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 Clarke.ai, which is a service that takes meetings notes for you. To use it, you simply add a Clark.ai 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. Clark.ai 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?
How Invisible Technology Is Emerging and Why It Matters
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.