Category Foresight

Ubiquitous Coffee

Recently I’ve noticed a trend in future visioning videos, ones that attempt to visually describe some kind of future technology enabling and meeting the needs of an increasingly connected and technological society.  It’s a trend that would seem to be designed to appease the future shock in an assumed audience.  It works to help transport a viewer from the present into this new scenario, by placing cues and similar elements to mentally and emotionally tie the two together.  I’ve seen this cropping up in a few different places, and I think it’s worth giving name to.  For the moment, I’m going to simply call it ubiquitous coffee (or ubicof).

from Microsoft’s recent Productivity Future Vision.

From Berg London’s Media Surfaces: The Journey video sketch.

From Berg London’s Media Surfaces: Incidental Media video sketch.

From Microsoft’s Future Vision 2019 video.

From a compilation of Microsoft and Cisco future visioning videos.

Don’t get me wrong, coffee has been consumed for more than 500 years now, so it’s not unlikely to be around in another 10 years or so.  I think the technique at play here is – “look at this futuristic place with new technology, but don’t be too worried, we all still drink lots of coffee”.  A way of tempering future shock with some present-day cultural symbols.  Not very deep, but at the surface level, effective.

Watching all of these augmented media visioning videos is actually quite depressing, the sheer banality and similarity of ideas present (not to mention the prominence of hand-waving and non-meaningful touch gestures) really set the bar low for the future of technology and information interfaces.

So much of what’s shown is either possible today, only a small step in a slightly different direction for the emergence of new technologies.  The major tech companies (RIM, MS, Nokia, IBM, Cisco) seem to spend countless hours telling us what the future could look like, and it’s honestly not very inspiring.  Not to parade the success of Apple, but their vision looks a lot more like this;

Familiar, no? It’s what’s available today. Tested, iterated, prototyped and designed to within an inch of its’ life.  A real device, that will change the way we think about the future.  I expect I’ll follow this post in 6-12 months or so, when RIM, IBM and Cisco decide to copy the reality of Apple with their own “visions” of the future.

But more to the point, the field of research into Tangible User Interfaces (TUIs) is so much more rich and interesting, full of design complexity and real world challenges that at least excite the mind.  This glass-half-full future (which ironically is half filled with glass interfaces) just doesn’t sit well with me.  We can do so much better.

design decisions & ambiguity

Daring Fireball on Android hardware buttons;

Looks like they’re trying to fix this starting with the Galaxy Nexus by eliminating the hardware buttons but drawing them on-screen in the OS. Presumably, a future API revision could allow for apps that don’t need these buttons. Anyway, agree with his criticism of these two buttons completely. The Back button taking me somewhere unexpected was perhaps my single-biggest complaint both times I tested an Android phone.

I agree, the designed ambiguity of the ‘back’ button is infuriating, mostly in the android app I created myself!  I’m no programmer, I’m much more of a hacker (which doesn’t help either), but I’m never clear as a user when to hit the home button or the back button (or both).  Home sometimes doesn’t kill an app — why?

Even better though, it goes on to outline a key difference between the apple and google design models;

The other lesson: the importance of getting things right, from the outset. If you’re designing just an app, you can fix many design errors later; if you’re designing an app platform, though, it’s hard to fix system-wide design errors without breaking existing apps.

This doesn’t mean get it right the first time, every time.  It means you should only go to market when you’ve tested your product so thoroughly (iterating over and over again) and can say with complete certainty that not shipping it now is not good enough.

Constantly shipping unfinished, beta software products fools you into thinking you can do the same with hardware.  Unfinished software thinking, applied to hardware, will only result in long term grief (especially if you’re relying on OEMs to provide your hardware for you).

I can only point to the iPod/iTunes experience and years of testing that allowed Apple to say, with certainty, that this v1 product was ready to be released. Google, on the other hand, only had and a long running suite of software products to go by.  Big difference.


shut up and ship

I came across this post on Binary Bonsai earlier today, mainly focussing on Microsoft Office’s new Vision video (see below).  Michael’s response is fairly gentle, nudging MS and noting how far from reality the future visioning tends to be

The latest is the Productivity Future Vision from the Office division, which like all their videos, looks great (and probably would interact horrible in a real-world scenario):

I suspect these videos are made not only by outside agencies (if you know different, let me know), but entirely by graphic designers who dream about interaction design, but never had to realize their ideas in the real world.

I’m feeling much less generous when looking at this finely crafted, shiny vision piece.  It’s clear that MS has an eye to the future potential of technologies like touch, tablets and the ‘big data’, but it’s so far removed from the reality of what they’re actually producing.  Frank mentioned to me the other day something that’s worth noting here — Apple doesn’t create concept videos for future products.  They don’t make ambitious future vision style images of the future — they just make great products that people can use today.  The magic of it is that these products push us a great deal towards a different future, but they don’t bother trying to impress us with their vision, rather they do everything possible to impress us with what their vision has lead them to create.

It’s a world apart, the two approaches.  Shut up and ship, Microsoft.  If this is the future, create it.  We’ll love you for it, but not if you never bother following through with this vision.

On another note, I have to say the similarities between this vision and the amazing work BERG London have been producing in the last few years is striking.  Here’s a few BERG visioning pieces that have, in my view, been quite influential in shaping the future of products and interaction.  Well done, lads.


our simple vision

Our simple vision at Intel, is that we’re going to add a billion people to the internet by 2015.  Going from 1.5 bn to 2.5 bn people.  So you take that, combined with those 15 bn devices [predicted to be connected to the internet by 2015] and our vision is basically to connect everyone to everything, and that’s before you even talk about machine to machine.

Kirk Skaugen, head of Intel’s Architecture Group @ Web 2.0

Via liveable places