When Apple introduced the iPad 2 in 2011, it laid out a noble goal for the future of technology.
"Technology alone is not enough," an Apple ad proclaimed. "Faster, thinner, lighter, those are all good things, but when technology gets out of the way, everything becomes more delightful, even magical. That's when you leap forward."
With the iPad, the notion of technology getting out of the way meant designing a computer so easy to use that the apps took center stage. But the result was in some sense counterproductive; we've become so sucked into our phones and tablets that technology is actually getting in the way of the real world.
It's not going to be like that forever. In talking to leaders from some of the most innovative companies in consumer electronics, it's clear that the next five years will represent an attempt to bring us back to reality. This may seem paradoxical, but a proliferation of wearable devices, smart-home gizmos, smart cameras, and augmented-reality systems will exist largely to save us from our screens.
The cynical way to view wearable technology is as yet another intrusion—another set of screens to keep us separated from the physical world. But Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft's corporate vice president of devices and studios, doesn't see it that way. He believes these devices, more than ever, will help technology fade into the background.
Mehdi gives a basic example that applies today: Instead of sounding an alarm, many fitness trackers can wake you with a gentle vibration to avoid disturbing your spouse. It's a seemingly minor feature, but one that takes the focus off the device itself and onto the people around you. "That's an interesting thing where people are taking a personal device and saying, 'Well, the win is for my spouse, not for me,'" Mehdi says.
Moving forward, Mehdi sees devices like Microsoft's recently announced HoloLens as a way to stay present in the physical world without completely shutting out technology. The still-experimental headset works by projecting 3-D images into a head-mounted visor so they appear to be part of your natural surroundings.
Imagine a scenario in which two coworkers collaborate on a 3-D model projected into their headsets, or someone walking down the street who can see information about surrounding shops and restaurants. Mehdi points out that the original codename for HoloLens was "analog," for the way it blends with the physical world.
"If you have a device that you're wearing, and information is being overlaid on top of that, now you're back in the real world, and you're interacting, and you're not missing what's going on around you, because your head's there," Mehdi says.
On a more practical level, these "mixed reality" devices—as Mehdi calls them—will pave the way for more natural input methods like gesture control and eye tracking, which never quite made sense on tablets and laptops. "A lot of things become more human, and the technology kind of goes back out of the way, and we think that's a big opportunity," Mehdi says.
Wearable tech will also play a starring role in smart homes—at least if we expect them to offer the kind of breezy convenience that tech companies have been promising.
Dennis Miloseski, Samsung's U.S. head of design, describes the dream scenario: You pull into your garage and your wearable connects to your Wi-Fi network, which in turn triggers your hallway lights and queues up some music on the living room stereo. "I like to call it the automatic future," he says.
But he also notes how easily things can go wrong. Maybe your spouse is sleeping on the couch and doesn't want the lights to come on. That's why it'll be so important to have intelligence that figures out what you want, along with some sort of way to confirm your intentions on a wearable device.
"We're sort of in this archaic age right now, where we're in this raw form of data readout, meaning, 'this is how many steps you've taken,' or 'this is your heart rate,' or the light is on or off,'" Miloseski says. "I think the next magical innovation is how do we take that data and actually create a form of valuable experience of that data."
Again, it all comes back to getting the technology out of the way so the user doesn't have to think about logistics or shuffle through a bunch of apps just to have a fully functional smart home. Miloseski likens it to starting a car or turning on a light switch, in that the complexity is completely hidden from the user.
"I think that we will hit a point in time where, when we think of technology and devices and gadgets and all these things, when they actually impact the social fabric and they become an essential part of how we live our lives, they will become invisible," Miloseski says.
Photography might be the one area where Apple's vision of getting technology out of the way seems fully realized. Smartphone cameras are no longer just a quick and dirty image capture tool; they're the best way to take photos that you can immediately touch up and share with the world.
But as wearable cameras like the GoPro and drone-based ones like DJI's Phantom enable new kinds of photography, they've yet to receive phone-like smarts. Expect that to change in the coming years as capturing and sharing footage from these devices starts to feel as effortless as using the camera in your pocket.
"If I think specifically about us, and the things that we get super-jazzed about, that's a big piece of it, it's the whole solving of pain points from when you first capture content to seamlessly sharing it," says CJ Prober, GoPro's senior vice president of software and services.
Today, when you capture footage on a GoPro, you’ve got to load it into your computer—itself a time-consuming process—and spend hours looking for highlights and turning them into a YouTube-worthy video. But in the future, a wearable camera might tap into gyroscopes and accelerometers to flag exciting moments, or use machine learning algorithms to sniff out quality footage. It could even tie into other wearable sensors to measure things like jump height or speed, and bring those details straight into the video.
"It's really important to not think of video and photo capture as an independent thing to do on the device," Prober says. "It's really, 'What do you do with the content when it's captured?'"
That question will become even more important as new tools like 360-degree cameras become available. Suddenly, you have a lot more footage to work with, which means cameras will need to get smarter at helping you tell the best story.
Drone camera makers like DJI face a slightly different challenge, but with similar overall goals. In the near term, it'll need to make the actual flight mechanisms smarter so that drones can safely navigate on their own. But once that happens, and the drones themselves become cheaper and more commoditized, it'll open up all kinds of new smart applications.
"There could be a really rich app economy that's task-driven instead of product-driven," says Eric Cheng, DJI's general manager in San Francisco.
A basic example, he said, would be some kind of live-blogging application that steers a drone as it follows you down the street. Or maybe you'd have an application that can automatically capture and reconstruct a scene in 3-D using cameras. "You can imagine a whole lot of functionality moving into the domain-specific and being a lot smarter," Cheng says.
None of this is to suggest that the tools we use today are going to vanish, or that you'll never have occasion to get sucked into your phone, tablet, or computer for a while.
Rick Osterloh, president of Motorola Mobility, now part of China's Lenovo, says that if anything, the smartphone will remain at the center of all these new smart devices. "It's resonated so well because it's actually well-designed, for both utility and a critical feature, which is carryability and pocketability," he says.
While Osterloh imagines we will see some new technological twists for the smartphone in the form of folding screens and superfast charging, the biggest advances will come from all the different types of data a phone can gather and interpret. Think of it kind of like the Assist feature in Motorola's current phones, but with more automation and intelligence.
"That is a pretty interesting area writ large, we believe, for the future, where the combination of context and probably sensors will give you a user experience that just helps your phone adapt to what you want," Osterloh says, "like the magical 'do what I want' machine that people in computer science have been trying to develop for decades."
Likewise, Microsoft's Mehdi doesn't see mouse-and-keyboard devices going away, since there's nothing better for tasks like writing or data entry. "I don't think this is like tapes and CDs that go away," he says. "I think it's more like TV and radio, that don't actually go away. They just become another part of the media that you consume, and over time they kind of get tuned for the use case."
The question, then, is how we're actually going to make room for this expanding roster of wearables, drones, headsets, and smart-home devices. At some point, it might be too much to wrangle, but as Medhi points out, it wasn't long ago that owning just a cell phone and a computer was hard to fathom. People make room for more devices when there's sufficient value.
In other words, making all that technology disappear may only work if we own a whole lot more of it.