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Your Computer In 2020

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By Mark Rolston,


What's the most fascinating shift that computing is creating in our lives? You might think it's just "smaller, better, faster," but there is an even more dramatic story about how computing is changing who we are as people and a society.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, the idea of managing two distinct lives has become common for many of us. We have always had the first life--our physical existence, the one we can't escape until we die. But today many of us have also adapted a second life. We have long had the opportunity to invent ourselves through media, historically through writing. We could invent a new self. Yet our first lives remained dominant for most of us.

But today this second life has grown with such scale and ubiquity that it now competes with our first life. We do this using all of the digital tools that keep us connected with people we don't actually connect with--using Facebook, e-mail, texting, Twitter, IM and the myriad of other digital media. We can deliberately create a unique version of our self in the digital world.

Video: Life At Your Fingertips

What's profound is that this new self can take on an outsized importance and fidelity. Most of us know people in these digital worlds that we have never met. Yet we feel as if we know them and are connected to them. The balance between these two lives is rapidly shifting as technology offers ever-richer second life experiences.

This increasing importance of our second lives is making computing even more central to us. Computing no longer means "that PC in the den." Instead computing is an intimate extension of ourselves--something people feel naked without. This phenomenon is being driven by radical changes to the human-computer interface. We've been using a method for interacting with computers that was invented in the 1960s, but over the next 10 years we will see a dramatic change.

What started this trend was a breakthrough in touch-screen technology. Touch allows us to interact with computers in the same way we've been interacting with physical things for millions of years. It's the original interface. Unfortunately using a computer currently requires a proficiency and immersion in the computer's own interface; we must learn to work in the computer's world of scroll bars, list controls, push-buttons, mice and keyboards.

But we don't live there. We exist in a three-dimensional world. Why can't the computer come to our world rather than us to its? The problem with computing today is that it still requires computers. Even with the iPhone, with its beautiful interface, we are still interacting within its world on its terms.

Computers are essentially blind. They are a resource for mountains of information, yet they lack even the most basic context to our physical space. They don't know where they are, who's sitting in front of them or any other basic information about their surroundings. Looking ahead, we will teach a computer to understand and interact with us in our world. S

Stanley Kubrick introduced us to this concept with the intelligent computer HAL in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The space travelers interacted with HAL not by sitting in front of a workstation, but by just being in the room with the computer. All fears of computers taking over the world aside, today HAL remains a truly provocative idea: the computer having an awareness of itself and the people who interact with it in the 3-D space we live in.

Microsoft's upcoming Project Natal is a powerful example of this. Based on a camera that sees into your living room, the technology lets players control games with their body movements without holding on to any hardware. It allows us to converse with the computer and drives a new idea of mobile computing: not merely smaller devices, but no devices. That is true mobility.

Would it be a stretch to say that this shift is as big as the Internet itself? The Internet was an explosion in the availability of information and connectivity. The other half of the story is how we get to that information, how we use it. This is computing in context, a world where we interact with computers in our own native space, using our own native language--the full range of our verbal and physical gestures and emotions we have spent 60 million years perfecting.

This leads to the notion of the body becoming what computer nerds would call a "node," an active participant in the computing landscape. Many of us already post our physical location online for everyone to see--an obvious example of the potential "nodeness" of people. But apply this to health and we can see a dramatic effect.

There are mass-market examples today, like AirStrip (a product we at Frog Design helped create), which remotely monitors patients in the hospital and sends vital information directly to a doctor's or nurse's smart phone. This is part of a growing market of devices that are attached to the body for monitoring purposes, allowing you to transmit your health data to your doctor or a Web site. Within 10 years, it will be as simple to publish and monitor what's going on with your body as it is to share your Facebook status with the world.

What it means to know something or someone is changing. Picture a world when we can have all the information available about someone on the Internet accessible instantly, not merely through a computer screen, but as a sort of heads-up display, as an overlay to what we normally see. This kind of display has long been the domain of jet pilots and Terminators, but we can easily imagine a future when information-augmented vision is applied to ordinary life.

Just recently an employee relocated to our Austin office from New York and was looking for a home. And like most of us, he was not merely looking for a nice house, but trying to find the right neighborhood, the right street. In the past we would get in our cars and drive to see each of these locations. But he did his exploring through Google Maps--using essentially satellite images and street--to view photos, to virtually fly around the city and walk up and down streets to get a feel for the area.

He was, in essence, house-hunting via satellite. How long will it be before we can see through satellites, no longer having to sit in front of our computers, but by using our very eyes, perhaps choosing alternate views as a sportscaster chooses camera angles for a game.

Fundamentally these changes represent not only evolutions in computing, but changes in us--in our notion of what it means to be human. When computing becomes deeply integrated into our knowing, our thinking, our decision processes, our bodies and even our consciousness, we are forever changed. We are becoming augmented. Our first and second lives will be forever entwined.

Mark Rolston is chief creative officer at Frog Design, a global design and innovation firm based in San Francisco.

Video: Life At Your Fingertips

Mark Rolston, / Yahoo news

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