How Invisible Technology Is Emerging and Why It Matters

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

NEWS ANALYSIS: One day tech products won't have a user interface, which will bring its own unique level of irritation when you lose control over the technology.

My Toyota Prius is always unlocked—but only for me.

When I grab the handle to open my Prius door, the car uses Bluetooth to see if the wireless key fob is within a few feet of the same door. If so, the door is automatically unlocked. Prius owners' experience is that the driver's door is always unlocked when they open it, but always locked when somebody else tries.

This feature is nothing special from a technology standpoint. It's not artificial intelligence (AI). It's not "cloud computing." It's not social. But it is invisible.

What is "invisible technology" anyway, and why does it matter?

Finally: A Definition for 'Invisible Technology'

The phrase "invisible technology" isn't exactly mainstream—but it should be. It's a great term and an important concept.

Unfortunately, nobody agrees on what the phrase means. It's used heavily by the internet of things" (IoT) crowd, big data companies, wearable gadget makers and, of course, pundits, bloggers and tech journalists.

The concept of invisibility applied to technology was popularized by Donald Norman in his 1999 book, "The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution." His idea was that PCs were too difficult to use and should be replaced by what we would call today the IoT and wearable devices.

Since then, a new trend has quietly emerged, wherein companies take automation and convenience to extremes creating truly invisible technology—like my Prius door, for example.

"Invisible technology" isn't a technology per se, but a use case for using technology without realizing you are using it.

In home automation, for example, when you set up your home so the lights come on when you walk into a room or the door unlocks when you walk up to it, you're experiencing invisible technology. Automatic lights usually are controlled by motion detectors. Automatic doors usually look for the proximity of your smartphone via Bluetooth.

In either case, the user interface is non-existent. Just being there activates the product feature. And in both cases, you can still use the light switch and unlock the door manually, if you want to. The "invisible technology" bit is an optional way to use the device.

So here's my definition: "Invisible technology" is user technology without a user interface (UI) or with a UI that cannot be perceived by the senses.

Here's what I'm seeing out there—I mean, not seeing.

More 'Invisible Technology'

I told you in this space recently about artificial intelligence meeting technology, some of which is invisible.

A great example from that column is, which is a service that takes meetings notes for you. To use it, you simply add a email address provided by that company to your meeting invitation. Behind the scenes, the service dials into the meeting, uses AI and voice processing to capture what was said and format it into a kind of "minutes" for the meeting. It then will send it to you via email or Slack. is clearly user business technology that people use, and get direct benefit from. But there's no UI.

A new service called Record the Call does something that used to require special hardware, or, at least, an app. As you might have guessed, Record the Call records your calls. To use it you simply conference in the company's phone number. As soon as you hang up, Record the Call sends you a message with a link to the recording.

The ridesharing service Uber famously uses an "invisible payment" process. You use the Uber app to hail a car. You can also watch the live-updated map to see the car arriving at your location. You get in the back seat.

The driver takes you to your destination. Then you get out and get on with your day. But wait! When did you pay for it?


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