Side Views

A looking glass into the post-smartphone era — John C. Abell

April 08, 2012

APRIL 8 — I was all grown up already when the Internet became a big deal, scarcely two decades ago. I was like a kid in a candy store. Still, I’ve only had a couple of heart-stopping moments in those 20 years in which everything has changed.

My heart skipped a beat (along with probably only thousands of others) when I downloaded Mosaic, the first Web browser, on the first day it was released. It consistently froze up. But that small, terribly flawed piece of software was really a time portal, showing me the future, and I could barely breathe.

Two years ago I got my hands on the first iPad on the first day it went on sale. My unboxing was unceremonious because I had to rush and show it off during a couple of TV interviews. But when I got home late on that Saturday in April and finally had a chance to put it through its paces, it took my breath away. I was a kid again: full of wonder and utterly immune to negativity.

Call me childish, but I had the same primal reaction to the video, and the reporting of my Wired colleague Steven Levy, on Google’s Project Glass. As Levy writes, Project Glass is “an augmented reality system that will give users the full range of activities performed with a smartphone — without the smartphone. Instead, you wear some sort of geeky prosthetic (one of those pictured is reminiscent of the visor that Geordi La Forge wore on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but Google has also been experimenting with a version that piggybacks on regular spectacles).”

The augmented reality features in Glass aren’t new. Bionic Eye brought AR to the iPhone in 2009: You held up the phone at eye level and nearby points of interest floated through the camera’s lens. Sekai Camera, an augmented reality smartphone app, not only provides a heads-up display of information but also adds a social element. Yelp tossed in Monocle, another augmented reality feature, as an Easter egg in its app. Heck, in December 2009 Wired highlighted the seven best augmented reality apps for iPhone and Android.

Some people who actually pay close attention to these things say we are maybe a generation away from commercial, indispensable AR glasses. Project Glass isn’t even in beta, and there is no word when that might occur.

But here is what I saw when I peered into Project Glass: a glimpse into a post-smartphone future. I have no idea if the project, from Google’s pure research Google (x) division, will make it out of the lab. Or if someone else will beat them to it in a big commercial way. Or if people will take to wearing these glasses with any more fervour than they have those home 3D specs. Or if pesky legislators will ban them after someone gets hit by a bus while looking at a pop-up display instead of oncoming traffic.

But the key to innovation is the identification of friction — the stupid things that slow you down, like extra clicks, deep menus and rotary diallers — and the acceleration of convenience: dissolving real pain barriers, even as those barriers recede into barely perceptible speed bumps. This is not only why smartphones and tablets took off but also why Apple’s devices in particular do so well. Ease of use, intuitive transitions, “obvious” functionality: Victory goes to he who paves the smoothest path to the task at hand.

None of this will happen tomorrow. But something tells me we are witnessing a new paradigm. I went out on a limb a couple of years ago and argued that tablets could be the smartphone killer. So far this bold prediction hasn’t come true. But I can see how easy it would be to slip on some transitions glasses — clear glass or prescription — and have that be our connection with the outside world instead of a mini-computer in our pockets. — Reuters

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