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Tracy Lee | ladyleet for This Dot

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Alternative Interfaces Are Nothing New, But the Time to Adapt is Now

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s space-race era epic, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, prompting several outlets to do side-by-side comparisons on how the film’s depiction of digital technologies matched up against what we really had around the turn of the century.

Of course, no one can do this without mentioning the film’s central antagonist, HAL 9000, a sentient computer who interacts with the doomed characters through a verbal interface, reminiscent of the way that contemporary users deploy Amazon’s Alexa to order pizza.

So, while some might point to this similarity as proof of Kubrick’s intuition, the reality is that we have been pushing towards zero U/I, or interfaces that do not rely on screens, for decades.

The concept of zero U/I was first defined by then Fjord Design Director, now frog Creative Director, Andy Goodman, during a 2015 speech at San Francisco’s Solid Conference. He describes it as a natural approach to user-interface interactions, which abandons the abruptness of the screen in favor of a more natural environment, through which users can communicate with devices using speech, motion, and even thought.

Sound familiar?

One of the earliest arguable examples of this concept, however elementary when compared to the technologies of today, predated even Kubrick’s film. In 1952, Bell Laboratories invented “Audrey” a rudimentary speech recognition software that was able to “understand” single digit numbers. Considering the fact that touch screen technology was not patented, let alone produced successfully, until over two decades later, zero U/I technologies are less the fantastical subject of speculative sci-fi films, than they are an example of alternative interfaces that have been developing right beside more traditional screen and/or touch interfaces for years.

Of course, we know why screen interfaces became the gold standard for consumer technology. They limit the way that users can possibly interact with applications. Imagine having to account for any possible variation in user input during the age of punch card programming! Being able to tailor your code to a restrictable set of user inputs makes our lives as developers easier, but doesn’t provide the absolute best user experience that we now know is possible.

Artificial intelligence will prove to be the most impactful technology in the push away from screens. Without the ability to control for linear interactions, developers will need to rely heavily on machine learning to allow programs to interpret zero U/I input. One will logically progress alongside the other, and the technological landscape is preparing itself.

Don’t just take my word for it, according to last year's AI Index, the number of AI-centric start-ups had increased 110% from 2015 against only 30% for all other start-ups. While it’s still too early to draw any absolute conclusions about the long-term growth rate of artificial intelligence, it is probable that both investments in, and demands for these technologies will continue to grow exponentially.

With a larger move toward data and artificial intelligence integration into common technologies, users are going to expect to be able to use more, and more diverse zero U/I technologies in their daily lives. This isn’t only an amazing challenge for us to accept as developers and business owners, but also the standard we have an obligation to meet for differently-abled users who are challenged by screen interfaces, or who are unable to interact with applications in the linear fashion that programs are typically coded to expect.

Interface diversification is not a new technology, or a new demand. Technological innovators have been pushing towards it while artists and storytellers have been capitalizing on our desire for these technologies for years. Users have never been slow to adapt to more obtuse versions of these technologies, and demand will only continue to grow for more advanced forms.

Zero U/I, as well as other AI reliant consumer technologies, are the absolute most performant interfaces we can imagine at this moment in history. The sooner companies adapt, the more time they will give themselves to affordably, and strategically integrate data and AI reliant interfaces into the software they create.

It isn’t a question of if, but of when, and how quickly?

Will your business or career lead this digital revolution, or find itself playing catch up?

This Dot Inc. is a consulting company which contains two branches : the media stream and labs stream. This Dot Media is the portion responsible for keeping developers up to date with advancements in the web platform. In order to inform authors of new releases or changes made to frameworks/libraries, events are hosted, and videos, articles, & podcasts are published. Meanwhile, This Dot Labs provides teams with web platform expertise using methods such as mentoring and training.

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