It seems that every day, the reach and content on the Web is increasing and becoming more complex. The pace can be very intense. Yet our approach to information today is more or less the same as a half-century ago, with typewriters and paper. Buckle-in though: all of that is about to change. The jump to a better human-machine interface is coming and (in combination with fat bandwidth and powerful enough graphics cards) it will unleash a more exciting online experience that goes far beyond text on a screen. Read below (or just go to our Heritage Key area and check out how we are integrating the virtual experience into the community site).
From one perspective, new technologies should have already changed the ways in which online users deal with the web. The market is loaded with cheap, powerful hardware and low cost bandwidth. There are thousands of software applications and services and tens of thousands of sites for almost every interest area.
[/caption] From another perspective, changing user behavior is always a slower and more difficult process than most people expect it to be (or early adopters have the patience to wait around for). When the change comes, though, it is a moment of opportunity as we learn to let go of old habits and tools that no longer help us as they once did.
With that view, I think the mouse is on the edge of extinction. My guess is that within two years, you won't even be able to buy one that easily. What will that mean to the future of online experiences? Plenty. But let's first consider the mouse's desktop companion, the keyboard.
As most know, the keyboard was designed for the mechanical typewriter. The keys were designed to both optimize finger movement and to minimize the chance of the typewriter arms of getting all tangled up, though I seem to remember “a” and “e” getting caught together quite a bit. Remember the details we needed to use that technology properly? It was important to use the striking force setting to get through carbon copies. The memory of those carbon copies is still vestigal on today's emails as “CC:”. And what about white-out/typex (that made Mike Nesmith's from the Monkees mom a millionaire btw)- the only way to delete and revise without retyping? How quaint that seems now. But even with all the advances we've made, we still use this same keyboard layout, even though a pc keyboard is digital. In the future, new generations of users could be sent off to more speedy layouts such as the Dvorak keyboard patented in 1936 (with an eclectic following of some 100,000's of users today and used apparently by Steve Wozniak).
What is less well known about the QWERTY keyboard is that it was also designed to make it easy for typewriter salesmen to demo their fancy new machine to potential buyers. Imagine someone being confronted by a traveling salesman with a fancy, shiny new typewriter as asking why it works any better than paper and pencil. There should have been discussions about how typing would make people lazy and not learn how to write properly (which has probably happened). Of course people would need to learn a new skill to install a ribbon and be strong enough to pound out some words. The advantage would be consistently professional looking documents that would be much easier to read. Then the salesman would crank in a fresh piece of paper and with one finger peck out the word “typewriter” using just the top row of keys. Probably like most tech salespeople they didn't really know how to use their own technology beyond the demo.
Decades later we are still are bound by the legacy of mechanics and simple demos.
But as the Web becomes more complex, offering more varied types of media, more people are spending more time online. In this new era, use of the mouse and keyboard are becoming major obstacles to offering new kinds of user experiences. The browser is also a limiting factor as it is forces us to scroll a “page” at a time - scrolling that we have to do with, you guessed it, the mouse.
Breaking the Constraints and Releasing the New Online Experience
People increasingly want information on demand in the form they want. This is much more of an active process than zapping on tv. Further people want more threads running at once. It can hit overload at times, but compare multi-tasking to channel surfing and you will see the difference in pace and content consumption.
So, let's fast forward a few years: what does the online world look like without the mouse? We'll be using touchscreens and movement sensors to control our access to information, much in the way smartphones do today. The iPhone has really made a big impact by allowing people to be away from their desktop computers, but still have the ability to interact online.
People will still want something personal--in the way that their pc is theirs (sorta even now as hardware is shared quite a bit). Yet it won't be the computing power or the screen that is theirs--it will be their online presence and data assets and the physical device that enables navigation. Gartner guesses that by 2013 there will be more smartphones in use than PCs for the first time. More than 1 Billion people will access the internet from a mobile device as well (much more good stat porn here at TechCrunchies thanks Anand!).
I can see where “wearable” devices will be more useful to link us to the net and authenticate us. Finally the Dick Tracy watch? The content online will also be more visually oriented to convey more information faster, and better. Now could well be the moment for the avatar to start to be more significant, as online content becomes a richer environment to explore and consume. Instead of page views, we will become focused on immersion. In effect it will be the collision of the 2D, browser web with multi-player online games controlled by an iPhone. I guess you can call it the 3D wii web?
The direction of something like Natal is amazing may show us the way to a more natural human-machine interface. It would be even cooler to have goal-oriented behaviours integrated. For example, wouldn't you like to buy the cheapest copy of a book from a trusted supplier without having to search and compare so much? Or, to ask for the best value at a local restaurant for something that agrees with your diet (without already having dined on similar fare?). The challenge then is to enable lighter touch, but more powerful interactions that get people much better results than they can otherwise. Science fiction novels long ago laid out the solution to this type of interaction with information.
Then you must add in the social dimension to truly see the future. Distributed social networks have grown and evolved since the days of the CB radio - and they will be very much a part of how new content and online experiences will be distributed and how they should be designed. The combined dynamics of collaboration, competition, and status are really what seem to engage and drive exciting new online usage. The one thing CB radios have over current online communities is that they delivered real-time communications, while most of today's online social networking is delayed (asynchronous) to a greater or lesser extent. But not always - online virtual communities found in games and in virtual experience do allow for both real-time (synchronous) and asynchronous communication - and this is important for the future.
The future of the web should be better results for “social transactions”. Social transactions are things you do with other people, rather than solo, or things that vest you into a community that then enables you to do more.
The future then - the Net net means online information that is more cinematic in detail, deep in quality, smart ,and ubiquitous across access points will open a massive appetite for mainstream consumption of immersive, rich, and social content. And you won't need to use your mouse or be tied to leftovers from the mechanical revolution.
While activities like shopping, buying books or making travel plans are normal for many online users, in 2010 we are hitting the puking point with spam and linkbait—at least the hard-core online users are. The casual users and noobs are still good targets for scams and will click on even the most annoying pop-up ad. Online content is growing—but low quality content is growing most quickly.
Within all this noise and potential for risk/wasted effort, people are starting to look for relevant communities that can be trusted—trusted to de-clutter information and protect their time from useless crap. People are also taking some time to choose sites that can be trusted to hold personal information and data including images, video, and blogs. Flickr is an excellent example here (not a surprise it was started then by gamers who now have a new 2D MMO coming out called Glitch). People come to the web to do something specific—ie buy something or research something. The ways in which they do things need to be more relevant and value-adding—as well as more entertaining and potentially a place to meet people (not bots or scammers).
Creating new online communities that are focused, media-rich and vibrant is not easy today. I like two sites that have something going on these days the Daily Beast and Livestrong. They have the mix of commissioned and UGC. You can feel the energy of the contributors and the interaction of the visitors. Yet, these are still “publisher” sites though even with the UGC load. They are missing the real-time components that will/should define online communities. Within our work on Heritage Key we are starting down the road to address some of the initial opportunities that may be unique and compelling enough. Our ambition is to make Heritage Key a community enabler/manager as opposed to being another online publisher. The site is media-rich featuring original video, maps, images, directories and thousands of pieces of content. Yet, what will make HK most unique is the real-time social interactions in the 3D, virtual online areas.
At Heritage Key, you can visit the ancient world –either as it exists today in the real world, online, or virtually at various periods in time. You can plan your trip to Stonehenge on the website—or explore Stonehenge across time with other people through the virtual environments. You can study images and watch videos about King Tut—and you can go discover the tomb and see artefacts in photo-realistic 3D immersive spaces. While there is an element of casual gaming at play, there are also the real facts and accurate historical information. (check out the coverage on CNN iDesk)
The act of exploring is both active and interactive. Exploring, both with and without other people, makes the content more stimulating because one is primed for discovery. In the future at Heritage Key, explorers stand to enhance their online identities and gain status as they achieve goals within the environment, thus making their efforts pay off for them online. The end result should be more engaging, more accessible and more social experiences that ultimately yield faster learning and deeper understanding. If we get it right, then visiting a museum or an archaeological site should be more interesting and relevant. And then when it is, people should want/need to share back their experiences with the appreciative community.
Yet isolated online communities won't be enough either. We will want to move freely between thenm as we do across web sites today. Yet there is a more involved process of avatar activity and managing digital assets. We will need a sort of community of communities to make this work perhaps (more on this topic in future posts).
While the web may really start to look more and more like the “Matrix” in the next few years, the answer to why future online content engages users will be less about flashy graphics and more about what users gain by visiting and interacting. Users keep wanting more and more and only solid communities will be able to deliver satisfying experiences.