DESIGNING A BETTER INTERFACE WITH OUR TECHNOLOGY
Imagine if our electronic devices could be directed by our minds, doing exactly what we want as effortless as moving or breathing. This is not something we are likely to experience in the near future, but it’s a possible scenario we are moving closer to all the time. This is the goal of the ideal user interface, allowing a technology to be used with a minimal requirement of attention, effort and time paid to the process of how to operate it. Traditionally restricted to buttons, switches and other manual inputs, the world of user interfacing is currently in the midst of a very exciting renaissance as new technologies allow designers to completely reimagine the ways in which people and products interact. Through continued innovation and development, we can expect near-future technology to feel far more intuitive and natural to use than it already is.
Above all else, the biggest change to expect from devices a decade from now will be a greatly improved ability to use them without occupying our hands and eyes. Currently, it’s nearly impossible to use many of a smartphone’s features without rendering ourselves figuratively and literally out of touch with our immediate surroundings. While voice control is currently an option, there are limits to how extensively people are willing to use this in public settings. One element of user interfaces that will likely see extensive growth is the increased use of haptics — the science of touch — in technologies that can produce tactile feedback. Modern day devices can provide a rudimentary level of haptic feedback by vibrating, but next-generation technologies already in development are able to add a whole new layer of utility by generating textures and other sensations against a user’s fingers directly on the screen. By assigning shapes or textures to certain contacts or notifications, incoming calls and messages can be silently screened in your pocket by touch without pulling your focus away from the real world around you. This technology would also provide a big advantage for typing on a touchscreen eyes-free just as efficiently as on a device with physical buttons.
Another trend that we can expect to see more of in the future, although not a new technology in itself, is the inclusion of fingerprint scanning on some newer smartphones. Instead of having to remember and correctly type a password, biometric authentication provides an increased level of security while also minimizing inconvenience to the user. In the years to come, fingerprints, facial recognition and iris scanners hold to potential to replace username/ password combinations altogether as our devices automatically unlock for us the moment we touch or look at them. The critical flaws that might hold back widespread adaptation of biometric authentication are privacy concerns and the inability to re-issue new security credentials. Unlike a traditional password, a person’s physical features cannot be easily changed if their security features are somehow compromised. That said, in a world where convenience seems to outweigh security for many consumers, it’s very likely that instant and effortless biometric authentication will become a common feature of electronic products.
While it may seem that every new feature could conceivably contribute to an improved user interface, the details of its implementation are critical to each concept’s success or failure. The recently discontinued Google Glass is a great example of a revolutionary concept that may have created more problems than it solved. The promise to free up our hands and eyes from our devices was very alluring, but the sole reliance on voice control and a button mounted beside the user’s head made Google Glass much less graceful than hoped for in everyday use. Also, the aesthetic and privacy issues of having a face-mounted camera didn’t help its popularity either. That said, Google claims that the initial release of Glass was experimental in nature, and no doubt lessons learned from it will be used to inform the designs of the devices of tomorrow. Indeed, developers outside Google have already started putting their own improved spins on Glass, including an adaptation that can replace the need for voice commands with gestures on a wirelessly tethered smart watch.
There are countless other ideas in development that hold great promise for changing how we interact with our technology, but at the end of the day it’s possible that some of the most important user interface developments to come may have little to do with new technological capabilities and instead more to do with how current technologies can be used to maximum effect. There will possibly always be a need for some good old-fashioned buttons on our phones, and although the keyboard and computer mouse may take a backseat it is unlikely they will disappear entirely any time soon. Your future smartphone will likely feel more intuitive and natural to use than your current one, but it will also still retain many of the time-tested features already in use today.
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