I was gassing up my car today when I noticed an decommissioned pay phone stall on the side of road (see the first picture above). The now cheap and ubiquitous mobile phone has turned the pay phone into an anachronistic dinosaur. I wonder how many pay phones actually turned a profit before the cell phone era? And how many (if any) do so now? Clearly this one was a liability for whichever company had been operating it.
This bit of outmoded technology got me thinking about other everyday technologies that may one day seem quaint. A scene from Star Trek IV stuck with me through the years: after the intrepid crew travels back to the 20th century to find a humpback whale, Scotty sits down in front of an old-school Macintosh and picks up the mouse, assumes it is a microphone, says "hello computer" several times to no avail, and quickly becomes frustrated once he realizes he has to interact with the computer using a mouse and keyboard instead of speech. (For those of you who are geeky enough to remember what Scotty was doing sitting in front of the Mac SE in that scene, keep in mind that I’d happily invest in a transparent aluminum company.)
As Brad has mentioned on his blog, we spend time at Foundry Group thinking about the evolution of human-computer interaction (HCI) and the fact that the mouse/keyboard/GUI paradigm is getting a bit long in the tooth, while alternative means to interact with our computers and other devices are popping up all over the place — think iPhone, Guitar Hero, Wii, or one of Mobius VC’s portfolio companies, Reactrix.
A key driver of changes in the human-computer interface is the fact that we are now endowing our machines with senses via the availability of ever cheaper sensors. Cameras (in the human visual spectrum but also beyond in infrared or UV) for vision, microphones (see our investment in Akustica) for hearing, track pads and touch screens for the sense of touch, and a host of other sensors such as GPS, accelerometers, SQUIDs or vibration sensors can provide our machines with senses we don’t even possess as humans. Integrate these sensors with copious amounts of processing power and smart software, and you get wonderful things like the face detection in my new Sony camera, voice recognition systems (still rudimentary but improving steadily), "multi-touch" displays, fun and games with the Wii and Guitar Hero, and Minority Report-esque systems that react to gestures you make with your hands.
And while many of the examples I’ve provided here are in consumer devices and in "play" applications, rest assured that these new capabilities will have equally profound impact in the worlds of business, science and engineering. And remember too that increasingly, interacting with a computer doesn’t have to be done while sitting in front of a PC, smartphone or game console. Computers are gaining these senses while at the same time they are becoming invisible and pervasive in our environment. Heady stuff rife with opportunity…