You are the interface: Interacting with our new, connected environments

During the great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, a seismic event that killed a quarter of a million people, a community of “primitive” individuals was able to preserve their culture and lives in the face of supreme devastation. Given the location of their encampments along the islands west of Burma, the Moken people, by all stretches of logic, should have been obliterated during the tsunami, but their casualties were minimal.

mobilize-2013-essayIn determining how a community void of modern technology could have survived such a devastating event, anthropologists concluded that the Moken’s relationship with their environment, through various audible and visual cues, provided them with a keen understanding of the impending danger and led them to take action that saved their lives. In the hours leading up to the tsunami, the Moken noticed that the normally incessant cicadas on land had gone silent, and that normally reclusive crabs and lobsters appeared to be collectively relocating.

What was relatively invisible or insignificant to thousands, quickly became signifying cues and a call to action for a community that spends a majority of their lives closely connected to the water. It’s at the heart of that community’s relationship with its environment that I feel we can identify an incredibly exciting set of technology innovation opportunities that may significantly alter how we interact with our own environments.

Moken Fisherman Andaman Islands

Bridging the gap between people and their surroundings

One of the great promises of the internet of things is a reconnection between modern communities and their environment. If we look at many of the tech innovations in the last 15-20 years, we find that while software and hardware have improved the quality of life around the world, they have in many ways also distanced us from our immediate, physical environments.

Companies have risen and fallen on their ability to capture a user’s eyes for long periods of time on captivating interfaces. The proliferation of activity feeds, dynamically updating web services, and ubiquitous communication have vastly improved our ability to access information. But they have also done so by forcing our attention in often-disruptive ways. This isn’t just a focus on screens. Notifications that are not contextually aware are in many ways driving a wedge between people and their environment.

teenstextingAnd so we find ourselves in a society in which 1.6 million car accidents a year can be tied back to texting and driving, in which we must be reminded to silence our devices in performance spaces, in which “disconnecting” from technology is seen as a luxury. In contrast, it is my hope that connected devices can, and should, lead to truly connected environments, and that this transformation will improve our relationship with the spaces we inhabit every day.

For me, this promise begins with the most important environment we all inhabit, our homes. In order to improve our relationship with this environment, we need to redefine how we interface with everyday objects and technology as a whole. The best interfaces don’t exist at the edge of our fingertips or even in front of our eyes. They exist within our intention.

An example is a door lock that senses your presence and initiates interaction without the user having to do anything but move towards the door. The user’s intention is the interface. You are the interface. What supports this type of intuitive interface are audible, visual, and haptic cues that signify that the home infrastructure has recognized the user and is prepared to be responsive to their needs.  Another example is a thermostat that learns when a family is home and when they are not, and adjusts the temperature in the home accordingly. Here, the user’s normal behavior informs the interface, rather than the interface requiring the user to constantly fidget with their thermostat.

Connected-home-graphicBut that isn’t enough.  For us these interactions don’t truly become transformative until these cues and interactions become seamlessly a part of our lives. In this paradigm the technology becomes something that disappears from our attention all together, rather than remaining incessantly at the forefront.

Today many of these automatic interactions are dependent on a user’s mobile device, but we will be able to remove even that degree of separation between the individual and their home in the future. Through a combination of machine learning and a growing ecosystem of sensors placed within every day objects, we envision an interface that truly feels natural and intuitive to users no matter their level of technology literacy.  When the home can anticipate the needs of its users, based off of their intention, when the home is picking up the signifying cues of the user, when the home is then relaying contextually relevant information back to the user, then we can begin to build truly empathetic and responsive environments.

Choosing between the virtual and real worlds

At the core of all of this is a simple question: How do we want to interact with technology going forward? It is my hope that the kind of relationship I have briefly outlined here will allow us to become more aware of our surroundings and more present to the people in those environments. When we consider the current trajectory of innovation, and how the internet of things exists within it, we should take this very important opportunity to alter our interactions with technology, people, and the spaces we live in.

The options are quite clear. Do we want to dig ourselves deeper into virtual environments? Or do we want to be more aware and connected to our physical environments? As the Moken people have shown us, connecting with our physical environment can have significant value.

Jason Johnson is founder and CEO of August, a company that designs smart locks for the connected home.This essay was written as part of package ahead of our Mobilize show on October 16 and 17th.

Moken fisherman photo courtesy of Shutterstock user wonderisland