Passive Computing: The Applications

What would hands-free computing really get us?

Adding the internet to the PC revolution enabled us to do things we could never do before. That one was clear.

At the cusp of the mobile revolution (say 2006), I would have been skeptical that the change to mobile was the defining change. It’s great and all, but it’s nothing I can’t do from my desk! I didn’t consider the applications that weren’t possible before becoming possible. I also didn’t consider the fact that many applications which are technically feasible on the web are just not practical. For example, there’s no technical reason we can’t log our Swarm checkins at the end of the day – but would that application really get any active users?

One example of the shift is that I can actually do some work on the go! It means I can be free from my apartment or office for more time. The first thing I did when getting a smartphone was start checking in on Foursquare (now Swarm). I now have that extra intelligence of 4+ years of location data which help jog my memory to make better decisions in the future. I can log my meals on myFitnessPal as I go through my day if I’m looking to get healthier! And of course there’s Uber and ridesharing! I can see photos in real time of what my friends and family are up to. I’m rarely as bored to death on the subway as I used to be: I’ve got games, books, and podcasts with me at all times. I’m also less bored while exercising which means I can do it more.

Everything I do now requires less planning. But I don’t do less planning, I just do more things. I don’t need to write down addresses and locations, and I don’t need to aimlessly wander the streets of New York to find something interesting (even though I still do).

So the mobile revolution was great, but if we’re starting a passive, hands-free revolution, that sounds even less impressive than mobile did in 2006. I’ve already got the world in my pocket, so does making it a little more convenient mean much? Here I’m going to list a few potential applications. I expect only some will pan out, but there will also be some wildcards not listed.

Payments: This has been proposed for a long time. Might hands free payments be happening? If I’m carrying a package in one hand and (as I have witnessed new parents) a baby in another – can’t I just get out of there without being hassled? I bet that’ll be far more common in the coming years. Also imagine shorter lines and more streamlined checkouts in the real world.

Texting without Typing: I’m including SMS and chat apps in this category. I can use my watch today, but it barely hears me and I have to double-check the text-to-speech. If it’s wrong, I need to go into my phone. That makes it very difficult to have conversations while walking or on the go. Could this be seamless with an earpiece and microphone? Maybe I can get the sensory convenience of voice with the slightly-less-than-real-time benefit of text. This will make working and planning even easier on the go, particularly group planning.

Voice-Enhanced Work: I’m constantly in a position at work where I’m trying to get something done and I need some other piece of information which is buried deep in some other application. For example, suppose I’m writing some code and I need to pull up a conversation I had earlier about how it’s supposed to work. Or I need to add something to my calendar, or check my task list. A lot of these thing cause me to break concentration and it could be a big distraction. Imagine if you can just query for answers using your voice while doing the core work with your keyboard and mouse.

Enhanced Games and Exercise: The addition of audio feeds and commentary has really been a game-changer. I now use online games as a way to keep up with friends. And isn’t the majority of YouTube or something just commentary on games? If the future of computing allows us to use multiple means of communicating and receiving information – I’d expect this to change the way we game as well. I wonder if you’d see immersive worlds where you can interact through gesture, voice, and old-fashioned typing all at the same time.

Augmented Reality: In terms local search, we’ve long imagined this heads-up display that tells us what’s around us. While parts of this are possible to build, I think we’ll see applications with a more narrow focus meant to make day-to-day life easier. Maybe I shouldn’t have to worry about which way I’m walking or driving since I’m given quick, difficult to mistake queues. I think a bunch of things like that which reduce mental load on one task in favor of others is what we’re going to see.

Health Data: Having real-time updates and recommendations on health decisions can have a tremendous impact on quality of life. With next-level resolution on our health data, we can find patterns and start to crack serious diseases. But I hope that day-to-day life also improves. Can these applications help us figure out things like diet, exercise habits, work-life balance, and sleep schedule in order to feel best during the day and get the most out of life? Can it give us early warning if we’re coming down with a cold and need to rest up? The less time spent sick or tired, the better. Most of us aren’t naturally inclined to look after our long term health, and that takes mental energy to get right – if we get real-time reminders perhaps we can both look after our long term health without having to expend so much energy worrying about it.

For all of this applications, this isn’t just a cosmetic change for input, output. This will require very good machine learning for voice and image recognition, smart sensors and databases for detecting context, and algorithms for using that context correctly.

Two big changes I haven’t mentioned in this list but could talk a lot about, are autonomous vehicles and blockchain technology. But I think that autonomous vehicles in particular fit in this framework very well in that they eliminate the thinking and concentration needed for driving and allow us to free up our time for something else.

Blockchain technology on its surface might fit into the payments category, but even though it could revolutionize money I think that the day-to-day act of paying (swipes, taps, blinks, whatever) can be separated from the currency used. I think that the real benefit to bitcoin and ethereum and these other projects when it comes to passive computing is going to be the harnessing of economic players in order to build more proactive and intelligent services. I can write a whole lot more about that!

So there’s my case for passive computing. It fits with the long product cycle narrative. It’s been percolating for a while with some less impressive applications that will expand tremendously and we might be right at the start of the sharp incline. I’ll have to come back to this in a fews years and see whether this looks like it’s going to happen.

Passive Computing: The Hardware

The hardware devices for passive computing are designed to make existing tasks easier and more efficient. Like in previous eras, they are also going to allow us to do things we couldn’t or wouldn’t do with our devices before.

We have already starting to see a cycle of marketable wearables hit the market. The wrist devices created by Apple, Samsung, and Fitbit look like they can make it into the mainstream. I love using the pay function with my Apple Watch – it feels so much more natural than taking out a card or using my humongous iphone plus. The other day, my cousin set up a phone for a group picture. He put phone on one end of the room and we all stared at it. Is there a timer? How long do we have? Nope – it turned out he had the watch-in-hand ready to instruct that thing to snap photos once we were ready.

Another device that will emerge over the next decade is the voice-activated assistant. Here I’m thinking about the Amazon Echo which hangs out in your home. When you call for it, it can answer questions for you on the internet. It excels at frequent, simple queries: the time, the weather, your schedule, or the news. These devices are improving in their ability to connect to audio feeds such radio stations or podcasts.

Included in this category are also the audio personal assistants on our phone: Siri, Cortana, and the awkwardly-named Google now. In Apple’s latest iPhone, for example, Siri is always listening so it acts like a portable Echo. These assistants have felt like beta features for a few years but they are slowly moving forward towards their promise.

Also emerging is the connected car, which should come with it’s own voice assistant. Google glass was before its time, but it’s possible some heads-up display technology will emerge as well.

One piece of hardware that needs improvement is the headphone device – including the microphone. One of the more time-consuming parts of using smartphones on-the-go is finding, untangling, and connecting those headphones. They are also a hazard when it comes to getting caught or being exposed to the elements. Sometimes we just do without them, but putting the phone to one’s ear should really be a thing of the past.

I have several different types of headphones, including a wireless bluetooth pair. The wireless pair is great but it’s just as difficult to put on and pair with devices which causes me to use it only for conversations at home while organizing or gaming. If the rumors are true, Apple is removing the headphone jack in their next phone. I hope that they will use this opportunity to innovate on the headphones themselves.

What’s the value of having the internet available to us in this way? Is it just going to be a little bit faster and a little bit more convenient or is there something more to it?

In tomorrow’s post, I’m going to talk about the the new applications that these devices may allow.

The Era of Passive Computing

A couple weeks ago, Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz wrote an article called “What’s next in computing.” He talks about the product cycle of technology as opposed to the financial cycle. It’s well worth a read if you’re interested in this topic. Marc Cendella (@cenedella) called it a “Landmark Blog Post”.

Chris lays out 3 distinct eras in computing, each with it’s own basic platform. These are:

  1. The PC era, which begins in the 80s with the introduction of personal computers.
  2. The Internet era, beginning in the mid-90s where the most interesting applications began to live on the internet and the browser.
  3. The mobile era, beginning with the introduction of the modern smartphone around the 2007.

Because we are almost 10 years into the mobile era, it is time to ask “what’s next?”. Each computing platform so far has contained the seeds to its successor. Therefore it might be possible to make some predictions.

It is important to point out that there may not be a successor. It is possible that this type of cycle has ended. It is also possible that the next era will contain many different themes and will be tough to pin down to a single phrase. It certainly looks that way when you consider the diversity of computing applications coming our way. We’re looking at everything from the improvements in machine learning to the proliferation of consumer wearables. We are headed towards a world of augmented reality, drones, connected homes, autonomous vehicles, and blockchains.

But after much of this comes to pass, we may look back and find an overall theme that describes the basic way in which we will interact with our technology in this next cycle. Today I am going to make the case for one possibility which I call “passive computing”.

I see passive computing as primarily a change in how think about input and output between our devices and our senses. We’re used to using our hands in order to call up information when we need it, and getting a visual response on a screen. Over the next decade, we are going to find – and are already starting to find – that there are much more natural ways of working, playing, and communicating electronically.

This could be voice, this could be gesture, this could be augmented reality or simply servers anticipating your needs before you have them. The trick is that different types of interaction are going to be more natural in different circumstances. Getting it to be seamless and smooth is going to take not just a lot engineering power, but many iterations of product design through trial and error.

I’m very much open to a better name. At first, I was going to call this “hands-free computing,” but I kept thinking of a cheesy infomercial for a cheap headset. What I’m thinking about is the type of computing and internet access that doesn’t involve pulling out a device, logging in, or otherwise disrupting your life.

Over the next couple of days on this blog, I’m going to consider some aspects of how this might look. Many of the examples I will give are described in Chris Dixon’s article, but what I’m going to do is try to fit it all into the theme of passive computing.