Untethered: Life Beyond the Smartphone

Untethered: Life Beyond the Smartphone
Girl pointing to sun-like circle
Untethered: Life Beyond the Smartphone

The conversation went something like this:

“I’m working from home today. I need to prepare for a speech tomorrow so I need things quiet today.”

“Want me to turn your notifications off until the end of the workday?”

“Yes. Wait, turn them all off except for my family. I could be working late. I’ll let you know when to turn notifications back on. Also, please play my ‘Concentrate and Create’ playlist. Low volume.”

“Should I order in for lunch?”

“Yes. Have a chicken panini and Greek salad delivered from the best reviewed restaurant within reason. I’ll eat about noon. Don’t worry about dinner. There’s leftover lasagna in the fridge. That reminds me, the lasagna turned out great. Add the ingredients to my shopping list so when my wife and kids are back I can make it for them.”

“Got it.”

Cue the playlist.

I activate my On Demand Display to my favorite settings for writing—a bit larger than the size of the long-forgotten legal size paper. The vibrancy and high resolution sharpen my focus. My upgraded display has an optical anti-fatigue feature. It helps keep my eyes from getting tired. My fingers are nimble on the virtual keyboard. I admit it’s taken me a while to get used to it, especially considering I had mastered two-thumbed typing on my smartphone. I love how the keyboard adjusts to me instead of the other way around. Now when I move around in my chair, the keyboard moves with me. Autocorrect happens invisibly.

Image of Person Looking at Virtual Display
On-demand, customizable displays are coming.

Images for the slides in my speech begin to form in my mind as I write. Image dictation is automatically activated and the AI-powered computer in my watch creates images from my verbal descriptions, inserting thumbnails into my slides. The image of Leonardo da Vinci doodling may be too irreverent for this event, but I’ll leave it for now. Striking visuals are always an enhancement to talking points. After all, a picture paints a thousand words.

My playlist works like a charm and I’m on a roll. I don’t want to break for lunch just yet, so I ask my voice assistant to adjust delivery time for lunch. By two o’clock I’m famished and lunch is perfect: grilled panini, chilled salad and cold mineral water to drink.

My favorite picture of my wife appears on my phone call display. I take the call. “Hi,” I say. I’ve missed her, so while we talk I make the call display larger. Large enough, in fact, that I can see the remnants of childhood freckles on her nose. It’s raining in the background. That’s Seattle for you. She wants me to ‘pencil in’ a date for Saturday night. We sign off and I direct my voice assistant to ‘pencil in’ our date night. I call my voice assistant Ripley after my favorite movie heroine. Ripley understands my colloquialisms. She’s quite savvy, reminding me that my wife and I haven’t had a date night in two months—then pauses as if I should ask for suggestions.

I need to clear my mind before getting back to the speech. I cue up my curated newsfeed and direct the display to dock in place while I kick back, watch the daily ‘same-old, same-old’ and think of anything but the speech. My display upgrade is wasted on the news, but quite stunning when streaming movies at 5 feet by 8 feet. My wife found a 4-seat row of vintage movie theater seats to put in our family room. They’re in the garage waiting for me to refinish them. They’re mainly for fun but also a tribute to the old-style theater while welcoming the new. A tip of the hat, if you will.

I spend a few minutes catching up on social media. I check my calendar to confirm my speaking time. I pull up the venue, a historical building. No parking lot to be seen. I like to get my bearings of the setting before a speech. My break is winding down and I check my email last. Email is my procrastination pain point, so I keep my display constrained to the smallest size possible, but one I can still read.

I get back to work. The rest of the speech writes itself. At the end of the day, I take another 30-minute break before I do a final review. I step outside into the balmy, breezy air. Wind chimes on the back patio make a soft plinking sound. A beautiful Purple Finch is busy at one of the bird feeders. We don’t get them often in our yard so I take a few pictures with my glasses. Both the Purple Finch and pictures are crystal clear.

I re-read my speech—it’s all good. I’m pleased. I tell Ripley to keep the notifications off until morning. Then I saunter over to the microwave to heat up the lasagna.

Person holding hands wide open to different icons of technology
So much technology.

The Future is Calling

The bonus of being human is having an imagination. Throughout time, we’ve driven change out of need and necessity. The washing machine, for example, dates back a few hundred years. It served a real need but had room for improvement. The manual wringer was added to remove water from the clean clothes, but was cumbersome and inefficient, so the gear wringer was created. Improvements continued over the years, including an enclosed tub and automatic spin dry feature, resembling what we have today. Still, we innovate. Still, we improve. We wear a variety of fabrics and often wash them together. Today we have multiple settings for agitation, water temperature, extra wash cycles and even a setting for hand washables. Washers and dryers come separately, as stackable sets and even as a single unit that is both washer and dryer. We are wired to redefine. Human beings are humans doing.

The smartphone also has room for improvement. As trivial as it may seem, the few seconds it takes to retrieve our phone from our pocket, unlock it, swipe screens to locate the camera app, open it and take a picture has become inefficient in our technology-charged world. As consumers, we want to skip each step but the most important one—we just want the picture. The same goes for phone calls, emails, texts and driving directions. We no longer want to pull into the parking lot of a gas station, idle the car, retrieve our phone, search for an address, request and receive directions.

Computers are all around us. They are an intrinsic part of smartphones, televisions, automobiles, smoke detectors and yes, our washing machines. Motherboards and circuitry are hidden in plain sight. Sensors, microprocessors and user interfaces are all involved in making things work as they should. We live in a world of pervasive computing. These microprocessors and sensors will play a new role in technology.

Crucial work performed on desktop computers transitioned with relative ease to the laptop, thanks to having the same operating systems and programs. With the smartphone, however, new operating systems were required. Replicating a practical computing environment was a bit tougher. Commonly used suites of applications finally made it to the smartphone and screens got bigger, making them more viable as computers, but creating a clunky experience tapping to create formulas or formatting text on a smartphone. Smartphones have become must-have tools and include valuable features as well as fun, desired apps. It comes in very handy for passing the time, watching movie trailers, sending texts or checking in with social media while waiting to board a flight. It keeps us connected, which we highly value. Today the smartphone seems like a technological utopia. It’s small and mighty. But what if something mightier exists? After all, we are wired to redefine, and redefine we will.

Person standing on origami style boat looking at night sky, arms open
Welcoming the technology of tomorrow.

Passing the Technology Torch

The smartphone is destined to pass the torch to the next revolutionary device. We can’t say with certainty which device that will be or if it will be a device at all. Though it may seem like a stretch of the imagination at first, wearables are a viable contender as the next generation computer. Consider the smart watch. Currently, the smart watch is tethered to a smartphone and apps. It’s truly more of an accessory. As technology advances, the watch can become an independent, powerful computing system. Wearables may take different forms: necklaces, bracelets, glasses, contact lenses, ties—and possibly tattoos.

If wearables are indeed the first generation to replace the smartphone, they must not only be powerful, they must aid, not impede, functionality. They must be smaller and innocuous. Consumers need to see the possibilities of wearable computing and experience its benefits before leaving their trusty smartphones in the electronics recycling bin. Advanced wearables must cover these three tenets: (1) a pervasive voice recognition system, (2) intelligent, smart and adaptable programming, and (3) on-demand, easy-to-customize displays. This will be the technology trifecta that untethers us from the smartphone and lets us begin a promising new romance with the computing of tomorrow.