The world has shriveled to a mass of glowing rectangles, and we are all prisoners.
Before the onset of digital technologies, we used to consume content in different layout sizes and materials. We read news on rough gray broadsheets, and content related to our interests on glossy magazines. We dove into stories on paperback books the size of our palms, and into nuggets of human knowledge on encyclopedias only slightly bigger. We flipped dusty photo albums open to take trips down memory lane, and drove to the theater to savor the latest blockbusters. In the good old days, we had all kinds of containers to house different kinds of content.
The arrival of digital technologies was supposed to be a cause for celebration. Finally, we didn’t have to carry so many things anymore. All our media, from news to movies to songs and books, could fit in one device. No matter what kind of media we fancied, we could find them within the rectangular windows of our PCs. As screens grew more and more powerful, they gobbled up many standalone devices along the way. Magazines, calculators, gaming devices, music players, cameras… they all disappeared into the omnipotent rectangle that, over time, shrank into our pockets.
The newfound convenience however came at the expense of a more immersive ‘content’ experience. Everything was locked behind glowing windows. To fit the screens, our content had to adapt in the form of apps and mobile websites. Even hardware design had to conform to the all-powerful screens. With the rise of tablets, we got a lot more screen sizes, but all that meant was a further spread of the 'glowing rectangle' epidemic.
The main problem which persisted is that the ‘all-in-one’-ification of our content and media made us numb to a change of activity and media form. Because we could do all kinds of things from playing games to watching movies to talking with friends on a single device such as an iPad, our experience with content lost its texture. Because we could access everything with mere clicks and swipes, we lost boundaries between our activities. We regressed from the time when a change in activity meant a change of device or even location, and therefore a palpable change in mood and mindset. Digital technology actually turned out to be a step back from the glorious era when the size, shape, texture, and even smell of the material housing our content added so much to the experience.
Skeuomorphism stepped in as a half-hearted attempt to add texture and context to our smooth, boring rectangles, but it was heavily criticized and rightly so. Standalone devices like e-book readers also sought to bring analogization back, but instead people saw them as incapable one-trick ponies.
The tech industry had little else up its sleeve. In recent years, we simply got more and more entrenched into the world of screens. Innovation came down to thinner bodies, bigger screens, higher resolutions, and faster processors. It's starting to get boring.
The only way to make tech exciting again is to liberate our content from their rectangular prisons. The obvious solution is beyond-the-screen technologies. A TED talk a few years ago introduced the world to augmented-reality projections (Sixth Sense). It was a revolutionary way of projecting any kind of content onto any surface, a sort of Midas touch that turned analog lead into digital gold. We're still quite far off from this vision, but we are beginning to see technologies trying to break free from the glowing rectangle in the form of wearable devices (Google Glass), virtual reality (Oculus Rift), haptic feedback (Tactus Technology), and flexible screens (Youm Display). It’s also promising to see beyond-touch input interfaces like gesture control (Kinect and Leap Motion), voice control (Siri), muscle tracking (Myo from Thalmic Labs) and eye-tracking (Smart Stay). The evolution of these technologies would not only reformat our content as they were meant to exist, it would make them more immersive than ever.
The ideal picture is a mix of both worlds - the flexibility and variability of analog surfaces coupled with the power and speed of digital interfaces. When that day comes, content will no longer conform to a limited array of devices. Instead, it will be the entire physical world that will conform to them. It's a future where we no longer have to be prisoners of our screens, and it can't arrive fast enough.