How Invisible Technology Is Emerging and Why It Matters

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2016-09-26 Print this article Print
Invisible Tech

The payments process happens in the background. Uber's got your credit card. It knows all about the ride you got. It calculates the fare and simply charges you without your conscious involvement. No interface.

Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP), which originated with Motorola, is building invisible interfaces into clothing. The initiative is called Project Jacquard and its first partner is Levi Strauss. Project Jacquard technology involves using fabric as the UI, literally weaving smart strands into clothing. The first product will be a smart jacket for cyclists made by Levi's, which enables users to control a smartphone by doing gestures on the sleeve.

These are just a few of the many examples of invisible technology currently available. But this is just the beginning. In the coming five years, a tsunami of invisible technology devices will come on the market. And they'll be controversial.

Why 'Invisible Technology' Matters

The rise of invisible technology is linked to the phenomenon of tech burnout and information overload.

Since the dawn of the PC revolution, our technology has been dominated by screens. In the beginning, this was a great thing. The early '80s were dominated by the command-line UI. The late '80s and the '90s were dominated by the graphical UI.

But in the past 16 years, we've seen the emergence of ubiquitous smartphones, tablets and the addition of screens onto appliances and devices including TV remote controls, refrigerators, car dashboards, security systems and a million others.

All these screens require a "cognitive load" of mental energy on the part of the user. We have to look at, understand, grapple with the meaning of and respond to what we see on screen.

As the industry develops better sensor technology, and smarter software via AI—and as the IoT's expansion increases the number of internet-connected smart devices in our lives by an order of magnitude or two—the need to protect the user from mental burnout from technology will be one key to succeeding with any tech product in the future.

The best interface will become no interface. As much technology as possible will provide benefits to us without any conscious action on our part and without any apparent technology at all.

Tossing our gadgets on any tabletop in our home should charge them. All doors that we're authorized to enter will simply be unlocked for us. Lights will go on when we enter and off when we exit. Music will follow us around the house. Colleagues will be notified when we're running late and be given an E.T.A. Reservations will be made. Meeting times changed. Cars reserved. And it will all happen behind the scenes without us having to do anything at all.

Life will be automated. But there's trouble ahead.

In fact, I'm already seeing it with my own automation schemes. I use IFTTT (If This Then That) and other automation features to harvest information of interest. Sometimes I find myself wanting to stop or modify something I've automated in the past and can't remember how or where I did it.

And this is the problem with "invisible technology." The price of convenience is the loss of control. Things will happen that we don't want to happen and we won't know how to stop them. There will be a frustration phenomenon behind the coming wave of "invisible technology" products that will become a source of complaint and irritation and frustration on the user's part.

But we'll come to rely on "invisible technology" anyway. And when we turn it off, we'll miss it. If you've ever been frustrated by AutoCorrect "correcting" things that aren't wrong and turned it off in frustration, you quickly saw how handy it was all along.

"Invisible technology" will be just like that.

Still, "invisible technology" is about to become a major force in the evolution of technology. And you'll never see it coming.


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