Headline | February 21, 2017

Tech ate the mouse: The rise of new interfaces

Image12By Amalia Agathou, Innovations Manager at 18 Havas

“It’s still no match for the hardware keyboard you get on a BlackBerry or Treo, but it certainly beats any standard cell phone keypad. (iPhone’s on screen keyboard)” commented PC World Staff in their review of the first iPhone in 2007.

Although Steve Jobs asked the users to “trust” the keyboard, most needed a few days to get used to the new input mechanism, in contrast with today’s reality that touchscreen is considered the most natural form of interaction with toddlers able to navigate them effortlessly by age of two.

What seemed farfetched only ten years ago is a no-brainer today. In his first iPhone review, David Pogue of the New York Times recognized the potential impact of the new device on the mobile landscape but predicted that “The BlackBerry won’t be going away anytime soon.” The demise of RIM did come though, and it was a steep downfall. The company went from the largest market share (37.3%) in the US smartphone market in 2010 to just 7.3% in only two years. RIM never managed to make a comeback and announced it would stop making phones in 2016.

The sad end of Blackberry is a cautionary tale that disruptive technology, despite taking a while to get mainstream, changes the business landscape radically and rapidly. Touchscreen technology, for instance, dates back to 1966 and was introduced on mobiles in the early 2000s by Nokia, but it wasn’t really until the launch of the iPhone that it went mainstream. Today it is on almost all mobile devices as well as many laptops in the market, becoming our natural way to interact with screens everywhere.

Similarly the computer mouse, that was also first introduced in the 60s at The Mother of All Demos, only went mainstream in the 80s. What held back our beloved “mouse” was mainly the cost of hardware. What led to its widespread adoption was the rise of the graphical user interfaces in the software of the 1980s and 1990s, making it indispensable for controlling computers.
Today we are also at a crossroads, where the rise of new immersive interfaces, compatible with VR and AR, can also work as the trigger for disruptive technologies that may be already be in existence to go mainstream after many years in development.

An example of such existing technology that the VR and AR could breath new life into is wearable technology. Wearables were first introduced in the 80s, only to be reintroduced as the next big thing in the late 00s – early 2010’s. That promise is still to be met. The interest for wearables has plateaued in recent years. It is hard to imagine that a new version of a fitness tracker or another smartwatch will manage what their predecessors failed to do and win over the masses. The rapid development in AR and VR though, could trigger the third renaissance of wearables. In the case of VR, wearables are a no brainer, as they mandate the use of a headset that enables you to enter endless virtual worlds. Some also suggest that if perhaps Glass was introduced along with a popular AR app like Pokemon go, it would have a different fate. A less obvious and more important way wearables could work with these emerging revolutionary platforms is as input and control devices. Input and control in 3D immersive environments face a number of challenges. How do you input text? How do you grab an object without haptic feedback? How do you prevent arm fatigue?

The controls used in VR now are similar to the ones used for devices like Kinect and Leap Motion, but are still very limited and “break” the organic feel of an immersive virtual environment. Oculus Rift and Facebook are constantly working on new solutions that could enhance our interaction with VR environments, while we’ve seen in the past year a number of gloves promising to bridge the virtual and physical world. This new mixed reality world could be ideal for input mechanisms leveraging something we already use and wear: our clothes. Google’s Jacquard project in partnership with Levi’s could enable us to interact with our phone, our smart home devices and enter a VR world effortlessly and in style. In 2016 we also saw a number of similar independent startups trying to tackle this same challenge. Reminding slightly the real-time motion capture systems used by movie studios, but in a more fashionable execution, UK based company Skinterface, explores developing its technology further to enable us not only to interact with the virtual environment, but also with the other humans that may be participating in the same experience, “transmitting”our touch.

Another vintage technology that we only see taking off today, is voice recognition. Smartphones with virtual assistants didn’t manage to make voice control as popular as originally expected, but a plethora of IoT home devices seem to be changing that dramatically. According to recent research the majority of Americans who own smart home products with voice control function use the feature to control smart entertainment primarily and secondary to control lighting, security products and shopping. Mary Meeker predicts that by 2020, 50% of all web searches will be made through voice and image search. The rapid spread of Alexa and Google Home, in combination with the their investment in developing a startup ecosystem around them, could only mean that voice commands are here to stay. Voice controls could also help us explore beyond our reality. Holographic computer Microsoft HoloLens uses a number of sensors to detect gaze, gestures and voice controls for a more intuitive experience. Businesses should not only start to define what will literally be their company’s voice, but also what that could mean for their communication and marketing strategy overall.

Many have written off VR and wearables as things that still have a long way to go before they get mainstream. They may very well be proven to be right, the reality is that when that moment comes, very few of the unprepared will have the luxury of time to adapt. This is an opportunity for historical brands to redefine their customers’ experience in a mixed reality world. In the words of my colleague Thomas Jorion: “What really matters at the end for consumers is the experience. Media ecosystems are built on UX design, not hardware, even for Apple. And the interface remains the front door of this user-centered design. While the media industry has been adopting relevant consumer-centric strategy, we’re now moving to a new paradigm focusing on human-machine interaction.”

So what will happen next? Will AR prevail before VR as a more market driven innovation? Will we bypass wearables all together, augmenting our body capabilities with tech like smart contact lenses and on-skin electronics? Hard to predict. The only certain thing is that the tide is turning, so you’d better know how to build a raft. Now is the time to prepare. Now is the time to adopt an adaptive company-wide mindset. Now is the time to build an innovation culture that will enable your company to respond in an agile manner no matter which new technology appears first on the horizon. In the words of Benjamin Franklin “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”