(The Xbox finally beeps, TV and cable box turn on.)
“Xbox watch Cartoon Network.”
(Yes, Cartoon Network, my kids own my living room TV, but that’s another story.)
“Siri, call Patty.”
“Alexa, turn on the lights.”
“Alexa, what will the weather be like tomorrow?”
These are the kind of statements heard daily in my household to seamlessly weave together technology and information. The nerd in me is super excited to see what happens next.
As we head into a future marked by the Internet of Things (IoT), screens will become less relied upon and a throwback to the way we used to do things.
Or to paraphrase Back to the Future’s nutty professor Doc Brown: “Screens? Where we’re going, we don’t NEED screens.”
What we will need is designers able to think beyond the limitations of current linear, 2D technology – because Zero UI will change everything about the way humans interact with technology in the future.
The shift from visual to audio interfacing
Zero UI is a term coined by Andy Goodman, group director of Fjord, at the recent SOLID Conference in San Francisco. It’s not so much a literal term, though, as a way of conveying the changes on the horizon.
Says Goodman, speaking to Fast Company: “There are always going to be user interfaces in some form of another, but this is about getting away from thinking about everything in terms of screens.”
If not screens, then what?
Voice activation will play a crucial role – something we have already seen with Siri, the voice-activated information app that has become as taken for granted as the smartphone that gave her life. Remember life before Siri or smartphones? How did we survive?
Amazon Echo is another new device embracing the voice-activated, artificial intelligence (AI) concept that Siri popularized – taking it to the next level by removing the need to speak into a hand-held device like your iPhone, and letting you speak into the open air from across the room to sync information to your other devices from a central hub.
This is a glimpse at how the IoT may manifest, and how screens will become less necessary. It’s exciting to think about as a consumer, but this shift in UI puts an enormous strain on designers who now have to consider an entire universe and skill set beyond what they’ve known to this point.
According to Goodman, “Designers will have to become experts in science, biology, and psychology to create these devices… stuff we don’t have to think about when our designs are constrained by screens.”
The human/machine role reversal
But that’s not all. These new devices will, for the first time, conform to users’ needs – vs. users conforming to the limitations of the devices – by adapting to user preferences and habits for better performance. Designers will need to infuse new technology with the ability to learn from users to meet this expectation.
It’s already happening. The Amazon Echo description itself says: “Connected to the cloud so it’s always getting smarter.” And the Nest Learning Thermostat learns user preferences so it can program itself within a week.
And now Microsoft has created the Machine Teaching Group to facilitate machine learning. Using a group of people who are not computer experts, but experts in their various fields, Microsoft is making “machine teaching” a priority to meet business demands. Yes, machines have to go to school too!
As the Internet of Things becomes more prevalent, the ability of machines to understand and learn human preferences and needs will become more necessary, because it will become more expected. Just like people who can’t imagine life without smartphones, we will become a society that can’t imagine life before AI and fully integrated, personalized smart machines running our homes and lives.
Then what will the next frontier of Zero UI be? Humans themselves interfacing with machines? Maybe . . . The future is always impossible to predict, but one thing seems pretty certain – at the very least, Zero UI designers will have job security… until the machines make that a distant memory too.