Not the future we deserve, but the one we need

By admin on 26/04/2014

We're living exciting times, but the near-future still has plenty of great digital advancements yet to come. Here's some thoughts on where we could/should be in the next few years with regards to our devices and data...

I've just got back from the excellent "Glass vs Rift" event at Bournemouth's equally excellent Open Device Lab. Playing with the latest buzz gadgets Google Glass and the Occulus Rift was great fun but more interestingly sparked lots of great "wearables" and "the future" discussion.

This got me thinking on the drive home and has encouraged me to put my thoughts into writing (and dust off my neglected blog in the process). Wearables are an exciting next step in our gadgetry evolution, but I've not seen anything quite offering the future I'd like to be a part of yet...

Inputs & outputs, not platforms

My phone has more processing power than the computers used to put humans on the moon, enough memory to store weeks worth of non-stop audio and a battery which would last several days if I didn't use the screen. As far as I'm concerned we're not using nearly enough of the computing power we all carry around with us all day, every day.

We're generating data all of the time and the current monsoon of wearable devices are all tapping into that. GPS tracking, heart rate monitoring, temperature, altitude, literally every step we take can be tracked, monitored and recorded by some device we accessorise ourselves with.

But the majority of these want to either stand alone, replace my phone or at best interconnect within a single, closed ecosystem.

I'd like to see the additional devices I choose to bolt onto myself serve their purpose as a purely data capture tool and to offload storage, connectivity and intelligent processing to my phone. Do one thing and do it well, don't be another place I need to worry about log-ins, settings, recurring payments and whatever else. Just get my data as reliably and consistently as possible, send it to my phone and keep out of my way.

As well as capturing data, wearables are also serving as a display output (namely watches and glasses). This is great and there are many times that my phone isn't the most appropriate tool for quickly viewing some information. But again, just do one thing well (show me stuff) and let my phone manage what and how that is presented. These additional screens would be ideal if they just stuck to offering beautiful, clear display (and perhaps simple input controls), I don't want a "smart" watch, I want a dumb watch showing me stuff from my already smart phone that for whatever reason isn't currently accessible to me.

Conductive charging everywhere

I'm not up to date with the latest, but it seems to me like we should be a lot nearer to ubiquitous conductive charging by now. We have surfaces everywhere, power everywhere and devices everywhere. And, we have the technology to charge devices via surfaces... I'm pretty sure there's an at least temporary workaround to the battery life problem here somewhere. All the more useful as we embrace more wearable technology.

Another side benefit of better conductive charging (realised by my discussion with Luke and Andy) is that we could do away with holes in devices. This would allow for completely sealed units, enabling better water-proofing, more robust design and no annoying dirt related malfunctions.

The Personal Hub

I keep referring to "my phone", but I'm not the first to say it really isn't a "telephone" any more. I'm old enough to remember phones with radial dials and pulse dialling. THAT was a telephone, what I carry around with me is undoubtedly "a computer with calling capabilities". The calling capabilities could easily be offloaded to another wearable (such as headphones) which really leaves me with "an extensible computer" or what I call a "Personal Hub" (disclaimer: I've never actually called it that in real life, just seemed a good name for the purposes of this post).

The Personal Hub is my local on-person computing power and data store. It emits functionality for all of my wearable and proximity devices to hook into and enhance with their own input/output capabilities but all data storage and intelligence is managed here. It also offers my connectivity to the web and the next piece of my desired future, my Personal Cloud.

The Personal Cloud

"The Cloud" is a lovely albeit somewhat meaningless term that, as far as any normal person is concerned has become synonymous with "The Internet". But I like its ubiquity, its fitting metaphor and the fact you can be as anal as you like about its meaning and it mostly holds up in conversation. Where I'd like to see us get to is a time where we each have a "Personal Cloud". A bit of remote computing power and storage that operates much like any other server-based set up on the Internet offering data and processing tasks for the things I deem useful.

My Personal Hub (read phone) would link directly and seamlessly to my Personal Cloud ensuring all of my local data is synchronised and backed up allowing me to quickly and painlessly switch my Personal Hub device hassle-free and ensuring all of my Personal Hub information is available and manageable from a traditional web browser.

The key difference between the Personal Cloud and what we currently use is that it is MY cloud service. I pay for it, I control it and I manage who/what can access which parts of it. It is also the exclusive, single place my data is stored and all of my interactions are through it.

Personal Data Store

The key component of the Personal Cloud is the Personal Data Store. This is essentially the database of all my "stuff". Photos, music, emails, call logs, browsing history, favourites, friend lists, GPS location history and anything else I might want to refer to later or leave a digital footprint of. Again, the key point being is that this is my Personal Data Store held in my Personal Cloud. I may choose to give you access to write to it, or even read some of it but it's my data stored in my storage account and I control that.

Personal Cloud Apps

The amount of functionality available to us today via the web, our mobile devices and desktop computers is staggering and it would be completely unrealistic to expect my Personal Cloud concept to replicate the same. However if we could install and/or authorise apps, websites and services then it becomes a lot more feasible. I envisage two approaches of adding functionality to my Personal Cloud, either by paying for and installing a program into my Personal Cloud's computing capabilities or simply authorising an app hosted elsewhere to authenticate against my Personal Cloud and allowing it to use my Personal Data Store.

Are we nearly there yet?

I'm aware I've not really described anything here that isn't technically possible today. In fact you could see a significant parallel between a lot of what I've said and the current vision of the likes of Facebook and Google. The more wholesome idea of self-owned data has been discussed many times before and is of particular focus for Aral's admirable Indie data/phone initiatives.

But I fear we still have a ways to go. These are small voices in the grand scheme of things and I don't see us getting there any time soon without some major establishment buy-in to these ideals, be that large commercial organisations who find a soul (and see the legitimate monetisation opportunities of providing genuine data ownership, privacy and openness) or maybe even a forward-thinking government initiative.

In the meantime, I'll continue to support anyone striving for what resembles my ideals as best I can but no doubt will also "do as I do, not as I say" and subscribe to the various evil empires offering the fun, interesting and useful devices and services at the knowing sacrifice of my own data, behaviours and privacy...