Connecting the Physical World with the Digital World through Apps
We are witnessing an explosion of apps for our handheld devices.
When Apple introduced their iPhone SDK (software development kit) on March 6, 2008, no one had a clue about the tectonic plate-shifting nature of this announcement. In just a few short years the number of apps has mushroomed into a force of nature, radically shifting how products are created, and more importantly, how people in the physical world interface with information in the digital world.
Currently there are over 330,000 apps listed on the iPhone app store, and over 220,000 apps for androids. Facebook boasts over 57,000 apps with over 200,000 active developers exploring ideas for what comes next. And once Google TV hits the marketplace, the number of TV apps will create a uniquely different kind of flashpoint.
We are creative a massive amount of new information every day. But for us as humans to access this information, we need some sort of device, or interface, to make that connection.
As a former human factors engineer at IBM, I tend to view the world through an interface lens. The interface is, without a doubt, the biggest failure point between the products, structures, and systems we create in the physical world and the way we, as humans, interact with them.
Apps, however, create an entirely new approach for adding a dose of human-centric usability to virtually everything we come in contact with. Let me explain…
Over 70% of the world’s population now has a mobile phone. That’s over 5 billion mobile subscribers, and in places like the U.S. and Europe, it’s 9 out of every 10 people. Around the world, children are now more likely to own a mobile phone than own a book. 85% own phones and only 73% own books.
The reason iPhone apps exploded is because the iPhone itself was a wildly popular device that gave people a glimpse of what all might be possible with handheld devices in the future.
Closely following every new Apple product announcement is an intensely loyal user community, filled with talented geeks who are light-years ahead of the rest of the world. So the stage was set. An explosive hit product (sales currently exceeding 90 million phones) coupled with a poised and dedicated developer community and an open invitation to add your own personal touch.
The rest is history. But it is a damn short history. So where do we go from here?
Apps for the Rest of the World
Why do we need to limit our thinking to handheld devices?
Products have traditionally been designed using a top down approach. Smart executives, working with smart engineers, develop a new product and spend millions on marketing and advertising campaigns to tell the world how much they are going to love this new product.
Most of the business community still thinks that way, but the app world is opening up an entirely new toolbox for companies to work with.
Companies and engineers no longer need to have all of the answers. In the future, virtually all mass-market physical products will have an open API (Application Programming Interface) that allows the information world to merge with it.
To explain this further, let’s consider the possibilities for five commonly-used products – cars, TVs, guitars, houses, and shoes.
1.) Future Car Apps
Future cars will be designed around apps much like smart phones today. This is that critical interface between the physical (mechanical) and the digital (software) where the auto manufacturers will eventually start to understand the difference between a top-down design and. a bottom-up design.
My thinking is that every major automotive manufacturer will create their own interface system, and it will be installed across their entire line of cars.
There is no way that Apple could have possibly invented all of the creative apps that users wanted for the iPhone. Similarly, there is no way that Ford can possibly imagine all of the ways people will want to interact with their cars.
Creating an open API for a car naturally comes with its own interesting set of complications, but I for one would like an app that never lets me drive over the speed limit. Well, except in Wyoming, Kansas, and major part of Texas. Those states don’t count.
I would also like an app that will let people know when I’m going to be late for a meeting. (Reads my calendar, calculates arrival times, and knows who to contact.)
In a crowded area, I would love to know where the available parking spaces are, where the cheapest parking is, and how long I can park in any given spot.
I would like a car that finds me rather than me having to search for the car. The car needs to learn from me, know my likes and dislikes, recommend restaurants, theaters, and cultural events. It needs to understand my problems and do everything within its power to alleviate my anxiety.
This is the kind of car I would love to own, but it doesn’t come from a few smart guys in Detroit trying to make educated guesses. It comes from letting the world’s best and brightest add mosaic tiles of brilliance to every newly born vehicle.
2.) Future TV Apps
The television world is being backed into a corner with their stogy, heavy-handed approach to set-top boxes and TV design.
TV apps will finally allow us to use keyboards and a variety of other interface devices to find the shows we want. We will no longer be restricted to the existing channel list. Rather, we will have access to any type of programming on the net.
We will be able to dial-in exactly how many ads we can tolerate, and during election season, we can turn them off entirely. Having no ads will cost us money, but for most of us it will be well worth it.
Rather than watching a movie with subtitles, we will be able to have it translated to whatever language we want.
Every program will be pause-able.
Since watching television is as much about context as it is about content, apps will be created that allow us to change the mood of the room, reorient the surround sound, noise-cancel the neighbor’s barking dog, and even order pizza without having to talk on the phone.
Perhaps the most popular app will also be the most hated one, an app that turns every TV into a working karaoke machine. *Sigh*
3.) Future Guitar Apps
The guitar is currently the world’s most popular musical instrument and also the one most likely to embrace a rapid transformation.
A guitar interface will be similar to an iPhone or Android, only the device will somehow be integrated into the instrument. Similar to cars, major manufacturers like Gibson and Fender will create a common interface for all of their guitars.
Tied to the right controls, guitar apps will provide self-tuning capabilities and, with the touch of a button, instantly switch to a different pitch during the middle of a song. They will monitor the number of notes played and the accuracy of the performance. With a flip-out display, they will serve as a teleprompter with an instant display of music, words, play lists, and other visual cues.
In a live performance, this type of interface will give guitarist tools to “read the room” with meters showing sound distribution, comparative volumes, and tonal qualities. Working as a master control unit, musicians will be able to change pedals, switch devices, and adjust reverb and distortions.
In a practice environment, aspiring musicians will be able to jam remotely with people half-way around the world, add in other instruments, and even create the feel of a live stage performance.
4.) Future House Apps
Houses are our biggest investments, yet we have no standard interface for them. Designers that appreciate the public’s diverse individuality will drive the engines of home innovation. People want to decide for themselves what is important and what is not.
Smart homes of the future will begin to resemble living organisms, and countless apps will serve as the building blocks for them.
A living house will be aware of its surroundings, its content, and everything flowing in and out of its structure. Awareness will be achieved by adding sensory and monitoring capabilities that extend capabilities both internally and externally.
Appliances will imitate body organs, serving distinct purposes, but carefully crafted to coordinate and serve the function of the larger organism, the home. The outer walls of a house already can be thought of as human skin that shields us from the elements. Walls will be sensitive to temperature shifts and react to external changes, and will become alternately porous and protective.
A living home will form a symbiotic relationship with its occupants. This kind of home offers a superior environment that will enhance human performance and efficiencies, managing the inflows and outflows from both a resource-conscious and human-centric perspective.
For those who want automated environmental controls, security systems and lighting. The components of the smart home interface will include:
- Monitoring and control of all inputs – water, electricity, air, people, purchased items, etc
- Monitoring and control of all outputs – sewage, trash, etc
- Monitoring and control of all storage – water, electricity, food, information, and more.
The smart home interface will be a challenge of engineering, a challenge of design, and a challenge of inspiration. But the opportunity is far too great for this to go untouched much longer.
5.) Future Shoe Apps
The three areas where our physical bodies come into contact with our physical surroundings the most are the beds that we sleep in, the chars that we sit in, and the shoes that we walk in. Each of these product areas are prime candidates for involving app developers.
Our shoes are a very personal extension of who we are. As such, the smart shoes of the future will monitor your gate, record every step, map your daily journeys by giving you a sort of fitness diary, and in an emergency, will let others know where you are.
With the right kind of shoe, the shoe will have the ability to self-adjust to your feet and the surrounding conditions. When your feet get too hot, additional pores or air vents will open. Over the course of a long run, the shoes will adjust to reduce fatigue, slippage, and internal stress points. When walking in water, the shoes will seal themselves up to keep your feet dry.
Other Prime Candidates for Apps
The intent of this paper is to expand your thinking about app possibilities. So let’s step a bit further outside the envelope of conventional thinking.
- Dental Implants – A dental implant with a series of embedded sensors and wireless access will open the doors to accurately monitoring such things as calorie intake, food composition, your body’s reaction to certain types of food, breathing problems, and sleep issues. It may also record your voice, analyze speech patterns, help control addictions, and with an imbedded transmitter, allow you to talk on a cellphone without any visible external device.
- Rapid Courseware Builder – Education is a system primed for a revolution. My sense is that some young person will create a well-devised online courseware builder, built around a templated process that allows any topical expert to build their own courses, and people anywhere in the world to take classes whenever they wish. This type of site has the potential to mushroom into the world’s largest web property. Working with a vibrant app-builder community, a tiny software company has the potential to “fire the proverbial shot heard ‘round the world,” and our system for education will be forever changed.
- Whole Body Interface – Our bodies are radiating information, yet we have no convenient way of capturing and making sense of these data streams. A well-crafted interface device used in connection with the right combination of monitoring, stimulation, intake, and adjustments will have a dramatic effect on everything from daily performance, to health improvements, to human aging. We may be a long ways from the super beings that science fiction writers like to talk about, but we may be closer than anyone thinks.
Our next door neighbors rarely connect with us on the same wavelength, and the way I see our app-inspired future may be time-shift ahead of what we are prepared to deal with, but consider this. The next time you walk into a store to purchase a BBQ grill, physical fitness equipment, a new office chair, a bicycle, boat, pair of skis, or an eReader, consider what it would be like to also have over 100,000 downloadable apps that could be downloaded into the product.
One person’s musings may very well be another’s inspiration for building the next killer app.
Even with the number of apps approaching the all-important one-million milestone, it is still a fledgling industry with a very short track record.
In July 2010, Google announced a beta product called App Inventor to help streamline the development process. This will be one of many innovations along this line that allow non-programmers to become the app designers of the future.
For over 100 years we have had visions of how robots will dramatically alter our lives, yet they have only made tiny inroads. One of the primary reasons for this is because robot designers have a very difficult time imagining how people will use them.
A well-designed robot with an open API has the potential to change all that. People could invent their own uses, and a vast robot marketplace might instantly spring to life.
Color me optimistic, but opening the Pandora’s Box to the app world is giving us the keys to an unimaginable future, and the best part is that we all get to participate in building it.