As apps move from our phones to home interiors, Will Howe, director of Map Project Office, says future product design must bring warmth and accessibility to complex technologies like AI and machine learning.
At a time when new technology has, arguably, done plenty to separate us from each other, humanising technology will bring people back together.
We are now in a transformative period in which the smartphone represents a limited solution to the majority of our digital needs. With its constrained footprint, it is diluting our experience of key features and in some cases compromising the way that apps and their services work. However, the format has enabled us to discover a multitude of ways that our lives can be improved and in doing so has expanded and enriched our everyday activities.
Not content with being an icon on a screen, these apps and algorithms are now looking for a life beyond: apps have become brands. Smart speakers and the services they offer are a great example of this. With many platforms already investigating the embodiment of their brand in 3D objects, we expect this trend for the physical to continue.
As software evolves, augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) will further facilitate this spin-off of apps into the spaces in which we live. Maintaining an emphasis on hardware, but tailored towards specific rituals, apps will extend their presence in our homes, leading to new expressions of technology.
As a piece of software, the ‘brains’ of these apps exist as embedded, invisible forces. People tend to think of it as an incomprehensible mulch of generic letters, numbers and code. But algorithms and data have a personality in terms of the functions they perform for us and the companies that made them. Design can also communicate that personality through materiality, form and interface.
The shift away from the classic archetype of technology being housed in generic boxes tethered to the wall is gaining traction. Now, products exist in 360 degrees, with no front or back, and no fixed orientation. Wirelessness is liberating hardware and emancipating apps throughout our homes.
Hardware will become increasingly complex, demanding that layers of functionality are tacitly explained.
While these products are at the forefront today, they will become so integrated within the household surroundings that they won’t feel like technology any more. The language we will use to design these objects will be more in tune with the environment they belong in. Moving away from screen-based activities, future interfaces will be designed to be more in keeping with our natural behaviour and use needs of space.
For example, where practicality needs cleanliness and durability, hardware in the kitchen might be embedded or concealed, while a product in a living room might exhibit proud prominence as an object that the entire family communicates both with and around. In this case, its physicality might engage us in a multisensory way, with tactility, warmth and friendliness.
The future multisensory experience of these app-driven products requires a unique vision. Hardware will become increasingly complex, demanding that layers of functionality are tacitly explained. These are the kinds of questions we are beginning to answer in our work with companies that explore AI and machine learning. This has become especially interesting where these pioneering factors are at the heart of their core proposition.
At a time when new technology has, arguably, done plenty to separate us from each other, we hope that these new experiences will bring people back together. In these future home scenarios we aim to humanise complex and abstract technologies by giving them a physical presence that makes them more accessible and understandable for everybody.
Will Howe is director of Map Project Office, a strategic industrial design studio that creates experience-driven products using new and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality. Will writes as part of LS:N Global’s Far Futures mini-series Future Homes.