When imagining the future, it's easy to project present trends onto that future. Since multitouch displays are everywhere today, our conceptual fantasies often look like Corning's A Day Made of Glass -- where everything is a multitouch device.
Apple's future, however, could look very different. Apple isn't attached to multitouch displays any more than it was attached to the mouse and keyboard in the 1980s. Multitouch displays provide the simplest, most human way to use a computer right now. Ten years from now, there could be a better way.
The Invisible Computer
Everything that Apple does makes computers less and less like computers. The company wants technology to slip behind the curtain, leaving a transparent layer between you and your content.
As technology advances, so will our ability to conceal that technology. The ultimate expression of this will be an invisible computer. It won't be invisible like Wonder Woman's jet, but we'll be able to use it without seeing or touching it. The keys to this invisible future could be Siri and a wearable accessory.
Having a virtual assistant is great, but what if you didn't have to mess with a device at all? What if you could simply say the words -- at any time or place -- and immediately hear the information that you're asking for?
All that's needed is one small accessory, akin to a piece of jewelry. Its sole purpose will be to connect to an iPhone and provide "invisible" access to Siri.
Imagine a tiny device, like the one pictured to the right. Let's call it the iButton. It can serve as a tie tack, necklace, or ring. iButton connects (via Bluetooth) to your iPhone, which is hidden in your pocket. This accessory is constantly listening for a keyword, like "Siri." When that word is spoken, it signals your iPhone to activate Siri, which springs into action, ready to serve your every need. Siri's response is spoken through a tiny speaker on the accessory.
This is similar to what the iPhone 4S does today, but it's more advanced. Siri's A.I. will be superior, and its voice recognition will have a higher success rate. The iPhone will have LTE (or something faster), so network problems will be minimized. The biggest step forward, though, will be that you won't have to touch anything. The whole dialogue will be started, performed, and completed with only your voice.
Siri in 2012 creates the illusion of an (imperfect) assistant that lives in your iPhone. Future Siri with iButton will create the illusion of a brilliant assistant that lives in the air.
Apple's Perfect Computer
This will be the ultimate embodiment of Apple's values: it makes technology invisible. You talk to the air, and the air answers. It's as simple as a user experience can get.
Imagine all the tasks that could be done by speaking to this invisible assistant. Navigate to the store, edit your shopping list, message your friend, and reply to an email ... all without touching anything. It might be awkward in a crowd, but with a little privacy, it could offer unprecedented simplicity.
Not Far Off?
On a technical level, iButton could be made right now. Since most of the processing would happen on the iPhone, the accessory wouldn't be much more than a Bluetooth headset. Battery life and quality speakers would be the biggest challenges. Any device that's always listening for a keyword will quickly lose juice. Additionally, speakers on such a small device made today would sound tinny.
Give it time. When battery life and high-quality nano speakers advance, look out for the iButton. Right now, someone at Apple is brainstorming new ways to take the technology out of technology. What better angle than to turn the entire experience into a conversation with a disembodied voice?
Photo by Will Shanklin
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