January 30, 2014 at 1:02 pm

You Can Relax: The Future Is Not All About Staring at Screens

I’ve spent the better waking part of the past 17 years reading and writing words on a screen, which is fine. It’s my job, and I like it. Lots of us stare at screens for much of the day for our job, school, or whatever — and then we watch another, larger screen that night, while thumbing through status updates on yet another, smaller screen.

That’s a lot of screens, and now they’re showing up in cars too, which will soon drive themselves so we can look at screens throughout entire commutes, road trips, or trips to the grocery store (side note: This could do weird things to music).

Many people are understandably concerned that screens are removing us from the so-called real world. There’s some truth to that. As Lauren Collins observed in November’s The New Yorker, there’s something dismaying about sitting in a cafe and noticing that literally every other person in there is looking down at their phone. It’s not that you’d necessarily strike up a conversation with them if they weren’t — it’s just that the bottom has dropped out of that shared experience. It’s a subtle thing, but it really adds up, because people aren’t just doing this in cafes.

We’ll probably always have displays, unless we evolve past having or needing eyes, which seems unlikely. It’s all that non-essential screen-staring that rankles us so — when other people do it, and even when we do it ourselves, which is why people write so many articles about how to beat Facebook addiction.

Collins went so far as to cite a definition of being in love as not feeling the urge to check your phone when you’re around a certain person.

This photo (which could be of any of us, so I’m not picking on this guy other than for the hat) symbolizes What Is Wrong With Everything — not his maybe-on-a-ski-slope-but-probably-not-even-there headgear, but the overt screen staring, phone held directly in front of the face, as if to replace the physical world:

staring at cellphones

It’s gotten so bad that people are leaving San Francisco because everyone else is looking at their phones.

“Seemingly overnight, [San Francisco] has filled up with phone-scrolling, blank-faced wanderers (particularly in my neighborhood),” said The Oh Sees‘ Jon Dwyer to Pitchfork by way of explaining why he moved to L.A. “I prefer a taco to a vintage glasses store any day. So yeah, time to shove off. Seems like a lot of artists, visual and musical, are hightailing it out.”

We’ll leave the tacos, artists, and vintage glasses for SFist or whoever; let’s focus instead on these “phone-scrolling, blank-faced wanderers” who are driving the fun people out of a notoriously fun city. Dwyer has a point, and not just about San Francisco. You see this sort of thing everywhere, and it’s off-putting, even if we only notice it when we look up from our own phones.

Luckily, the future of technology is not all about staring at screens, but quite the opposite:

Non-Screen Alerts and Feedback

The first wearable technology, in the sense that the word is used today, that I remember encountering were a pair of earrings at CES maybe ten years ago. They were gimmicky. There was also a cufflink version. Nobody had smartphones back then, so all these things did was light up when the wearer received incoming calls. That idea becomes much more powerful with a smartphone that’s more capable, in many ways, than computers were ten years ago. People are working on wristbands for couples; tap one and your significant other feels the tap on their wrist.

You might as well learn it now: “xox” is -..- — -..- in Morse Code.

Vibrating wristbands are also available for controlling music playback, but once wearable technology really takes off, we’ll be able to get all kinds of unobtrusive alerts. Your left wristband just vibrated — uh oh, a band you love is reuniting and tickets just went on sale. Quick! Click the button on that wristband to open the purchase page on your phone. Buy the tickets. Now you can put your phone away much faster, and get on with whatever you were doing.

The next day, your right wrist vibrates three times — that story you posted on reddit must just have reached 100 up-votes. What’s that on the wall? It’s not too much of a stretch, given existing and emerging technology that is real, to imagine that when someone likes your playlist on a music service, you’ll see a little projection from your pico smartphone projector against whatever wall(s) is/are nearby — or why not, later, a hologram — perhaps showing a heart symbol with a note in it, the name of the playlist, and the name of the app.

All of that would happen without you checking your phone, or even looking at a screen for that matter. The feedback from wearable technology will replace, and hopefully not just augment, some of our obsessive desire to check our phones every five seconds. That’s on the output side.

Other developments will obviate the need to input as much on our screens all the time.

Non-Screen Controls

We hate to keep trotting out this tired old example, but it’s still the best demonstration of what would be nice about using dedicated hardware around the home to do stuff like Thumb Up or Ban a song, without having your smartphone continually get in the way of your apps:

More networked controls around our home, clothes, sports equipment, backpacks, and whatever else you can think of will mean less staring at screens in order to make something simple happen.

More Sensors

Fitness wristbands have already entered the mainstream. Nike makes one, and turned a whole building and the dance club inside of it into a music app to announce it two years ago. We once saw a guy use his heartbeat to control how fast Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” played, at a Music Hack Day – and now that idea, too, is set to enter the mainstream, as crazy as that might sound, with electronics giant LG unveiling heartbeat-sensing earphones.

Location, heartbeat, temperature, speed, jogging pace, swimming pace, biking pace, and even brainwaves — all of these can be used to input information into our machines so that we don’t have to stand there pawing away at a little just to get appropriate music to play, or figure out where that new ramen place is while we’re riding our bicycles around.

On-Demand Displays

We mentioned the pico projectors and hopefully holograms that will appear out of nowhere so that we don’t have to check our phones all the time to see when stuff is happening, but Google Glass and other less obvious examples are also showing up to let us fire up a display whenever we need one, leaving our phones in our pockets. Flip-down, headmounted displays are showing up too, so you can get a screen when you need one, not look at it because you have one.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr/Ed Yourdon)

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