By Tim Ingold
The alarm rings out at 6:00 am to kick off a chain of actions repeated day after day – a button for silence, a switch for coffee, a search for the remote control, and a turn of the shower dial. With one swipe across a glowing tablet, I quickly review my agenda and the day’s weather before getting dressed. Next – to catch up on the last eight hours – a glance at the smartphone, flicking through emails from colleagues around the world. Then comes the frantic scurry around the house to turn everything off before commuting to the office.
As human-machine interfaces evolved over the past half-century, we have increasingly turned from buttons and dials to glass touch surfaces, embedded displays and simple sensors to control our world. Newer cars embed vibrant infotainment touch screens and automated motion detectors now control the home’s lighting. But a new generation of technologies is poised to allow products to break free of little glass rectangles, extend beyond arm’s reach and understand our surroundings like never before.
Evolving into ever smaller packages, high-resolution nano-projectors can overlay information on windshield or even your sunglasses. Some next generation automobiles are replacing the center console controls completely with new carefully molded screens for context-sensitive virtual interfaces. Entertainment giant Disney has taken this concept to the extreme, using 3D projection mapping to bring their iconic castle to life or transport guests to a fairytale pirate’s lair. There’s little doubt that digital projection is at the forefront of augmenting our future reality.
Responding to a user’s natural human motion is a technology on the brink of explosion. Most gesture recognition modules use sophisticated software algorithms to quantify changes perceived by infrared and visual cameras and high quality microphones. The technology is already employed today in home gaming systems like Microsoft Xbox Connect and embedded into television controls where you can motion upward to increase the volume or dodge an oncoming asteroid. In April 2013, Leap Motion announced plans to embed their gesture technology into many of HP’s future mobile computing products. As camera technologies improve and processing power increases, this technology will allow us to interact with our environment in new and unique ways.
Micro-electro-mechanical systems (or MEMS) are tiny devices poised to have a huge impact on the future. Perhaps the most exciting application is the myriad of sensors that now have an interface our mechanical and virtual worlds. From gyroscopes and humidity sensors to location and proximity awareness, these sensors read the surrounding environment and report back to their electronic devices. Combined with more traditional sensor and wireless technologies, products are fully aware of their context. My thermostat already learns about my schedule by watching me leave, and the door now unlocks automatically as my smartphone arrives. Combined with the always-connected, data-rich cloud, products in the future could have the intelligence to predict my next move.
As these technologies continue to evolve, it’s not a stretch to imagine how interacting with devices of the future might be a more natural experience. On the way home from work, a driver recognition module may identify that I’m tired and tune an upbeat favorite from my personal library. The directions home may be projected onto the windshield as my headlights and traction control system automatically adapt to the wet road conditions.
As I arrive at home, my location-aware smartphone may unlock the front door. The lighting automatically adjusts to a relaxing hue, and the thermostat cools the house. My living room recognizes that I’m sitting in my favorite chair and a sleek virtual entertainment wall comes to life – a virtual projection of a modern entertainment center complete with its video and sound components. I can change the channel with a wave of my hand and the system pauses automatically when I get up to answer the doorbell. The tap of a finger unlocks the door from the inside and I quickly bump smartphones to pay the pizza delivery guy. Back in the living room, I audibly tell the entertainment center to resume while I grab some plates.