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The future of interaction (according to the Web Summit)

Jonathan Whiteside
Jonathan Whiteside
Global SVP Technology & Engineering
6 min read
15 December 2016

At this year’s Web Summit, there was no shortage of great speakers, each sharing their own unique experiences and knowledge across a wide range of topics. There were a few distinct themes that ran through the summit with the most interesting, in my opinion, being the ‘future of interaction’.

Virtual and augmented reality

What is the ‘future of interaction’, I hear you ask?

Okay, so let’s get the obvious one out of the way first.  Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality is a thing – it’s happening, and is already well established with early adopters.

This was best shown in the ‘Playstation VR & The Future of Entertainment’ talk, hosted on the Content Makers stage and featuring Shawn Layden, President of Sony Interactive Entertainment.

For the games industry, 2016 was the year of VR but for it to really take off, the film industry needs to get on board, and Sony see themselves as the gateway to VR for the masses.

Shawn described how the Playstation 4 has an install base of 50 million devices, and how the Playstation is the most popular device for streaming Netflix globally. This, coupled with the fact that Sony owns Universal Studios, means that they have found themselves in a unique ecosystem where they can deliver VR experiences to 50 million users across gaming and films.

You can expect the first VR cinematic experiences to hit the mainstream over the next 3-5 years, at which point you, the user, will be at the centre of a digital experience, interacting with a virtual world around you. Prepare to have your mind blown.

An interactive world

VR is essentially smoke and mirrors, creating an artificial world that responds to you as a user. But what if you could actually interact with the world around you? Well, it’s not as far away as you’d think; enter Dr Ivan Poupyrev, Technical Lead of Google ATAP. Ivan was easily the highlight of the Web Summit for me.

Where many speakers told us what the future could hold, Ivan showed us. He works at Google ATAP on Project Soli and Project Jacquard, which aim to take interactions beyond an interface to create the foundation of an ‘Interactive World’.

Project Soli

Project Soli intends to create a new language of interactions for everyday products (such as mobile phones, televisions or light switches), that don’t require screens based on gesture controls – your hand becomes a universal remote for the world around you.

Ivan and his team have already developed the technology – a radar sensor the size of a coin. They have already partnered with LG to create a watch concept, and JBL for a speaker concept using gesture controls to interact with the devices – watch Ivan demo them here.

But here’s the killer bit, Ivan knows Google simply cannot remanufacture every product in existence to use the tech, so it’s completely agnostic and manufacturers can use it in any of their products.

Project Jacquard

Project Jacquard is a great example of how Google is empowering manufacturers with technology.With the textile industry picked as the guinea pig, Ivan took the radar technology built as part of Project Soli and used it to develop an interactive fabric. The ambition? That all clothes become wearables!

They worked with Saville Row tailors to weave the technology into fabrics, and then took a denim fabric with the technology to Levi’s. Together they built the Commuter Jacket, that interacts with your phone using gesture controls on the sleeve.
But, as always with Ivan, there’s a clever twist. Commuter is made using no special manufacturing techniques or specially trained staff. It is manufactured entirely from existing processes, with the same staff as any other denim jacket they produce.

In summary, Ivan and Google ATAP are reimagining the world around us as an interactive and intuitive place. They aren’t just building interactive experiences such as VR, but redesigning interaction itself. If VR is the near future, Ivan and his team at Google ATAP are the long-term future of interaction.

What’s the point?

Ten years from now, I’m sat in the DEPT® Office with my keyboard laid out in front of me (unique to my setup using VR tech), and I’m typing an email on my virtual keyboard, using gesture controls from Project Soli. But what’s the point? Tristan Harris, a former design philosopher at Google, believes he has the answer…

The point, according the Tristan, is to develop meaningful interactions. Think about if your interactions weren’t just an interface with a particular device or software, but an input for a connected world that delivers real value to you as an end user.

Tristan explains that tools such as Facebook, Tinder and Google compete in the attention economy. They provide functionality that grabs your attention for long enough to either put an advert in front of you, or capture data. Facebook uses your ‘likes’ to target adverts at you, Tinder provides you an endless stream of potential matches based on nothing more than guesswork, and Google provides you with results from a search term whilst capturing huge amounts of information.

But what if your interaction with one of these tools informed an interaction with the next? Then we shift from the attention economy to providing real value.
Imagine you open Tinder and instead of an endless stream of ‘potentials’, you get a smaller set of intelligent matchups based on ‘friends’ or connections you have on Facebook. Not only are these individuals a better match (as they’re based on your social connections), but Google enhances these matches with people of similar interests who are based nearby. It then suggests a restaurant close to a match’s location for date (which they liked on Facebook, by the way).

This is just an example of how Tristan suggests your interactions could become a cumulative profile of who you are, to inform and develop more meaningful interactions.

So, what’s the point? To me, it’s clear – among the digital white noise that surrounds us and as with any human interaction we have, aren’t we all seeking something more personal and, well, more meaningful? As the digital world becomes interwoven with the physical world, surely meaningful interactions are the key to keeping this world human, as opposed to a plot line to a futuristic, dystopian film.

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Global SVP Technology & Engineering

Jonathan Whiteside