From the click to artificial intelligence

Interfaces dictate our relationship with the digital world. Mechanical appendage or magic touch, they allow us to exchange with and control our electronic devices.

Illustration: Henrique Campeã

Today, the evolution of technology may dematerialise interfaces and break down the barriers between man and machine. Thus, it is possible to progressively reduce the learning curve of technologies that we already understand. Before, an instruction manual was required in order to use a computer — today, these devices are intuitive and ergonomic. Tomorrow, they will be transparent.

1960 | In front of the interface

Illustration: Henrique Campeã

Technical tools: Keyboard and mouse
A block of crude wood with a button. No, this is not contemporary art, but rather the first computer mouse, invented in 1963 by the American engineer Douglas Engelbart. Deriving its name in part from the mouse tail-like wire, we waited until 1999 to cut the cord with the first optical mouses. The first scroll wheel was released in 1995, opening the doors to the potential for endless scrolling. The keyboard also saw the light of day in the 60s — directly inspired by its predecessor, the typewriter.

The birth of this iconic pair of input tools is maybe among the most well-known in the history of the computer.

Although well-studied through years of research in ergonomics and HMI (Human-Machine Interaction), it’s always taken time to adapt to and understand the keyboard and mouse. However, the apparent complexity of these two devices is also their most powerful asset. Once in hand, a several hundred keystrokes, buttons, and mouse scrolls allow us to perform tasks rapidly. It’s not surprising that the keyboard layout configuration was closed off by the ISO 995 norm in 1984, and the evolution of the mouse has stagnated over the past fifty years.

Even though the computer-keyboard-mouse trio was able to establish itself in domains such as education and video games, sales have declined since 2012, as the industry finds it increasingly difficult to seduce the consumer market. Do the keyboard and mouse have a place on a desk or are they just to gather dust? Unclear. It is worth betting that they still have a long career ahead of them in the workplace.

2007 | On the interface

Illustration: Henrique Campeã

Tap, Swipe, Flick, Pinch
Believe it or not, the first tactile screen has already celebrated its 40th birthday; the ‘PLATO IV’ was invented in 1972 by IBM. It was not until the 2007 release of iPhone and iPad in 2010, that the touchscreen became truly ubiquitous in the world of smartphones and tablets.

After the invention of the touchscreen, tools of interaction like the keyboard and mouse are disappearing. We now touch the interface directly. For many, this represents the beginning of the end of the personal computer — it only took three years for smartphone sales to surpass that of computers. The same can be said about tablets, which overtook computer sales in 2012. To understand this phenomenon, one must study the method of interaction employed with these new devices: touch.

With the swipe, interaction has become more concrete, and practically physical. With the simple movement of the index finger we swipe right on Tinder, we turn the pages of a book on Kindle, or we finish a level on Two Dots.

In 2016, 65% of the French population owned smartphones, and 45.3% owned a tablet. With two fingers, one finger, two hands, one hand, the mobile screen allows for access to content that we want, where we want, when we want.

With the exception of certain professional devices like the Microsoft Surface product line, touch remains primarily oriented towards communication and content consumption rather than content production. As evidence, 66% of 15–24 year olds consume videos on their mobile phones for an average of 35 minutes a day.

2015 | At the heart of interface

Illustration: Henrique Campeã

The fantasy of a hologram soon within reach
The Ultimate Display, also known as ‘The Sword of Damocles’ is a device considered to be the predecessor of helmet-mounted displays and other virtual reality devices. It was invented by American engineer Evan E. Sutherland in 1968. Nearly fifty years later, virtual reality has continued to win over the hearts of the general public and industry professionals with its ability to immerse in 360 degrees.

In 2016, more than 6 million virtual reality headsets were sold worldwide. Whether it has to do with video games, training, raising awareness, or engineering, virtual reality is the best tool to immerse ourselves in an universe that allows for the simulation of real or imaginary environments and give rise to real sensations.

For the moment, this task is reduced to a headset or glasses where integrated sensors enrich what we see by calculating and showing on our field of vision contextual and spatial elements. Imagine intelligent glasses that enriched your everyday life, giving you all sorts of useful and practical information at the right place and right time.

The market for augmented reality will surpass that of virtual reality in a couple of years, reaching 90 billion euros by 2020

Thanks to companies like Microsoft (Hololens) and MetaVision (meta), professionals from around the world discover this new way of interaction and imagine the tools of tomorrow.

According to several projections, the market for augmented reality will surpass that of virtual reality in a couple of years, reaching 90 billion euros by 2020 — three times more than virtual reality.

Holographic computers will revolutionise the way in which we work and interact. Imagine no longer needing to tell your computer what to do, but instead, naturally interact with a turn of the wrist. Just like in the real world, all it takes is a touch, grab, place, or slide. The potential gains in terms of productivity, practicality, and creativity generated by this technology will affect all fields of work and study.

2018 | Beyond the interface

Illustration: Henrique Campeã

A conversational assistant that can write, speak, and think
When Apple introduced Siri to the world in 2011, she arrived as a breath of fresh air.
Finally, a man-machine interface capable of understanding what is being said to it. The immediate language processing through our personal assistants offers new ways of frictionless interaction — we now have total transparency with our tools. No need for clicks or swipes; all you have to do is speak. A truly accessable portal, these assistants can be interconnected with a number of services (through APIs) in order to accomplish several actions.

This is the case of Alexa, the intelligent assistant developed by Amazon. Alexa is built into Echo, a connected speaker capable of answering questions thanks to Wikipedia, play music with Spotify, give the weather forecast with AccuWeather, or even turn on the lights with Philips Hue.

With a simple phrase, your wish is on demand.

The tools are limited as far as comprehension of human language rather than in their material. The more intelligent technologies become, the more interfaces tend to disappear to make way for a more simple utilisation that allows for empathetic interaction. With a simple wave, or rather a simple phrase, your wish is on demand. No longer must you adapt to your device, your device will now understand what you say and will learn from you.

Its resemblance to reality is intriguing, and these conversational applications are quite easy to use. We might even wonder if these devices are really just humans out of their bodies. Conversational assistants aren’t just limited to voice — chatbots are integrated at the heart of our favorite applications. The perpetual need to improve man-machine interaction will trigger a future where we no longer speak or write to our devices. We’ll just have to think in order to make an action come true.

By Benjamin Merritt et Julien Pierre.
Read the story in French on the magazine