Close to 20 million people bought an Apple Watch in 2017 because the device has become a bridge between the present and future. By including a screen, Apple Watch retains the familiarity found with smartphones, tablets, and laptops/desktops. At the same time, Apple Watch is giving wearers a glimpse of the future by introducing new ideas around how artificial intelligence, voice, digital assistants, and smart sensors can come together to produce a new kind of experience.
This is a very similar conclusion to the one I came to this fall:
Experiences like this get me riled up with excitement. I have heard from many people on social media that the smartphone is the end-all-be-all form factor, and that anything smaller or “voice first” will always be a niche thing because you just need a 4-6 inch piece of glass to display information. I do not think that an Apple Watch can replace your iPhone, and I don’t even think that the watch form factor will necessarily be the “next big thing” but it does make me think that the smartphone is not the ultimate form factor for computers.
There is this relatively prevalent idea out there that we’ve somehow peaked when it comes to computers. We have these 4-7 inch screens in our pockets that do most of the things we need, and then we have 12-15 inch laptops that do the rest. I completely understand this sentiment, and for much of the work we need to do today, they are indeed the best form factors for that.
However, I think it is silly to think that what we have now, no matter how amazing it is, is the end of the road for anything technical. 10 years ago it was inconceivable that anyone could do everything they do on their PC on a phone. Today the phone in your pocket is the most important computer in most of our lives. Just because you don’t see something else out there right now doesn’t mean serious disruption isn’t coming.
What was notable about my AirPods + LTE Apple Watch experience was (and still is) that I found I was surprisingly capable of doing a bunch of things without a large touch screen or keyboard. I was communicating, getting entertainment, tracking my activity, and staying informed all without a phone or laptop. No, I can’t do everything with just a watch and pair of wireless headphones, but I was able to do a surprising amount.
All of which brings me to this graphic:
My initial reaction was to laugh at this. What a ridiculous suggestion! Yeah, screens are going to be replaced by speakers and headphones?! Yeah right!
But maybe this isn’t that crazy after all. Yes, 2 of the products listed there have voice-only interfaces and the Apple Watch has very little visual feedback, but the glasses make things a little more interesting.
A major challenge for any “voice first” world is that a lot of the work that we do and the entertainment we consume is fundamentally not good for voice interfaces. How do you watch a movie on your AirPods? How do you create a drawing on an Apple Watch? How do you write a paper on a watch? None of these are reasonable, and they are reasons I don’t expect “voice only” to ever be a thing. We’re visual creatures and removing all visual elements from our digital interactions is not going to happen.
But smart glasses of some form or another is an answer to that. How these things look is a huge challenge, but I could totally see a reality where I can buy a pair of glasses and it displays a screen in my environment that I can interact with. This is a world were we look back and laugh at the idea of having to choose what size screen you want and being locked into that for 2 years on a contract. We’ll have access to interfaces and digital screens that can be as small or large as we need.
Now we still need a way to interact with these digital displays, and that is where I don’t have all the answers right now. Sure, a wireless keyboard still works for typing, but what about navigation? Gestures in 3D space? Eye tracking? Neural receptors where we can just think what we want and it happens? That’s a major hold up, and I don’t see us being there in the next 10 years.
But revolutions don’t happen all at once, they take years of iteration and advancement to become realities. The AirPods are very good today, but they’ll get better to the point where they are a more reliable vessel for voice input. Smart speakers are currently nice to haves today, but they’re forcing our voice assistants to get better fast, leading to better voice interfaces faster. Smart Watches are getting us used to health tracking and having a less “techy” way to stay connected, and they represent the first successful mainstream wearable computer. If you showed 2008 you the tech that we have today they would be amazed. It’s not unreasonable to think that in 2028 we will have tech that is a part of our everyday lives that would shock us today. It’s just a matter of getting there.