Monday, April 27, 2009

Dancing Around the Bleeding Edge of Technology (Without Getting Cut)

The biggest trend in the digital electronics world has nothing and everything to do with the Internet. The trend is not that devices such as your TV or your telephone are connected to the web; they’ve been doing that for years, but that the interface for these devices are becoming more dynamic and reminiscent of bleeding edge digital devices like the iPhone and bleeding edge platforms, such as Social Media.

My wife was reading Business Week (admittedly not a bleeding edge publication) and she tears out the best articles for me; the ones she knows I’ll find of interest. In one recent issue (April 13, to be exact) there were three very relevant articles regarding how traditional devices were morphing their user interfaces and how these interfaces were becoming more webified and ready for search and discovery navigation as well as expanding their boundaries beyond that of their original purpose.

The Cable industry has been leading this charge for a number of years now and recently Canoe Ventures announced a little teaser for where they’re going over the next couple of weeks. Cable has recognized for quite some time that their old ways of doing business were going to become slowly extinct and they’ve been responding in broad fashion. On the conservative side they’ve dipped their toes into online TV with sites such as Comcast’s Fancast site which is apparently part of a broader initiative with their “skunkworks” group called (simply) Comcast Interactive Media. On the more liberal side, and not always in conjunction with the cable companies themselves, I’ve seen a glimpse of where the platforms truly could go. About two years ago Alan Schulman of The Digital Innovations Group displayed an example of what he would do, if given the chance and opportunity, to recreate the television “guide” experience using a graphical, non-linear search model. That example was pretty brilliant and even though I know there were a number of cable representatives in the room, I never saw it come to fruition. For that matter, I have yet to see anyone even come close to what he put together but I’m holding my breath and keeping my fingers crossed because it was awesome.

Of course, this is not all about Cable; the telephone industry is doing it too! Verizon has been running a slew of TV campaigns promoting its new Hub. The Hub is basically a really-smart phone. It’s disguised as a landline with benefits such as contacts, Vcast, weather and other fun features. Of course, none of these are new for any of you with a 3rd or better generation mobile phone, but for those of you still holding on to your “landline”, this just may be your kind of device. To me it feels less like an innovation and more of a desperate last gasp for the home phone.

But none of these innovations even holds a candle to what’s going on as a result of the influence from gaming platforms like the Wii and PS3. In that same issue of Business Week there was a story about the impending rush of “gesture-reading” devices like HP’s TouchSmart PC and even your home television. These devices are taking the world of Minority Report and making it real by bringing you into the interface and having your hand gestures interact with the display, potentially dragging you kicking and screaming into a 3-dimensional digital world (something I predict is as inevitable as a sun burn in Maui). If you could sit on the couch and wave your hands in order to browse through the interface of your TV, literally casting aside the less interesting content and dragging the best stuff to the top, you’d be giving the term “couch surfing” a whole new meaning. And just for the record, this isn’t the kind of stuff you’ll be waiting 10 years just to see in action. HP says these could be in your hands by the end of the year.

And here it is, just as I thought people were getting comfortable with technology the world up and changes again. The creative minds that were jolted by the release of the iPhone and the Wii have been set free and they’re out of control, but in a very, very good way. Those of us surface-dwelling minds are using the Apple-design “reflection” in every powerpoint we do and consider that to be innovative, but people far smarter than us are tackling these challenges and succeeding. I love being a part of it and getting to see it all first, because the simple truth is that while the bleeding edge may not be the gathering point for the masses, it does provide insight into where the masses are headed, and that is a place I want to be.

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