Time to say bye bye

Time to say bye bye

Smartphone sales peaked in 2017, while voice and AR are closing the gap between devices and our senses. Perhaps our addiction to screens will end sooner than we could imagine.

Imagine waking up on a rainy Thursday. Enjoying the comfort of your warm bed, you are somewhat dreading the thought of stepping onto the cold floor to get into the shower. “If you get up now you’ll have time for a nice shower before your coffee gets cold”.

It could have been your own thoughts, the voice inside your head, but it is your digital assistant speaking. It’s still dark as you slowly get out of bed.

“Lights to ten percent”, you say, and as you make your way to the bathroom the voice follows you into the ­shower, gives you the morning news update and tells you to bring an umbrella to work because it might rain on your way back home. Your first meeting, which you had totally forgotten about, has been moved to a different building.

As you head over to the kitchen you catch the smell of fresh coffee and see it waiting for you in your favorite cup on the countertop. The fridge tells you it has ordered more tomatoes, and that you have a couple of eggs left if you want them for breakfast. While cooking the eggs, your eyes are resting on the countertop which is now displaying the apartments that have appeared in your saved search overnight. My next apartment should have heated bedroom floors, you’re thinking, that would make it so much easier to get up in the morning.  With a simple gesture you swipe through the pictures, read the description, and the gentle voice asks if you would like to be reminded about the viewing on ­Sunday.

“There are some delays so you should leave in about ten minutes if you don’t want to be late. Oh, and don’t forget that umbrella.”

We are ready for new interfaces

This might sound like fiction, but digital experiences like the ones described above aren’t taking place in some far off, imaginary future. Many are happening right now, thanks to emerging technologies that are creating deeper connections between our physical and digital worlds. A shift is underway where digital experiences will no longer be ­confined to phones, laptops, desktops, and TV screens, but surrounding us in more subtle yet immersive ways. Blending the digital and real worlds, augmented reality (AR) and voice are spearheading this movement. At the same time there are several signs indicating that we are ready for new interfaces. Smartphone sales and ­usage peaked in 2017 and are both starting to flatten out. We ­observe signals indicating that people want to spend less time staring at screens. Considering that the average person spends around 3.5 hours on their phone each day, this is probably good news. Research also shows that phone overuse is making us unhappy, alters our memory, and some even classify internet addiction as a new mental disorder.

Even the big tech players are listening to these signs and making some efforts to reduce the consumption of unimportant content. Facebook recently changed its news feed algorithm with the aim of displaying more personal content and fewer adverts and viral videos, introducing the term “time well spent”. And with the new iOS 12 update, iPhones will have a built-in screen time tool, with which users can set limits to their phone usage.

But more efficient in curbing our screen addiction is the rise of new user interfaces that naturally draw our attention away from our phones. Voice and augmented reality are often referred to as ambient user interfaces because they appear in our immediate environment but are invisible unless called upon or contextually relevant. Therefore, when we lift our eyes off the screen, we can interact with new ­interfaces in a manner that lets us be more present in life.

However, while less screen time is a likely consequence, the implications of AR and voice are so much greater. AR and voice are also amazing storytelling mediums, both able to efficiently and effectively convey information. And while many draw a parallel between voice assistants and radio, the key difference is the interactive dialogues one can have with a voice assistant.

Instead of listening to a linear stream of news, users can now choose which topics to skip or follow more closely. Fictional stories can take a new turn of events by the ­command of the user. Instead of pressing buttons, we can control their environment by speaking to machines in the same way we speak to each other. Since we already know how to do this, voice as a user interface removes a lot of traditional barriers to technology adoption and is suitable for both old and young audiences. AR represents the next big innovation in how we produce and consume content, to which pictures and motion pictures were the preceding ones. Whether it’s for news stories, fictional movies or product pictures on a website, most agree that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. But through augmented reality dramatic news can be viewed safely in your own home. Imagine experiencing the Tham Luang cave – the cave in Thailand where the 12 boys were trapped this summer – at a scale and level of detail that far surpass that of text and image. AR gives us the ability to teleport someone into an environment or situation that would otherwise be impossible for them to experience. This brings about a whole new world of opportunity, not only for storytelling or commerce but also for entertainment and medical purposes. It turns out that a good way to cure arachnophobia is to pet a virtual creepy crawler because the brain can’t really tell the difference!

“Instead of listening to a linear stream of news, users can now choose which topics to skip or follow.”

Spending less time on our phones is not going to be easy and it will not happen overnight. Virtually all the products we interact with on our phones are built for instant gratification and addiction, releasing the same hormones as drugs and sugar when in use. We stay locked in and logged on to these apps because we fear that if we stop using them, we might miss something important in our (however distant) friends’ lives.

There is no guarantee that future AR and voice applications won’t build upon the same addictive behaviors as our current smartphone apps. But for designers and product developers, these new inter­faces provide a blank slate – an exciting opportunity to experiment but also to define what our future user experiences should look like. And hopefully, with experience from today’s screen addiction, the new technology will be designed to filter out the noise for us and be optimized around our needs.

We might not be ready or able to completely ditch our smartphones just yet, but a combination of AR and voice commands will soon be the primary interface for anything spontaneous. This means that technology could help you be more present in the real world, while elegantly serving you with information, assistance and immersive experiences on demand.

This is happening in Schibsted:

Voice – VG

With both Google Assistant and Alexa improving and becoming available in more languages, the interest for voice as a user interface is starting to grow. Schibsted’s newspaper VG created one of the first actions (skill/app) for Google Assistant in Norway and has been experimenting with text-to-speech in order to give Norwegian listeners live news updates and sports results. Because voice is uncharted territory, two of the key focus areas has been user research and getting MVPs in front of users. People are excited about AR – but also get very impatient if the technology fails. Whether it’s to reach out at different hours or to people who are old or young or otherwise unable to use phones or computers, voice represents a very interesting opportunity.

AR – Finn Shopping

While open source software development kits by Apple and Google, ARcore and ARkit, revolutionized the AR industry last year, the final push for mainstream adoption is anticipated to come from AR on the web. With the iOS 12 software update from Apple this fall, a feature called AR QuickLook was launched to all iPhone and iPad devices. This makes it possible to view 3D objects in AR in Safari, with the tap of an icon and with no extra app installation needed. Finn Shopping is the first Schibsted company to try the new feature. Working with the Platform and Technology Trends team, they have partnered with an external firm for 3D model content creation and are now launching AR QuickLook in chosen categories on the Finn website. AR QuickLook will help users make better buying decisions, allowing them to view new furniture items in the context of their own home, comparing sizes, colors and textures in a realistic way.

Voice – Aftonbladet

Aftonbladet Daily is Sweden’s first daily news podcast. It’s available for smart speakers using Google home and Amazon Alexa. The launch is part of a larger push into voice and audio by the new department Aftonbladet Labs. The podcast is produced in collaboration with podcast platform Acast. Aftonbladet recently released a service for Google Assistant where users can get the latest news read to them and also access the title’s full catalog of podcasts. In Sweden news aggregator Omni is also launching a news pod, in Norway Finn Travel has built a functioning flight search during a two-day hackathon and in France Leboncoin has been experimenting with text-to-speech in its jobs vertical.