Here’s a stunning passage I just read in theoretical physicist Michio Kaku’s The Physics of the Future:
According to Moore’s Law, every Christmas your computer games are almost twice as powerful (in terms of memory and processing speed) as they were the previous year… For example, when you receive a birthday card in the mail, it often has a chip which sings “Happy Birthday” to you. Remarkably, that chip has more computer power than all the Allied Forces of 1945. Hitler, Churchill, or Roosevelt might have killed to get that chip… Today, your cell phone has more computer power than all of NASA back in 1969 when it sent two astronauts to the moon… The Sony Playstation of today, which costs $300, has the power of a military supercomputer of 1997, which cost millions of dollars.
The pace of technological change, once fast, is now blistering. Ask anyone over the age of 70. Technologies can go from unthinkable to obsolete in a single human lifespan.
We now carry a sophisticated and powerful computer with us every single day.
It keeps us in contact with loved ones, helps us safely and efficiently navigate the world, offers a lifeline during emergencies, gives us access to the greatest repository of human knowledge the world’s ever seen (the internet), and does it all on the go. If a time traveller from 1950 were to visit us, the smartphone would be the technology that struck them as the most futuristic. It talks to space.
But “mobility” is still a brand new idea in computing. The word “crackberry” didn’t enter our lexicon until 2006, and if you’re reading this at work chances are you’re reading it sitting at a desk. Even if you’re using a laptop.
But why is mobility so important?
Sitting all day is killing us.
The scientific consensus has been clear for a while, and the rest of the world is finally beginning to catch on: the modern human habit of sitting in front of a stationary screen and interacting with it using wired controllers is bad for your body and shortens your life. Heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and hypertension have become epidemic killers. Our lifestyle is the culprit.
There are two solutions to the sitting problem:
- We keep the computing ecosystem we have but stop sitting. We’ll work at stand-up or treadmill desks, but it will look roughly how it looks now.
- We change the computing ecosystem to something that lets us move naturally.
Treadmill desks are neat, but big, expensive, and noisy to use. Not a great fit for the sleek modern workplace. Plus, most people feel enough like this at work without literalizing it:
It’s sort of a backward approach to solving the problem. Sitting still is what computers like to do, not people. Instead of asking humans to act more like machines, we need a computing ecosystem designed for our unique physiology and responsive to our biological needs.
Imagine telling your colleagues “I need to catch up on email” and having them understand that you intend to go for a walk in a nearby park, cruising your inbox with hand gestures and voice commands, using a Heads-Up Display on your glasses that lets you walk safely while navigating information. You could take meetings the same way, read through documents and manuals, and stay productive while you feed your body exercise.
This isn’t science fiction. Heads-Up Displays and interactive screens have already arrived, and as companies enter the space they offer new features, form factors, and design innovations. As exotic as these technologies seems today, there are lots of new ways to think about computing without a desk in the way.
Millions and millions of years of evolution have made human beings a species that needs regular movement throughout the day, but the way we use technology ignores this.
Not for long. Along with mobile-friendly Heads-Up Displays, ubiquitous, internet-enabled screens are coming that we’ll be able to control in public. Computers haven’t stopped getting smaller, either: just a few weeks ago at CES Intel unveiled Curie, a computer small enough to fit in a button. All it needs is a mobile-friendly input and display.
People who think about the future, like Michio Kaku, are already excited about this. It’s why 71% of 16-24 year olds are interested in owning wearable technology: they’re preparing for a computing ecosystem that lets human beings live the way we were meant to.
It’s not really as if they have a choice though; 16-24 year olds have to think about the future. They just have so much of it. And seeing that sedentary lifestyles lead to untimely death in their parents’ generation has them urgently trying to develop a healthier relationship with technology.
The problem is that it’s very hard to come up with a way to control devices while you move physically through the world. A camera-based gesture controller won’t work, nor will a mouse and keyboard. Touch screen interfaces are great, but can’t work for Heads-Up Displays and require you to stare straight at them so they aren’t safe to use while moving either.
What we need is technology in the back seat. Dropping away, only coming up when needed and wanted, and vanishing just as quickly when tasks are completed. Healthier tech, designed to listen to a human body instead of forcing people to sit still and behave like machines.