The Rise of Mobility : and the Disappearing Mobile Phone (Part 3)

Why the Mobile Phone will disappear.

We’re currently seeing inter-connected devices proliferating around us.  Our personal device(s) are interacting in real time with more and more connected “things” around us giving rise to the – the Internet of things
Simultaneously, the next phase of connectivity is commencing where we’ll start to adopt connected devices worn on us – and within us all interconnected with other devices around us.  The era of intra-connectivity.
Whilst in our inter-connected era, functionality has become concentrated into one device, in the intra-connected era new and some existing functionality will be again become a diffuse array of digital elements forming an intra-connected, self organising network.
In terms of the number of personal devices we carry around, we may currently be at the neck of the hour glass.
As minaturisation progresses devices will become increasingly unobtrusive and specialised in areas such as:
  • Visual interface – Screen(s)
  • Audio – interactive voice
  • Touch – typed input and screen interaction
  • Sensors – getting to know you (intimately)
  • Memory – who remembers phone numbers anymore?
  • Computer Power – faster, better stronger (& much smaller)
  • Juice – batteries and ambient charging
  • Connectivity – Wifi, bluetooth, 4G and beyond.
Over time, as advances are made in all of these areas, we’ll progress towards persistent ambient connectivity where (if we can afford the technology) we’ll become seamlessly and deeply intra-connected with things and people in our physical and virtual environments.
But first things first.  Why will the mobile phone as we know it will disappear?  If we take a look at just one of these items – the screen – you’ll start to get a more complete idea of where all of this is heading:

1. Flexible Screens

The primary design consideration, for today’s Smart Phone is the screen.  The phone has evolved from being a voice only “dumb phone” to become a personal audio-visual connectivity device designed around a  flat, thin, rectangular screen with everything else (GPS, Audio, connectivity, CPU, power, sensors etc) packed around and behind it.  This is about to change. 
Samsung and LG have recently set up production lines for flexible OLED screen technology which will enable foldable mobile devices and digital paper.
Once mass produced screens become rollable and foldable, the phone will no longer be constrained to the standard rectangular “biggest-sized-screen-that-you-can-fit-in-your-hand” form factor, which the industry has settled on for the moment.
With new screen technology it’s likely that the device industry will again experiment with new form factors for hand held connected screens.

2. Wearable Screens

Concurrent with the development of hand held screens, wearable screens are also on the way. This is a nascent field, however some early examples are available today:
Epson recently released their Moverio Wearable Display (below).  It’s an early stage device that has a wired remote control and, for now at least, is only extra-connected – i.e. it connects directly to the internet via WiFi but doesn’t inter-connect with a users existing smartphone or apps. So no access to – or interaction with:
  • personal connectivity – voice calls, SMS, IM, Skype, twitter etc.
  • owned content – audio, video (paid for or otherwise)
  • personal content ecosystems – spotify, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play etc.
Last month, Google showed off their Google Glass project which houses a mini screen in a spectacle frame just above eye level…
Now, I should mention here that interface devices have a patchy history.  For example Bluetooth headsets provide hands free voice communication and yet they haven’t hit mass market adoption for a number of reasons. Firstly, as voice communication is interactive, they can confuse people in the vicinity, or irritate them with half a conversation.  Secondly, as with anything new that stands out and looks different,  they can quickly become either cool, or not cool.
Because watching a video or viewing an AR overlay is generally a passive activity, some of this shouldn’t be such a problem for digital glasses.  Although I can imagine that talking to someone who’s staring distractedly up at their Google Glass screen will quickly become quite tiresome.

3. Integrated Wearable Screens

There are some concept-stage projects which will quickly push this tech forward.  A UK company, TPP, have developed glasses (below) which project augmented reality heads-up images onto clear glass, blending virtual information into the real life images around us – and unbeknownst to the people we are talking with in real life. This may be less obtrusive and therefore more immediately acceptable, however, this depth of integration also poses deeper questions about personal interaction which’ll need a whole other blog post.
Further out, research is underway to place this heads up video display into contact lenses to be worn on the eye.
This technology is still at the research stage and is being led by university labs such as the University of Washington.
This diagram below (courtesy of  ECN Mag) provides an idea of some of the component parts that are being squeezed onto a lens.
Models currently being tested typically number just tens of pixels, however even at this early stage, this technology promises huge advances for the blind and partially sighted. 
In a related development digital contact lenses are also showing promise as health sensors for chronic diseases such as Diabetes and Glaucoma. Many other medical sensor implants are in early stage development heralding still more intra-connectivity in the making. (I’ll cover more on bio-implant sensors separately).
It’s worth noting that a lead researcher at Washington University, Babak Parviz, recently joined the Google Glass project, providing an indication of how seriously digital contact lens technology is being taken and where the google project may be headed.

Bio-Implanted Screens

Finally, as a race, we humans strive for convenience.  For example, for the short or long sighted, contact lenses and spectacles are an inconvenience that can be done away with by undergoing LASIK laser eye surgery. Despite considerable controversy, concerns and an ongoing USA FDA reappraisal of the risks, LASIK laser eye surgery continues to gain popularity, with millions worldwide having had the operation.
As crazy as it may sound now, once millions of us are using digital glasses and digital contact lenses – it won’t be a huge leap to move from the idea of corrective eye surgery to a desire for digital implant eye surgery – once, of course, the technology is perfected. My guess would be that it’ll be at least generation or two from today.

Why does this herald the end of the phone as we know it?

Well, as I mentioned, the shape and design of the smartphone in your pocket is defined by the limits of current technology, especially the flat rectangular screen.  Once we’re wearing screens either as glasses or contact lenses (or possibly even implants), the utility of having a second large screened “phone” always with us will gradually become less and less essential over time.
When the screen becomes decoupled – but intra-connected – to everything else that we currently carry with us in a phone (data connectivity, audio interface, touch interface, Sensors, CPU, power etc.), the phone form factor will be freed up.  With nano-minaturisation, many of these other functions are themselves undergoing radical changes which will enable them to become distributed as separate wearable – or even bio-implanted – devices.  And all intra-connected.
Trying to forecast the when and the how of digital interaction is like forecasting where a wave breaking on a beach will carry individual grains of sand. We know know that the sand will shift, just not quite where to. 
The emergence of this next era of intra-connectivity will create epic opportunities for advancement for human kind. These will doubtless be accompanied by uncomfortable cultural adjustmentslegislative concerns and some serious ethical dilemmas.
On the plus side, it’ll take us a while to see most of this happen, so luckily we have some time to get ourselves prepared.

The Rise of Mobility : And The Disappearing Mobile Phone (Part 2)

The Era Of Inter-Connectivity Arrives

(This post follows on from The Rise Of Mobility – Part 1)

In 2012 we’re firmly in the era of Digital Inter-Connectivity. With devices now interconnecting with each other, either locally (e.g. bluetooth speakers streaming spotify from a phone or apple TV interacting with an iPad) or synchronised through the cloud (e.g. the wordpress apps that I use for this blog synchronising in real-time across two mobiles, an iPad and my desktop).

In addition, much digital functionality that was previously purchased stand-alone, in separate devices, is converging in a single mobile device (note: at least for now, see my next post). Where many people would once carry around a plethora of devices (a phone, a camera, a Satellite Navigation system,  a Walkman music player, a portable games console, a PDA etc) most of us now carry just one.  Our Smartphone.

The original 1999 chart is below and blogged about here:

An updated chart for 2012, including the rise of the mobile device, now looks something like this ( the original 1999 powerpoint updated):

Compared to the 1999 map,connected functionality in 2012 has gravitated towards the (mobile) center.

This convergence and inter-connectivity, has roughly coincided with the rise of web 2.0 and social media. As connectivity has become always on and always with us, so our digital personas have become always available and always present, turbo charging the social aspects of the web. I’m looking forward to covering this more in future posts.

As I’ve noted previouslyconnectivity is generally proliferating. Going forward, yet more devices will become internet connected as our lives continue the shift to the digitally connected. For example, the latest pocket cameras incorporate mobile Operating Systems and WiFi connectivity. Games consoles are becoming internet connected content terminals.

As miniturisation continues, more diverse functions will become mobile connected. For example, in what was once a highly specialist sector, the healthcare industry is seeing functionality such as medical scanning and monitoring become internet connected and enabled for the masses. Many of these functions are starting to become mHealth attributes of consumer mobile devices encouraging a cultural trend toward “DIY health”. Not surprisingly, companies focusing on solutions with the “m” prefix, such as mHealth, mGovernment, mCommerce and mEducation are in hot technology start-up areas – especially given the huge numbers of people worldwide who are about to be connected for the first time – which leads us to the next item.

Next? Smart Mobility for the Global Masses

This phase of inter-connectivity will finally bring ubiquitous availability of affordable internet enabled mobile devices to pretty much everyone.  By the end of this decade, 80%-90% of the worlds adult population will become connected to the internet via mobile devices.

In 2008 & 2009 the first Google Android OS handsets appeared, hailing the start of the mass global adoption of these converged mobile devices. The Android OS has been specifically developed to drive mass adoption. As it’s an Open Source and free-license Operating System, manufacturers can drive down prices to deliver truly affordable Smart Mobile Devices for US$20 or less.

Update: The chart below from Business Intelligence shows how rapidly smartphone adoption is accelerating between 2011 and 2012 alone. Look at Brazil and China, both going from almost zero smart Phones in 2011 to 14% and 33% respectively in 2012.

With “dumb” Mobile Phones already in the hands of six Billion people (as at the end of 2011) – and with cheap smart phones on the way – it’s easy to see that by the end of this decade the vast majority of the worlds population will become mobile internet connected.

Unlike the people who first became connected back in the 1990’s, the “newly connected” will start their digital lives mobile (in the center of the map). Mobile connectivity will then be augmented by additional connectivity as they gradually acquire and/or interact with other connected devices.

This the polar opposite of the PC centric adoption pattern for the “initially connected” in more developed countries – and is likely to exacerbate misconceptions that many internet companies have regarding the rise of mobile.

For me, an issue of our time is that this global digital connection of the masses can have a profoundly positive impact on our development as individuals and as a global society.  Hopefully we can realise this potential.  

Global access to knowledge will certainly radically change access to opportunities for billions of people.  There are also many challenges, not least the fact that there are innate incentives for elements of the internet to start to commoditise and commercialise the identities of all of its users (that includes you and me). This is a concept that governments, internet governance bodies and human rights groups are only now starting to grapple with.  

I’ll cover some of these issues in more detail in upcoming posts.

Next up: intra-connectivity and the coming disappearance of the mobile phone (yes seriously!).