Okay, SciFi Fans, What Comes After iPad?

| Hidden Dimensions

“Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases: 1) It’s completely impossible. 2) It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing. 3) I said it was a good idea all along.” — Arthur C. Clarke

The evolution of our science fiction technology, the dramatic visions of people who dream the future for a living, have steadily percolated into our lives. These days, we take for granted synchronous orbit communication satellites, wireless personal communications, and Dick Tracy watches. Then, we dreamed of a personal tablet, and now we have it. What could be next for Apple — and us?

In The Beginning

Our earliest, yet fairly modern vision of the human/computer interface was perhaps one of the most intriguing. That was the bridge of the starship C-57D, in the movie “Forbidden Planet.” The creative people behind that movie were thinking so far ahead that they dispensed with almost anything physical, like keyboards and controls, and abstracted to almost nothing at all. We’ll come back to that later, in full circle.

Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet, Image Credit: Warner Brothers

After that, there was a branching out. Some science fiction movies tried to keep things very cool and simple, as in The Day The Earth Stood Still. Other movies got more technical, or perhaps practical, and went with the aircraft carrier Combat Information Center-like bridge with lots of lights, displays, controls, etc. Lost in Space and 2001: A Space Odyssey are examples. And yet, in that latter movie we also see a compelling prototype tablet. Perhaps. There’s still some discussion today about how portable that device was, but it’s good enough to have been used as candidate prior art for legal purposes.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey, Image Credit: MGM

The quintessential modern take on the human/computer interface comes from Star Trek: The Original Series. Here, we see Captain Kirk with a thick, awkward tablet on which he basically signs ship’s orders electronically. It’s not used routinely as an information device: for that we have the ship’s main computer, the bridge, and small TV display devices in the conferences rooms. Voice communication with the ship’s computer ruled.

Captain James T. Kirk's tablet

Star Trek: The Original Series, Image Credit: Paramount

Following ST:TOS, we have Star Trek:The Next Generation. Here, what we would call a modern tablet arises to supplement the ship’s mainframe. Geordi La Forge, Data and other crew members routinely carry around a rather thin mini tablet that is very close to what we have with the Apple iPad. It’s been the Holy Grail of our computational life since that series debuted in 1987, depicting life in the mid 24th century.

Geordi la Forge's tablet

Star Trek: First Contact, Image Credit: Paramount

Concurrently, in 1994, other writers and researchers created a vision for an electronic newspaper device. That kind of device was widely written about in science fiction novels, and a concept video was even produced by Knight-Ridder suggesting how such a device might work.

Knight-Ridder concept, 1994

Knight-Ridder concept tablet from 1994

What’s Next?

So here we are in 2012 with mid 24th century iPads, and the natural question to ask is, “What’s next?” In a sense, asking what comes after the personal tablet is like asking what comes after the automatic transmission. When a technology is so refined and so natural for the human experience, asking what’s after the automatic transmission is tantamount to asking what will replace the automobile. It gets that radical.

The evolution of technology has always leaned towards the elimination of large, awkward physical devices. We seek the cleanest, simplest devices and interfaces. For now, in 2012, that isn’t quite happening. The iPad 3 is a thicker, heftier device designed to manipulate four times the pixels of its predecessor and work on a power hungry LTE network. The dream of thinner and lighter had to go on hold while Apple put a monstrous battery in the iPad 3. So, clearly we have a ways to go in the evolution of the iPad. Maybe, just maybe, we have some time to burn until that technology is fully mature.

Last week, I wrote a Hidden Dimensions column about Tim Cook’s performance to date at Apple, and I said, “The Apple product line has tremendous momentum. It will be a while before Mr. Cook has to think deeply about what comes after the iPad and how it will evolve.” That’s true in the short term, but with the rate of technical development, the question is, how long is “a while”?

Death by Ringtone

Many, including myself think that the next step is to get rid of the giant battery and physical display and abstract to modern “heads up display” or HUD glasses plus voice management.

It’s interesting how that technology has changed, under pressure from our culture. Just like TV and movie heroes who have used mobile phones have set the tone for how a mobile phone should ring, condemning the ringtone to cultural oblivion, the social pressure against the geek/nerd wearing HUD glasses has forced the technology to go from wildly ornate, ugly and cumbersome headsets to something that might even be called fashionable.

HUD glasses

Technical and cultural evolution of the HUD glasses

With this technology, engineers are faced with several, perhaps competing factors. Fashion and social acceptability have to be weighed against CPU/GPU power, battery and all the electromagnetic energy around the head. Other social issues will arise, as they did for texting (and sexting) and acceptable places for use.

Despite the challenges, the HUD technical vision is so strong and enduring that Google is planning to move into that technology. It could be seen as a preemptive move to launch into the next generation technology before Apple does and perhaps make the lifetime of the conventional tablet more short-lived than we ever could have thought.

Will there come a day when grandma, clutching her Apple iPad 7, says, “that’s all I can deal with!”? and … “I don’t need anything else!” Will Apple miss the Next Big Thing under Tim Cook? Will the Next Big Thing be so alien to the culture of Apple that the company just can’t take its customers forward?

Another challenge is making products that can be purchased and used by mere human beings. Productized. Sometimes, we tend to think about implants or wireless connections to the optic nerve, but that gets very biological and intrusive. Is there another technology avenue that leaves our human dignity intact?

The Companions

Perhaps the next generation technology beyond HUD glasses isn’t the modification of our biology, but the creation of a new form of bio-technology. It’s like the discussion above of what comes after the automatic transmission. It’s not a new transmission but a new kind of car. In this case, I’m thinking about a new kind of being, robots.

With robots we can go wild. It doesn’t matter how exotic their hardware is. Robot companions can be fully geeky. They can have rather large power sources. They can can chat with us and answer questions. There’s a symbiotic relationship here that results is a marketable product instead of the Borgification of humans. I note with interest, that takes us back to the remarkable vision of Forbidden Planet and Robbie the Robot.

Picard as Borg

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Image Credit: Paramount

There is already a company that is built on the vision of robots in science fiction. Drawing from Robert Heinlein’s Door into Summer and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, a company in Bedford, MA called iRobot makes personal robots, of sorts, vacuum cleaners and floor washers.

For now.

What company will best make the technical leap from computers that sit on a desktop or tablets that are held in the hand to personal robots? Will it be Apple? Will it be a company whose current expertise is robots, like iRobot? The Japanese are making huge strides in this area as are American universities. Or will it be a startup, a company that comes out of the blue and makes the next leap in technology?

I, Robot

I, Robot, Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

Technical Momentum

Arthur C. Clarke once said that technology seems to develop more slowly than we predict in the short term but faster than we predict in the long term. That’s something for any CEO to ponder. Where is his/her company on the technology curve? Is he/she living in the glory of the past or on the precipice of breakthrough? In fact, without a good understanding of our technical culture, technological evolution, the dreams of the SciFi masters, and what we are capable of as a species, a modern CEO is lost.

Steve Jobs had a special talent. He was a master at knowing what we needed and when we needed it. A man like him may never come again this century. On the other hand, lesser men from other companies may strain to move into the future too quickly, failing over and over again as radical new technologies, before their times, are rejected by consumers. There’s a fine line there. Mr. Jobs knew where it was.

Whatever comes next, I can’t wait to see it. However, as is the custom of our species, there’s no guarantee that any company, now in existence, will see it coming.

_____________

My thanks to Bryan Chaffin and Jim Tanous who helped research the graphics for this article.

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Join the TMO Express Daily Newsletter to get the latest Mac headlines in your e-mail every weekday.

12 Comments Leave Your Own

MOSiX Man

We are The Mac Observer. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

mlvezie

I think part of the reason why the iPad works is it’s not a revolutionary step. You can imagine someone sitting at a table reading a magazine. Then quickly replace the magazine in their hands with an iPad and nothing really changes (except they can now read 10 magazines, check their email and play games). But the basic idea of someone sitting, holding something in their hands, and reading, hasn’t changed. And remember when Steve first introduced the iPad. What did he do? He sat down on a sofa, making the connection.

When I first saw the question on Twitter, my first answer was “IMPLANTS!” No, not THAT kind, we already have those. I’m thinking of data ports, like seen in Star Trek and cyberpunk novels (although it may be a while before that happens).

It’s hard to imagine people walking around with HUD glasses, and for that reason, I don’t see that happening next. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have a pair myself, but there’s no low-tech analog to help people with the leap (like with the person sitting reading a magazine or an iPad). Also, remember the Windows Phone Seven commercials with iPhone/Android users running into things? I think that idea, that someone is watching their HUD glasses and running into things, will damage HUD glasses for a while.

My guess for the next leap is in audio. Old-world analogs, like someone listening to music through headphones, exist. And people use bluetooth headsets now. Couple that with a souped up Siri and you could have something cool that people can picture now. Imagine this Siri conversation, all played out through a headset:

Me: Siri, download any new magazines.
Siri: There is a new edition of Wired.
M: Table of contents
S: The Stanford Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever.
Apple TV is much improved with addition of 1080p video
M: Stop. Read that.
S: <starts reading article>

Another breakthrough has to be in batteries. The iPad looks nice and slim, but holding it for any time and your wrists start to feel it (unless you’ve been holding them for the past two years and have really beefy wrists by now).

Ross Edwards

Holodeck.  The answer is: Holodeck.

Lee Dronick

Ross, don’t forget replicators. smile

I would like to see a satellite iPhone, with a decently priced service plan, no dead zones.

Siri for Macs.

CudaBoy

One thing leaving me cold re: Pods and Pads is viewing the screen with 58 year old eyes. I’d like to see a wireless standard developed for 2D/3D optical display glasses for use to view Pods n Pads in equivalent of huge 1080p widescreen TV.
Could contain next gen 3D GUI navigation tricks that have been teased over the years.

Lee Dronick

One thing leaving me cold re: Pods and Pads is viewing the screen with 58 year old eyes.

I am 61 and compute with bifocals. I haven’t had too much of a problem reading with them on my iPhone and iPad, but I like to switch to dedicated reading glasses when working the Mac or MacBook Pro. The last time I had my prescription updated I asked her to write me one specifically for reading, they are much better than off-the-shelf reading glasses.

jwdsail

I’ve been waiting for a “wearable Mac” for over 10 years.. A high-res wearable display, combined w/ the iOS, and an improved Siri, would be close..

I’d love to see Siri, as well as the iOS apps that it communicates with become .. usable.. Location Reminders especially is completely useless in it’s current form, and I’d have liked iOS5.1 to have added:

1. user-adjustable geo-fences. If I’m walking into someplace, I’ve already remembered why I’m there.. I need to be reminded when I’m about to drive past the place.

2. Let users select reminder locations on a *MAP*. I shouldn’t need to have every office supply store, grocery store, pet store in my contacts.

3. Let users select a stretch of road to be reminder location.. Remind me to buy cat food when I’m going east, vitamins when going west..

4. Let users select to be reminded of general tasks, like buying milk, when close to any location that has milk..

5. power down the GPS when more than an hour from the nearest reminder location.

These changes to the Reminders app alone would greatly improve the usefulness of Siri… I hope we don’t have to wait until iOS 6 or god forbid iOS 7 for that.

If Siri and iOS worked much more like the simulated/imagined Knowledge Navigator, I’d be happy with that being the “Next Thing”. I’d be content if Location Reminders were more.. useful.

Of course, the eyePhone on Futurama made me want to say “Shut-up and take my money!” So, something along that line would be a great “next thing” too.

All I know is that I was promised hover-boards by 2015.. Maybe Apple will come through on that..

delmiller

Good question John.

But first I shall bolster my reputation as a sadly lacking futurist and argue against the heads up display as the ubiquitous interface of the future. Sure some will have them but in many respects it would be a backward step. For one thing what the iPad finally gave us was an interface that we controlled by touching what we were looking at, instead of abstracting away the action and the object like even the GUI did. Unless there is some eyelid mediated control scheme, a HUD would divorce our motor control from our sensing system again and I don?t think it would work that well for computing. Watching content maybe or some lean back behavior but not for computing.

I think that the tablet has a long run ahead of it if we are charitable with what we call one. I can imagine a ?tablet? no thicker than a quarter, but at least somewhat flexible. Perhaps it could be rolled but even if semi-rigid it would weigh so little that it could hang from a neck lanyard as no more of a burden than a pendant necklace. Or it could fit into a back pocket without fear of damage should we sit on it. Or maybe it will be too cheap to really matter.

This of course would mean that display technologies would have progressed far beyond LCDs and whatnot, but we all know that will happen. Power will also have to be addressed: I can imagine the technology of the xPad will be of such low power requirements that it will get its power from ambient lighting, like a tabletop calculator.

It would certainly live in a mighty advanced version of a cloud, so onboard storage will matter less than we might imagine.

And finally I suspect that it will be much smaller than an iPad. I hear you guys complaining (as I do) about these old eyes not being able to easily see small displays, but the accessibility technology of the future won?t require larger displays…it will just fix our eyes.

delmiller

Good question John.

But first I shall bolster my reputation as a sadly lacking futurist and argue against the heads up display as the ubiquitous interface of the future. Sure some will have them but in many respects it would be a backward step. For one thing what the iPad finally gave us was an interface that we controlled by touching what we were looking at, instead of abstracting away the action and the object like even the GUI did. Unless there is some eyelid mediated control scheme, a HUD would divorce our motor control from our sensing system again and I don?t think it would work that well for computing. Watching content maybe or some lean back behavior but not for computing.

I think that the tablet has a long run ahead of it if we are charitable with what we call one. I can imagine a ?tablet? no thicker than a quarter, but at least somewhat flexible. Perhaps it could be rolled but even if semi-rigid it would weigh so little that it could hang from a neck lanyard as no more of a burden than a pendant necklace. Or it could fit into a back pocket without fear of damage should we sit on it. Or maybe it will be too cheap to really matter.

This of course would mean that display technologies would have progressed far beyond LCDs and whatnot, but we all know that will happen. Power will also have to be addressed: I can imagine the technology of the xPad will be of such low power requirements that it will get its power from ambient lighting, like a tabletop calculator.

It would certainly live in a mighty advanced version of a cloud, so onboard storage will matter less than we might imagine.

And finally I suspect that it will be much smaller than an iPad. I hear you guys complaining (as I do) about these old eyes not being able to easily see small displays, but the accessibility technology of the future won?t require larger displays…it will just fix our eyes.

ultimo

@jwdsail
A wearable mac is happening sooner / later.
Apple has already hired a great name for such things….

http://blogs.computerworld.com/15750/apple_hires_senior_prototype_engineer_for_work_on_wearable_computers

Though he jumped boats & moved onto Google later, Steve’s thermonuclear war is still on & Apple is not going to stop working on the wearable computing because they lost one richard.

jfbiii

Smart(er) user agents. The next great advance eliminates the need for a screen or visual interface when it’s unnecessary and does so over a wide range of functions.

wab95

Great question, John.

And while I’m killing time and recovering from jet-lag, let me offer the following.

I don’t know what comes next.

What I do know is this, people will want to be at the centre of it, and not experience it vicariously through a machine.

To illustrate, take space exploration. An ongoing debate, even today, is the relative merit and distribution of resources for robotic vs manned (hu-manned) missions. Analysts have consistently pointed out that, according to numerous polls, people want manned missions, and they want them because they inspire. It isn’t that they do not want robotic missions; but if all that is proffered are robotic missions, the interest of the majority public wanes. People want boots on Mars because only another human can bring that experience closer to the billions of humans who have to be content with watching and not walking on Mars. It is the closest thing to being there in person.

The relevance to what comes after the iPad? Namely this. For the consumer to be excited by it, the next advance must place the consumer at the centre. What makes the iPad so popular is the intimate, very personal - nay tactile - nature of the interface. No more a personal experience has yet to be sold en masse. If the next advance is robotic in nature, in which the machine is the wonder toy, and has all the tech fun, the human will, after a passing fascination, be left unfulfilled and wanting ‘boots on the brave new world’, to have the technology built around them, the consumer. We want to fly, and not watch a machine fly.

I for one fancy a true Star Trek level voice interface, particularly for medical practice, with a voice activated HUD or other preferably 3D projection system, that can track my eye movements - go where I need it to go while leaving my hands free to treat my patients or do other work.

I have no illusions that that is coming out in the fourth quarter of 2013. I do feel, however, that it is a ‘next generation - level’ technology that I may yet live to see, while still a functional human being, if not an active, practicing professional.

Log-in to comment