in the 1960s. I’m talking about a diffuse and invisible network embedded in our surroundings. Chips and sensors are finding their way into clothing, personal accessories, and more. These devices are capturing information whose impact is not yet meaningful to most people. But it will be soon enough. The question we need to answer is: how will these intertwined systems of hardware and software be designed to meaningfully add to our lives and to society?
Today we are enjoying what computing has done to enhance our lives, but we do not like having to baby-sit all the devices that give us access. We have to tell them what to do. The next wave of computing devices will be different because they won’t wait for our instructions. They will feel more like natural extensions of what we do in our lives. The hardware and software technologies behind this ubiquitous-computing model will become the focus of a radically changed computing industry.
These technologies will also change the way we look at computers. For example, making payments through a smartphone requires that the user unlock the phone, swipe to find the application, launch the application, and then initiate the payment function. But a smart watch could be designed to initiate a payment when you tap it on a payment terminal. There are so many of these ordinary functions that can be enhanced by computers but should not involve the overhead of operating a computer.
I’m excited by the various wrist-worn health monitors that have come out recently, like the Nike Fuel Band. On the downside, they represent a certain narcissistic fad: the constant monitoring of oneself. But aside from that, the idea that we are beginning to instrument our bodies and make them nodes on the network opens the opportunity to truly improve how we manage our health, how we assist the elderly, and how we express ourselves socially.
I was a teenager when Apple came out with the Apple II. For most people it was a toy, something useful only to hobbyists. But it pointed the way toward much more capable computers. The same thing is happening again with new types of computers like the Fuel Band. None are really life-changing yet; they are still toys. But I can see that we will get to something profound very soon.
Because these new forms of personal computing radically minimize the user interface and integrate it into more of our natural behaviors, they can be activated by more subtle means such as tapping on objects or speaking. Or a device could recognize objects on its own and react accordingly.
For designers, the challenge is finding ways to carry out basic tasks such as reading messages, making payments, delivering alerts, and finding places without keyboards, high-res screens, and other features of the user interface as we’ve known it. To do this, they are simplifying tasks to their essence and creating new styles of interaction. For example, a function might be executed by tapping and speaking at the same time, or through natural gestures such as near-field “waving.”
The result should be a world where we have more pervasive access to computers yet fewer moments in our lives where we have to stop what we’re doing and operate a computer terminal. Essentially, we hope to take the computers out of computing.
Mark Rolston is chief creative officer at Frog Design, a San Francisco–based design firm whose clients have included Sony, Louis Vuitton, Apple, and Disney.