How Untethered Connectivity Changes Our Relationship with Technology
Voice technology could lead to us being digitally connected all the time — but is that a good thing for society?
Having access to information without the need to be tethered to a screen promises to increase both business and personal productivity. But, at the same time, some psychologists worry that “always-on” connectivity is going to make it harder than ever to turn off the flow of information.
The emergence of voice-controlled, virtual personal assistants is creating the first mainstream implementation of “off-screen” access to the Internet. According to a recent Gartner report, “audio-centric technologies … are making access to dialog-based information ubiquitous, and spawning new platforms based on ‘voice first’ interactions.”
Voice-activated connectivity, says the report, is poised to dramatically reduce the amount of time we are unplugged. “By eliminating the need to use one’s hands and eyes for browsing, vocal interactions extend the utility of web sessions to contexts such as driving, cooking, walking, socializing, exercising, operating machinery, and so forth,” the report says.
Over the next three years, says Gartner, a third of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen, and 20 percent of brands will abandon their mobile apps. What’s more, immersive shopping is on the brink of becoming a real “thing.” The report also predicts that by 2020, 100 million consumers — about 1 percent of the world’s population — will shop using augmented reality (AR).
The benefits of connectivity
Mira Dontcheva, senior research scientist at Adobe, thinks increased connectivity will have a positive effect on human relationships, particularly when it comes to bridging physical spaces. For instance, a shared virtual reality (VR) device might enable grandparents to interact remotely with their grandchildren as the kids move from room to room in a house a thousand miles away. As VR and AR technology evolve, users will be able to stay connected with a whole different “on screen” experience. “The next natural step is that any object in your home can become a screen,” Mira says. “This will change the way we connect to content, to people, and to the world.”
Immersive technology is on track to transform personal, consumer, and B2B user experiences. “We’re on the cusp of the ‘Harry Potter’ future,” says Gavin Miller, vice president of Adobe Research. “Instead of having to search the Internet or sift through documents, intelligent assistants will materialize out of thin air to help us with daily tasks. While some of these goals will require deep breakthroughs in hard science, others may soon be experienced using a new medium that combines virtual reality and augmented reality with artificial intelligence.”
Online connectivity is evolving from a smartphone that never leaves your hand to voice-activated devices that bridge the real and virtual worlds. For businesses, the door appears to be wide open for reaching potential customers through new channels. But experts, ranging from computer scientists to psychologists, warn that nonstop virtual interactions may also have a disruptive effect on the human psyche.
Our obsession with technology
The convergence of the Internet, smartphones, and social media have been “game changers” that fuel people’s obsession with being connected, says psychologist Larry Rosen, professor emeritus and past chair of the Psychology Department at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and co-author of The Distracted Mind.
Rosen says that daily use of media and technology changes the brain’s ability to process information, affects the way in which people relate to the world, and can lead to psychological disorders — such as stress, sleeplessness, and compulsive behaviors.
Ironically, says Rosen, the evolution of human-computer interaction (HCI) may simultaneously improve connectivity while exacerbating individual isolation. The Gartner report echoes that concern: “By 2020, the average person will have more conversations with bots than with their spouse,” says the report. “And the use of bots is encroaching on our lives due to the rise of AI and conversational user interfaces.”
Rosen points to research that underscores how the growing obsession with technology causes a direct psychological reaction. For example, he says, psychologists have measured what they call a “cortisol strike” — a visible jerk in a person’s body — when they receive an email notification.
Cortisol is one of the major stress hormones associated with our so-called “fight or flight” response. “A little dab of cortisol helps gets you going in the morning,” says Rosen, “but too much can upset your central nervous system.”
Rosen and other experts also believe that many of us are responding to connected technology in an obsessive way in order to reduce the stress being caused by that very technology. This involuntary response, a classic form of Pavlovian conditioning, is leading to a form of tech-induced anxiety — FOMO or “fear of missing out.”
As wearable and embedded technology becomes more widespread, Rosen thinks this obsessive behavior is going to have an adverse effect on everything from worker productivity to student performance.
The challenge ahead
Untethered technology, says the Gartner report, will challenge designers and developers involved in HCI to find ways to balance an increasingly omnipresent digital presence with the social and psychological effects it has on users.
Adobe’s Mira agrees that unplugging, as well as privacy concerns, are issues that HCI designers need to consider. “An interesting question is whether we will be able to disconnect,” she says. “We already have challenges disconnecting with our devices. But I think people will learn coping mechanisms, such as taking digital vacations.”
As AI voice interaction evolves, machines will get smarter. “In the future, we’re going to see speech interfaces that become much more socially aware, with the ability to respond differently to different kinds of people,” predicts Mira.
One goal of HCI technology, she adds, should be to help improve quality of life, which means designers will need to consider issues such as balancing connectivity with quiet time. “One thing that I feel we often miss when we think about design of new products is that there’s so much more to life than productivity,” she says.
The future is multi-sensory and off-screen
LJ Rich, a popular British tech analyst and contributor to Click, the BBC’s premiere program on technology, thinks HCI is on the cusp of moving into a multi-sensory realm in which AI and touch converge to facilitate new types of user experiences.
The evolution of connectivity beyond the screen opens the door for a vast array of what LJ calls “deep experiences.” During a recent presentation in London, she talked about “the hug shirt,” as one simple example of the “tactile internet.” The wired t-shirt from CuteCircuit, a wearable technology company, lets you send someone a hug over the Internet.
We’re already seeing HCI move off-screen to a point where the virtual and physical worlds converge. “We’re talking about invisible computing,” says LJ. “Now, it’s all about human behavior, and how we choose to interact with our technology.”