Will spatial computing define the fourth cycle of personal computing?

Spatial computing, possibly the fourth paradigm of personal computing, is today where mobile was before the iPhone.

Personal computing moves in cycles. After the PC cycle came the web. And now we’re about to witness the mobile cycle topping off, with virtually every person on the planet above the age of 13 owning a smartphone, sooner or later. But what will the fourth cycle be about? Which will be the technology to drive it? As of summer 2019, the picture is not very clear.

In the past, each cycle was driven by interface changes. The web browser became the graphical user interface for the internet, that itself traces its roots back to 1969, now 50 years ago. And the iPhone with its haptic touch screen became the interface for the mobile internet. The next interface will be different, that’s for sure. But how?

So far, we’ve seen a few possible candidates. Voice is hot, with smart speakers already starting to take off. Gesture and sensor input is another piece of the puzzle, and artificial intelligence or machine learning are driving forces on the technology layer. On the visual side, there is the VR/AR/MR/XR combo that still waits for a breakthrough into the mass market.

Hardware fades away from the user experience

Over the past few years, a new buzzword metaphor slowly started to gain steam: spatial computing. It reflects the notion that hardware fades away from the user experience, interaction and interface.

Spatial computing makes the hardware disappear. Not physically, but digitally: we only have the output of the machine, nothing else.

At NEXT, we’ve discussed the trend that technology gets transparent and thus invisible as early as 2013. More than six years later, this new paradigm is still nascent and far from mass adoption.

What spatial computing aims for is the replacement of monitors and other digital displays in our lives with all kinds of smart glasses and head-mounted displays. But even an enthusiast like Robert Scoble, who expects that literally everything we do will change in the next decade, admits that this will not happen in the next 24 months.

We need to figure out the UX/UI for spatial computing

While we’re waiting for new visual hardware to deliver on the spatial computing promises, the software is also challenging, especially when it comes to the UX/UI. What didn’t change during the first three cycles: user interfaces fit on 2D screens. Now we’re talking about 3D, and that is a different ballgame.

For each cycle of the past, this puzzle had to be solved. The industry needed someone to figure out the UX/UI. For the PC era, it was the GUI that Apple developed for the Macintosh and Microsoft consumerised with Windows. The web wouldn’t have happened without Marc Andreessen’s Mosaic/Netscape browser. And the iPhone came with a decent touch screen and the right GUI for mobile use.

For spatial computing, this case isn’t solved yet. That’s one of the main reasons why VR/AR is slow to take off.

The immersive technology consumer market shows signs of healthy growth, but compared to the smartphone market, it is still tiny. We can expect a similar ramp-up phase. For years, mobile had been something expected to happen soon. With the advent of the iPhone, mobile finally happened.

Spatial computing, possibly the fourth paradigm of personal computing, is today where mobile was before the iPhone. Over the next decade, this will probably change. But how exactly this paradigm will turn out to be defined in terms of hardware, software and UX/UI is still open.

Last updated on October 14, 2021. Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash