A billion possibilities in your pocket.

Elliott King
on 08 December 2016

Three big changes that will change the way we see the world are coming in 2017.

Arthur C Clarke

In 1973 Arthur C. Clarke pointed out that any sufficiently advanced technology is going to be indistinguishable from magic. We live in times of real magic.

In 2017 the iPhone will be ten years old. It was one of those Cambrian Explosions that led to an almost immediate and radical change to the way we viewed the digital word. Even though our technology habits have changed massively since then, there haven’t been any seismic shifts on the same scale — it’s been incremental — but 2017 will be the year we get another one. Maybe two or three.

There’s a powerful argument that the iPhone has been a catalyst for as much social damage as it has for progress, and the next major tech shift will doubtless give us a lot of cause for concern too.

Technology will continue to become more immersive, and will penetrate ever more deeply into our lives, but if we harness the positive possibilities we can, perhaps, use it to create better things. As some old Roman noted, “What stands in the way becomes the way.”

There are three major changes happening now that will explode in scale in 2017. This isn’t a long-term vision of a sunlit Utopia, these are things that are happening right now in late 2016, so it is a good time to think what tools we can build with them to change the world for better.

We’ll start small and work up.

1. The keyboard is going.

It’s going to be a little while before the QWERTY way of doing things goes forever, but perhaps not as long as you’d think. Using voice commands rather than your fingers is here and growing very fast. It’s hard to argue against the fact that talking is far more natural than typing, and it is truly empowering.

Choosing music hands-free while driving, or Googling recipes while your hands are covered in quinoa and goji berry juice are nice, but imagine the power of exploration, education and liberation it gives to the illiterate, the physically restricted, people with dyslexia, the blind, the very young, the very old and the infirm.

Voice control also allows devices to be designed without a physical interface, freeing up form from the slavery of function. Amazon’s Alexa/Echo is available now and has no screen or keyboard. You don’t have to touch your phone to call up Siri or Google’s nameless Assistant. That gives designers a whole new range of freedoms.

The new buzzword in user interface design is ‘Zero UI’. They say that if you’re designing an app that can’t be controlled by gestures or voice, you’re designing for the past. Don’t laugh at Tom Cruise’s stylised waving in Minority Report. You will be doing it too before the decade is out.

Snap’s Spectacles

2. The oblong screen is going too.

Our eyeballs are round. Our field of vision is very round. Why on earth should we limit everything within a rectangle? Man’s earliest pictures were only restricted by the edge of the cave walls, and then by a frame over which you’d stretch a canvas and we’ve been tightening up ever since. But not anymore.

Snapchat’s ‘spectacles’ are round. The camera is round. The images and video it creates are round. If you haven’t noticed kids wearing them, you will. Next summer at the latest.

Spend a little while with YouTube’s 360 videos. Move around in them with a mouse and then think how much better they’d be if you could do that with just a gesture, or just by moving your eyeballs. Imagine how incredibly immersive it would be to watch them without the restrictions of an oblong screen.

Virtual Reality headsets are available in high street stores and top of the range Android phones have Augmented Reality (AR) capabilities now. Pokemon Go was a cheap and simple AR hors d’oeuvre, but the Pandora’s box of possibilities is wide open now.

See-through is here.

Google aborted their ‘Glass’ glasses in 2015 because neither we nor the technology were really ready for them, just as Microsoft and Apple ditched their Tablet PCs and Newton at the turn of the last century. But the next massive ‘iPad moment’ will happen in 2017 and it will be see-through.

There are well-informed suggestions that the next major new iPhone will be almost entirely a clear slab of glass. Why? Because you’ll spend more time looking through it, than at it.

Magic Leap, the most talked about AR company will launch its products in 2017, and even if they can’t launch on an Apple-esque scale, an iPhone designed for AR will totally change the way everyone views the digital world.

The promise AR is delivering is that you can view information layered on top of the ‘real’ world, freeing any interface from the confines of a box. What could you do with that?

3. Your computer is not your computer.

It’s a bit of a simplification to make a point, but your smartphone or laptop don’t really do that much anymore. The BBC’s Broadcasting House didn’t live in your transistor radio and most of the computing is not done on our computers. Our devices are now more like high-speed processors for information coming from elsewhere, which means that you can access MIT’s entire academic library and curriculum from a smartphone, in a Mumbai slum.

In the ten years since iPhone one, the spectacular growth has not been in our devices’ storage capacity, it’s been in the speed at which graphics and software can be processed, and the ever-shrinking size of the chips needed to handle streaming information.

A billion possibilities in your pocket.

The iPod stored music files on its physical hard drive — you literally had ‘1000 songs in your pocket’. Now, Apple Music and Spotify store the music on their servers in the California desert and you can listen to them in your car in Ashby-de-La-Zouch.

You can choose to save copies of your Instagram snaps on your phone, but when I admire your lunch or selfie, I’m looking at an image stored on a server elsewhere. Your Facebook timeline doesn’t sit on your laptop or phone it’s in Zuckerberg’s dark realm.

You start typing an email on your laptop, and within a second you can switch seamlessly to writing it on your phone because it’s not really on either device.

Your phone is a portal to an almost limitless realm, which makes them the most powerful tools mankind has ever wielded. What could you do with yours?

Footnote — Remember Clarke’s three laws.

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

“As three laws were good enough for Newton, I have modestly decided to stop there”. Arthur C Clarke


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