A few weeks ago I had a long chat with Jake Dunagan, a researcher at the Institute for the Future, and we got to talking about what computer workstations would look like in 10 years.
Think back to 10 years ago, e.g. September 2002. Workstations actually haven't changed that much since then. Monitors are bigger and flatter, but keyboards and mice are more or less the same. We still sit in chairs, type, and drag rectangles around a screen.
What has changed dramatically is handheld devices. When I went deaf in 2001 and could no longer use a phone, my dad bought me a Palm VII, which was a graceless brick with a silly antenna that swung up. But it gave me access to my e-mail while I was walking around, which at that time was a wondrous thing. (I now have cochlear implants and use the phone just fine again.) Obviously, a lot has changed in handhelds. But in computer workstations, not so much.
I think that's going to change. Here's what I imagine a workstation will look like in 2022. Users will stand up as much as they sit down. There won’t be any monitors. Gesturing will be common, a la Minority Report.
Let's start with the standing up. It turns out that long periods of sitting down are really bad for you. And my age cohort, which was the first to use computers in college in the mid-1980s, is getting to that point in life where we realize we have to take care of ourselves. We're learning that if we sit too long, our backs, legs, and necks will hurt. After a bit of experimenting with stacking my monitor and keyboard on top of 2 feet of books to work standing up, I’ve just ordered a sit-stand desk along with an adjustable gizmo that holds two monitors above it. It can be raised and lowered so you can work sitting or standing, as you like. Ten years from now, I think basically everyone over 50 is going to want something like this.
You can go even further and put a treadmill on the floor so you can walk as you work. I'd love to try that, but one step at a time.
Now think about the monitor. No matter how much screen space you have, it's never enough. I have two 22- inch monitors, which is wonderful, but I want three. And I bet if I had three, I’d want four. The basic problem is that the monitor is a relatively small window onto an enormous amount of information. What I really want is a monitor that is everywhere I look. The best way I can think of to do that is to use glasses that make you think you’re seeing screens 360° around you. They would have to be sensitive to your head motion so that if you turn to your right, you see a new screen to the right. This is an old idea, but now it’s on the edge of becoming a commercial reality, with companies like Google working on small and lightweight virtual-reality glasses.
It could be more difficult than simply projecting screens onto virtual space. The experience makes some people get seasick. For them, the technology may have to track eye motion and adjust the view to suit. Nonetheless, eyetracker technology has also been around for a long time, and the challenge now is mainly to make it small enough and cheap enough to be practical.
Now, gestural interfaces. Microsoft’s Kinect has revolutionized the way games are played, and it's only a matter of time before a similar technology reaches workstations. A company named LeapMotion is taking pre-orders for a $70 gadget that will supposedly allow you to control your computer by waving your hands in the air. This is something I would really like to see, if it works as advertised. (The company says it'll come out in February 2013.) It's about time we got rid of the computer mouse. It's slow, it's awkward, and it causes all sorts of repetitive motion disorders. It would be so much easier to point with the whole arm, moving it naturally rather than making small, crabbed motions on a tiny pad.
What about the keyboard? I think there will still be one. For one thing, talking aloud is awkward in open workplaces. For another, I think writing is very much an act of manual handicraft. When I write, I shape words, sentences, and paragraphs as if I was working on a sculpture. I’d like to have voice recognition as an option, but I don't know if it would become my main tool for composition. That may be a generational thing; people who grow up with really good voice recognition may do just fine with it.
So imagine a user standing at a table, wearing glasses, gesturing in the air, and turning in various directions with flowing motions of the whole body. She’ll both type and talk, depending on what she’s doing and what her workplace is like.
That sounds a whole lot better than sitting mostly immobilized in a chair clutching a mouse and staring at a screen. Come 2022, I hope that’s the kind of workstation I’ll have.
What about 2032, 2042, and on? Would we have some kind of direct connection between the body and the computer? Well...I wrote a whole book about that, World Wide Mind.