iPhone 5? Yawn. What Will the 'Phone' of 2022 Look Like?


IDEO's Stillion converged on the same thought. He foresaw a future where your phone sits jewelry-like somewhere on your body, controlled largely via voice, but also acting semi-autonomously. In this scenario, your phone is hardly a phone anymore, in terms of being a piece of hardware. Rather, it's a hyper-connected device with access to your data from everywhere. It might even have finally have lost the misnomer, phone. "It's no longer your phone but the feed of your life," he said. "It's the data you're encountering either pushed on you or pulled by you. Either the things you're consuming or the things you're sharing."

You could TiVo your life, constantly recording and occasionally sharing. That sounds exhausting to me, but Stillion said that's where the artificial assistants will come in. "What does the right level of artificial intelligence when brought to the table allow us to do with our day-to-day broadcasting of our lives?" he asked. "Is it dialing in sliders of what interests we want to share. How open we feel one day versus the next? Someone is going to deal with that with some kind of fluid affordance." 

Think of it not as frictionless sharing, but as sharing with AI greasing the wheels. "You'd almost have an attache or concierge. Someone that's whispering in your ear," he said. 

What's this all have to do with input methods? Much of the interacting we have to do now concerns giving a piece of software a lot of information and context about what we want. But if it already *knows* what we want, then we don't have to input as much information.

What's fascinating to me is that I think we'll see an "all of the above" approach to user input. It'll be touch screens and gestures and voice and software knowing what we want before we do, and a whole bunch of other stuff. When I interviewed anthropologist and Intel researcher Genevieve Bell, she asked me to think about what it's like to sit in a car. They're 120 years old and yet there are still maybe half a dozen ways of interacting with the machine! There's the steering wheel to direct the wheels, pedals for the gas and break, some kind of gear shifting, a panel for changing interior conditions, and levers for the windshield wipers and turn signals. Much work is even done automatically, so it doesn't need a system like, say, automatic gear shifting. The car is a living testament to the durability of multiple input methods for complex machines.


"I had an engineer tell me recently that voice is going to replace everything. And I looked at him like, 'In what universe?' " Bell said to me. "Yes, people like to talk, but if everyone is talking to everything all around them, we'll all go mad. We're moving to this world where it's not about a single mode of interaction. ... The interesting stuff is about what the layering is going to look like, not what the single replacement is."


The first thing Clay Shirky says when I ask him about the future of phones is this. "Bizarrely, I don't even remember why we were talking about this, but my eight-year-old daughter, yesterday said, 'Oh, cell phones are eventually going to be one [biological] cell big and you can just talk into your hand,'" Shirky said. "She totally internalized the idea that the container is going to keep shrinking. When an eight-year-old picks it up, it's not like she's been reading the trade press. This is in the culture."

And The Incredible Shrinking Phone is certainly one vision for form factor changes. "So one thing you can imagine is tiny little devices that are nothing but multi-network stacks and a kind of personal identifying fob that lets you make a phone call from a Bluetooth device in your ear, or embedded in your ear, or embedded in your hand, as my daughter would say," he said.

But Shirky presented an alternative, too, that is equally striking.

"And then the parallel or competitive future is the slab of glass gets unbelievably awesome. Rollable and Retina display is the normal case," he said. "Everyone has this rollable piece of plastic, something that works like an iPad but can work like a phone when it's rolled up."

Look at the recent trend in phone design. All the screens are getting better. More unexpected is that many are also getting *bigger*. Sure, the iPhone 5 just got bigger, but the Samsung Galaxy Note II is 5.5 inches long! (One sad consequence of this future would be the permanent dominance of cargo pants.) I've only seen one of these in the wild, at Incheon Airport in Seoul. It seemed like a joke. This ultra-long iPhone 20 actually is a joke. And yet ... Unlike Steve Jobs' vision of Two Sizes Fitting All, it seems like all the screen sizes from 4 to 9 inches (and beyond?) are going to be filled with better-than-print resolution devices.

The other ubiquitous referent for the phone form of the future is Google Glasses. I have to give kudos to Google for creating such an inescapable piece of technology. No one can seriously discuss what things might look like in 10 years without at least namechecking something that looks like this: 


Google co-founder Sergey Brin looking good, wearing Google Glass.

Google Glass -- or its successors -- will allow you to have a kind of heads-up display (maybe?) and life-logging recorder right on your face at all times. They are one vision of a phone that pushes hard on merging digital and physical information ("augmented reality"). In some sense, they are Shirky or Buckland's tiny fob plus a transparent screen that sits directly in front of your eye.


So far, we've run through ideas that fit most of the trends and visions of the past few years. But what if there is a far more radical departure from our current paradigm? 

It's obvious that the future will be full of devices that connect to your phone wirelessly. Playing music through Bluetooth on a JamBox or printing from your phone is just the beginning. Last night, my friend and writer Andy Isaacson described a Burning Man camp in which 3D printed objects were delivered by helicopter drone to people who'd ordered them on the Playa and agreed to carry a GPS tracker so the drone could find them. 

This is really happening today.

Already you can get a tiny helicopter and control it with your iPhone. Wired's Chris Anderson is working on bringing the cost of full-capability drones -- DIY Drones -- down to consumer levels. Already you can have cameras installed in your home and monitor them from your device. Already you can unlock a ZipCar with your phone. Already you can control a Roomba with your phone. And none of this mentions all the actual work you can do with tiny motors and actuators hooked through the open-source Arduino platform. Add it all up and your phone could become the information hub that allows you to monitor and control your fleet of robot data scavengers, messengers, and servants.


We tend to think of disruptions as coming out of ever more capable technology, but what if the communication devices we actually use in the future are ultra low-cost, close-to-disposable devices. Already, according to wireless-industry trade group CTIA, there are more than 70 million pay-as-you-go subscriptions in the United States. The capabilities and prices of these phones will continue to decline. Perhaps in 10 years you will be able to buy an iPhone 5's worth of capability for $10. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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