Take a look at the icons across the top of your phone. They can be split into three categories. Some represent the different ways your phone is communicating with other devices right now: 4G, Bluetooth, WiFi, and NFC. One tells you about its state of charge. And one or more tell you about the current interface settings — is it set to ‘Do Not Disturb’, for example.
These three functions represent the three main challenges in making our mobile devices ‘transparent’: so natural to use that we forget that they are not just extensions of ourselves.
One of the primary interruptions in the flow of use of our smart devices is lost connectivity, or the interactions required to restore it. Poor mobile reception, jumping between WiFi hotspots — it all diminishes the experience and forces us from near-unconscious interactions with our devices and their services, into conscious and often frustrating steps.
Fortunately, an end to this is on the horizon. 5G (alongside technologies like Hotspot 2.0/802.11u) should start to bring multiple networks together, so that you can roam more seamlessly between low-speed wide area networks and high-speed short-range networks — including Wi-Fi, maintaining the optimum connection at all times.
Wherever you are, your device should be connected, and you shouldn’t ever have to think about how — or how to improve it.
Charging our phones is a major interruption to the experience. Even with the chunky battery on my middleweight Android device, I found myself recharging this week by the middle of the afternoon. Having to carry around a charger or extra battery pack is not ideal.
Again though, there are signs this could be fixed. Battery tech is improving, but more importantly, there are signs that truly wireless charging could be getting closer to practical, in-home, in-car, and in-office applications.
The ideal is a device that runs for ever. That literally never needs charging, because it constantly charges itself by harvesting energy from radio waves — either from a dedicated charging station or from other communications frequencies, including light.
This is some way off but it’s now a visible possibility.
The third dimension of the transparent device is its user interface. This is perhaps where we have the most work to do.
Voice assistants are starting to allow our tech to communicate with us in more natural ways. But they’re not right for every use case. We will need a completely new visual and physical interface paradigm to replace the touchscreen — probably something in Mixed Reality.
Meanwhile, we can start to offload more of our current manual interactions to automated systems in the background. A lot of friction has been cut out of our transactions — shopping, travel, ticketing — but there’s still more to go. And many of these functions shouldn’t need any manual input at all.