The next big thing

Fri Jan 31, 2014

Predicting the future is not just a fun exercise for the imagination - it takes an uncanny awareness, not of where the ball is, but where it’s going to land. Futurists have to marry emerging technologies with emerging market opportunities to come up with a future scenario that actually comes to be. Only in retrospect can we see whether these social scientists were fanciful fools or crackerjack seers with a remarkable talent for predicting the future.

I hugely enjoy looking back at the accuracy of past predictions, and was recently blown away by the Knight Ridder (no, not of the David Hasselhoff variety) video presentation of the tablet, which pretty much nailed it:

Tablets will be a whole new class of computer. They will weigh under 2lbs; they will be totally portable; they will have a clarity of screen display comparable to ink on paper; they will be able to blend text, video, audio and graphics all together; and they will be a part of our daily lives about the turn of the century.

This prediction was made 20 years ago in 1994. The only thing they failed to do was dream bigger. They predicted that the tablet would be a “digital newspaper” for content consumption but didn’t see that tablets could be used for content creation and gaming as well.

So, what’s the next big thing? If I were to take an educated guess, I would say transparent displays. But not the transparent displays that crop up all the time in science fiction movies (such as Iron Man) as a futuristic replacement for our computer screens. These UIs look cool, but are largely impractical.

Where transparent displays will really take off is in situations where there is a practical value to looking at something through the glass. Think HUDs in vehicles for example. Or a refined version of google glass where the lenses are an invisible part of the design, not a clunky cyborg add-on that screams “dork”.

Imagine a smart home of the future where space is at a premium in our increasingly overpopulated cities. As square footage shrinks, mounting a 60-inch TV above the fireplace is no longer practical. But you already have large floor-to-ceiling windows that let in that wonderful natural light. With “smart glass” technology, the windows can turn opaque, blocking the light. The window can then double as a TV screen.

Or allow the natural light to flood in with weather and calendar apps overlaying your beautiful view of the mountains. Don’t have a view? The smart window can create one for you. By switching the focus from the TV to the window, the furniture can be arranged with the window as the centrepiece, creating a harmonious Feng Shui, if you will, balancing the light and beauty of the outside with the ubiquitous screen that everyone now relies on for information and entertainment.

The technology for transparent displays is out there already, albeit in a crude form. So is the market for screens that are smarter and integrated into our everyday objects. Furthermore, transparent UIs are now a staple in our sci-fi imaginings of the future. It’s only a matter of time really before you’re strolling through a mall where mannequins have been replaced with interactive store-front window displays that know your name. Or where you’re kicking back in your self-driving car and watching Netflix on your windshield display.

Whether you want it or not - get ready for more screen time.

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