Right now, we’re at a crossroads. The entire landscape of our technological world is going to transform in the next two decades, but what’s it transforming into? We have two options: make technology more human or become more like machines.
A: Further Down the Rabbit Hole
Technology has been leading us down a rabbit hole since the advent of the personal computer in 1977. We’ve seen a strange world full of marvellous things, but we’ve always been tourists. The desktop environment, featuring wired controllers and heavy screens, is incompatible with the biological needs of the human body. The computing world has been a world that favours machines. We’ve just gotten used to it.
Getting used to it has taken a massive toll on our collective health and had serious implications for the fabric of our social lives. By routing our work, play, social interaction, and creative production through the computer, we’ve created the most useful shackle on Earth. So useful, in fact, that we can’t live without it: we’re chained to the desk until we can reimagine the computer.
The Shape Determines How You Use It
When it comes to technology, form and function have always had a tricky relationship. Typically, form follows function: the shape of a hammer is determined by how a person uses it. Not so with a computer.
Take the definitions: a “hammer” is “a tool that delivers a blow (a sudden impact) to an object.” The definition itself applies constraints to the object: it needs to be heavy, hard, and capable of delivering a blow. There are only so many form factors that will get you to that idea. This hammer from the 1st Century AD looks, more or less, like what we understand a hammer to be today.
A “computer,” however, is “a general purpose device that can be programmed to carry out a set of arithmetic or logical operations automatically.” The definition applies almost no constraints on the form. A computer needs some kind of processing unit and some kind of memory storage, but beyond that it can look like anything.
At first, this was a huge problem for the people making computers. It was almost impossible to explain their idea to anyone. The concept was abstract, and people were used to tools like hammers with an obvious function and utility. Conversations weren’t going well: “Imagine a machine that’s like your brain, but not at all… Um… There’s this, uh, ‘stuff’, information really, called ‘data’ that… Wait, where are you going?”
The solution these early computer scientists devised was brilliant: they came up with a metaphor. One that would give physical constraints to abstract ideas; a form to allow new functions. They called it “the desktop environment” and it is the GUI that has defined computing for decades.
Unlike the hammer, the design has shaped how we use it, with huge implications for society and public health.
Now, computing is undergoing a transformative change. By designing the next generation of human-computer interaction intelligently today, we can ensure that future generations will have a healthier, more human relationship with technology. So what shape is this new relationship taking?
B: Natural Computing
Thalmic Labs was founded on an idea: that technology should become more human, not the other way around. The founders joke that their mission is to save the world from cyborgs, but it’s not all a joke.
Right now, at the frontier of technology, people are deciding the future of human-computer interaction. The Myo armband is one futuristic input among many. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for the United States (DARPA) has just announced that they’re developing a “cortical modem,” a direct neural interface that stimulates your visual cortex and displays information without glasses or goggles. It’s a heads-up display that plugs straight into your brain. Equal parts captivating and terrifying.
We believe that any digital input that disregards human biology — as the desktop environment did — can’t succeed in the 21st century. Our bodies are already rebelling against technology’s impact, and any device that asks us to act more like machines — by fundamentally changing our bodies, habits, vocabulary, or how we relate to one another — isn’t a sustainable option.
We need to make technology smarter to make it more human: information should appear when you need it, then vanish with a flick of your wrist.
The engineers at Thalmic Labs have spent a lot of time and made tough choices to make the Myo armband as unobtrusive as possible in the belief that real people are the most important part of a user’s day. They have made the Myo armband smaller, and simpler, and done all they can to put technology in the background.
What we need is a new metaphor; a way to think about computing without the desk in the way, without going straight into The Matrix.
Imagine a group of people wearing smartglasses, sitting in a park, using Myo armbands to look at design mockups on their Heads-Up Display. They could share past email threads and video chat with off-site team members. The context is arbitrary when the full suite of tools you use during your workday are completely mobile. You could catch up on emails while going for a short walk.
This is the dream, but we’re only getting started. We’re powering through the last pre-orders and preparing to launch on Amazon, and developers are showing us new things they can do with the Myo armband all the time. They’ve just started creating an ecosystem of applications that will let us control the digital world in a more natural way.
They’ve decided which future they want. They want to pull their heads up out of the dirt and look around — to see how we can make the information age work in the real world for human beings instead of heading deeper down the rabbit hole.