Over the past two weeks, technology giants from the US and China have put computers right in front of your eyes. Social media giant Facebook and Chinese smart devices maker Xiaomi announced new smart glasses aimed at consumers. While Xiaomi’s device can play music, show directions in front of your eye and more, Facebook’s smart glasses support gestures, have a built-in voice assistant and more. The American firm partnered with eyeglass maker Ray Ban and the device is called the Ray Ban Stories.
Over the past two decades, technology companies have been working to make computers as ubiquitous as possible. All of these products push towards a future that technology firms have envisioned for a few years now. A world where computers are all around us, in walls, on doors and everywhere else. They call this “ambient computing.”
Before Facebook and Xiaomi, Snap Inc. started selling the Snapchat Spectacles augmented reality glasses in 2016, while Bose launched the audio-focused Bose Frames in 2019.
Ambient or ubiquitous computing is a concept where the combination of hardware, software, user experience, and human-machine interaction and learning is woven into the fabric of everyday life. Look at it this way: a watch or a pair of eyeglasses couldn’t do anything smart a decade ago. But, today, these devices can take calls, play music, control other devices, etc.
The catalyst for this change has been the microchip, which is getting smaller by the day. When put under a microscope, the display chip on Xiaomi’s smart glasses is the size of a grain, the company claimed in a blog post. This, combined with increasing Internet speeds and better networks through 5G have both enterprise and consumer technology firms excited about ambient computing. Amazon, Google and Apple’s smart speakers are also a step in this direction.
“The retail industry is advancing rapidly with technologies like smart displays, shelf monitoring, video analytics, chatbots, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and supply chain logistics. These technologies are now critical for many more industries, particularly with 5G cellular networks that are close to realization,” IT firm Wipro said in a blog last year.
Last year, Facebook demoed a device that reads neural activity from the brain, allowing the user to control AR applications via simple gestures. So, ideally, you could wear the band and control a connected light bulb by simply moving your hands, or type a text message/article by moving your fingers on a table instead of a keyboard.
This technology has amazing potential, especially in making devices more accessible. I'm pretty excited about the idea of a full sized keyboard anywhere I go... pic.twitter.com/JRCMjTqPNw— Mike Schroepfer (@schrep) March 18, 2021
Other companies have also filed technology patents that indicate the gradual shift towards ambient computing. Honda, for instance, recently filed a patent that discusses an advanced helmet, which will pick a rider’s neural activity and modify the bike’s settings according to it, assisting them with the ride. Meanwhile, Nike in 2018 filed a patent for golfing glasses that could allow the user to seamlessly track game data such as the ball’s location, distance to the pin, and current score.
Of course, who can forget Google’s ill-fated attempt to bring the Google Glass to the public. While that project failed, the company converted it into an enterprise device about five years later, and remains optimistic about the future of ambient computing. “Our vision for ambient computing is to create a single, consistent experience at home, at work or on the go, whenever you need it. Your devices and services [should] work together,” Rick Osterloh, the SVP of devices and services at the company, said in 2019.
But smartphones and PCs aren’t going away anytime soon
“Speculatively, in the next 10 years, ambient computing will represent an orchestrated set-up of connected devices powered by AR and AI, which will recognize what you see, what you hear, communicate with other devices, and help perform activities,” Rupantar Guha, associate project manager for thematic research at GlobalData, told TechCircle.
While we continue to move towards ambient computing with smart wearables, it must be noted that phones and PCs are not going away anytime soon. These devices will continue to be the primary source of personal computing as smart glasses and other connected devices (each of which is at its own stage of maturity) improve, offer better use-cases.
“While the devices are still developing, the maturity of their underlying technologies does point to the fact that smartphones will begin a terminal decline at some point in the future. It is unclear when this will happen and what device (or devices) will replace the smartphone. The likely alternatives could be AR smart glasses or even AR contact lenses, but we are in the very early stages of the development cycle of these devices,” Guha emphasized.
“Several technological, ethical, and commercial hurdles are still to be crossed before these devices can enter the mainstream market,” he concluded.