What I’m most interested in right now: ubiquitous video, multi-screen interfaces, CAD/CAM, Brokeland Creole

A few weeks ago the fabulous Jamison Foser tweeted a link to a “what I’m most interested in right now” piece that a friend of his had written. Sadly, I’ve lost track of the tweet and link. But I really liked the idea.

So, with a hat tip to Jamo, here’s a shortlist of the stuff that frames how I see the world at the moment.

Ubiquitous video. The history of personal computing is the story of devices becoming smaller, cheaper, more powerful, and essential to more and more daily activities. Smaller and cheaper are first order trends and simple to talk about. More powerful is a little more complicated but still basically a trend line that we can describe with specifications and benchmarks. Essential for more and more daily activities, though, is a strange brew of engineering progress, network effects, business alchemy, and mass sociology.

One way to think about this progression is to look at the evolution of media types that computers can handle. In the beginning, computers were used mostly as calculators. These new programmable calculators first replaced human calculators and then extended what those human calculators were capable of doing. Next, computers became text processors, replacing (and augmenting, and extending) typewriters, typesetting machines, teletypes, telegrams, and much more. Then all our audio became digital (first on CDs, then as files on our iPods and phones, and now as network streams). Then film disappeared, and our phones became point and shoot cameras.

Now video is crossing this digital divide. Many of the networks we depend on have the bandwidth to stream video, and most of our personal computing devices can both display and capture video. This is new. We’ve just started living in this world and are just starting to figure it out.

We can see some of the writing on the wall, though.

The economics of making and distributing video entertainment are changing and will change even faster over the next few years. Cable and satellite television as we know them are going to go away because consumers are learning to watch video content on demand, anywhere.

The availability of video from cheap, tough, small, high-quality cameras has changed how we watch sports and what sports are available for us to watch. So has internet posting and streaming.

The video phones that we’ve been promised since the 1950s are here (in the form of Microsoft Skype, Google Hangouts, and Apple FaceTime).

Video surveillance of all of us, all the time, is possible now in both public and private spaces. And, in fact, we surveil each other in an ad-hoc, decentralized way and post the results online. We check up on our cats and our baby-sitters when we are at work or out for the evening.

Quality control processes in many different kinds of manufacturing have benefited enormously from cheap image sensors and good image processing software.

Our cars are learning to drive themselves, thanks in part to these computer vision building blocks.

Multi-screen interfaces. Today most of us have multiple screens near us most of the time. We carry phones, tablets, and laptops. We have screens in the dashboards of our cars. We hang flat-panel screens on our living room walls and in our meeting rooms. Stores put screens on end-cap displays. Screens line the escalators in metro stations.

Screens are getting cheaper (and brighter, and higher-resolution, and lower power) every year. And they’re getting “smarter” and more connected, too.

We’re starting to have a critical density of pixels around us all the time, with good computing horsepower and network connections attached to these pixels. But we don’t yet have the software infrastructure to really make use of these screens. We treat each screen as a digital island. Our phones don’t know what we’re doing on our tablets, and our televisions don’t know what we’re doing at all.

This is just starting to change. I can now stream video from my phone to my living room television using an Apple TV or Google Chromecast device. A few innovative video games make use of both my phone screen and my big TV screen simultaneously. My web browser knows what tabs I have open right now across all my computing devices. I can use my phone as a virtual color mixing palette for Adobe Photoshop running on my laptop.

These little bits of new functionality are glimpses of the future. In a few years, all the applications we use every day will assume that they may be harnessing multiple devices and screens. (Or, at the very least, will assume that we expect them to sync data in real time across multiple devices.)

Not that long ago, text-only, command-line applications were the norm. Then hardware and software improved and we began to expect that our applications would be graphical and run in the context of a graphical operating system. A programmer today can still sit down and write a command-line application, but that’s a specific (and possibly anachronistic) choice. Graphical is the norm.

In the future, single-screen, single-device applications will be an anachronism, too, just like command-line applications. Kids in computer archeology classes will boot up iOS7 emulators to view Google Maps 2014 sessions reconstructed from NSA network traffic captures newly available under the Freedom of Information Act: “*Can you believe this program ran on an always-networked ‘smart phone’ but didn’t sync up with a bigger screen nearby, Grandpa? No wonder people had to wear glasses. They were squinting at their phones all the time.*” I remember, kid. I was there.

Design and fabrication are being eaten by software. For years now, most of the products we buy in stores have been designed using Computer Aided Design software. But that software has been complicated, specialized, very expensive, and difficult to learn. And the products themselves were largely fabricated and assembled manually in large factories using assembly-line processes that have evolved only incrementally over the past half-century.

A combination of new technologies is changing this. Computer Aided Manufacturing tools have become both much less expensive and much more capable. On the low end, desktop milling machines and 3D printers are now within reach of hobbyists and small businesses. The broad availability of these machines has created new demand for more accessible and more flexible design software. On the high end, GE and Boeing are making parts for airplanes and jet engines using 3D printers and Apple and Samsung assembly lines are impressively automated. The technologies that are developed at both ends of the market are trickling down and up, cross-pollinating.

In many cases, it’s now possible to design a physical part at home on a laptop computer and then machine or fabricate a single copy of that part for a reasonable cost. Which opens up the possibility of sharing designs online (Thingiverse), tweaking individual designs at order time for each customer (Nike iD and the Motorola Moto X), building new kinds of businesses around fulfilling small batch fabrication orders (Shapeways and eMachine Shop), and designing products from the ground up around “mass customization” (the amazing algorithmic products from Nervous Systems in Cambridge, Massachusetts).

New 3D scanning and computer vision technologies will open up yet more possibilities. As it becomes easier and easier to scan the world around us, copy physical parts, and match a physical part to its real-world context, all kinds of possibilities emerge. In industrial applications, fixtures, fittings, and repairs become vastly easier. On the consumer side, we will have more (and more affordable) access to purpose-built objects.

Over the past 150 years, modern manufacturing was invented, scaled up, diversified, and globalized. As the tools that underpin manufacturing are computerized – as software eats manufacturing – we should expect things to change again. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back and some kinds of manufacturing jobs will return to the US. Or perhaps not. Perhaps smaller-scale, more locally focused operations will take some market share away from big factories. Or perhaps, for some kinds of goods (like clothing), the opposite will be true.

Melting pots. I’m a citizen of the United States of America, firmly convinced both of American Exceptionalism and that this exceptionalism is nothing more (and nothing less) than our identity as a diverse, flexible, messy, vibrant, evolving, and tolerant society. As long as we cultivate and maintain that identity, we will be a great place, a great idea, and a great experiment. Easier said than done, though!

And this identity – this special kind of exceptionalism – isn’t actually special to us alone. There’s no monopoly on openness. In fact, taking the long view, this melting pot idea is the fabric of human life, everywhere, all the time, since the beginning. History isn’t a sequence of battles, elections, and great individual achievements. History is cultural syncretism: the long, slow (then sometimes not so slow), constant diffusion of ideas, world views, and lived experiments.

I can’t say it any better than Michael Chabon’s character, Archie, in Telegraph Avenue, so I’ll just quote:

“Creole, that’s to me, it sums it up. That means you stop drawing those lines. It means Africa and Europe cooked up in the same skillet. Chopin, hymns, Irish music, polyrhythms, talking drums. And people. Cochise Jones, his mother was mostly, uh Choctaw, I think it was. Me, my father’s half Mexican, which is already half something else. Brokeland Creole. Around here used to be Mexico. Before that, Spain, before that, Ohlone. And then white people, Chinese, Japanese, black folks bringing that bayou, that Seminole, that Houston vibe. Filipinos. Toss ‘em on the grill, go ‘head. Brokeland Creole. And some more Mexicans, Guatemalans. Thai, Vietnamese, Hmong. Uh, Persion. Punjab, Mr. Mirchandani, here’s an example right here. All them good samosa back there, piled up next to the fried chicken? I – Yeah. I know I had a point I was going to make. Ha, seriously. Yeah, no, okay.

And a few things that didn’t make the list.

If there were more hours in the day: redesigning the electric grid for the 21st century; diverse uses for small aerial vehicles, which are becoming increasingly inexpensive and capable; affordable housing; fabric structures; micropayments; big data in health care; a coffee table book on great hotel breakfasts of the world.

Originally published at machine-theory.com.

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