Modern day personal computers are an evolution of devices that filled a room, and had their weight measured in tons. Since the early days of the personal computer, there has been a strong trend towards smaller and more personal devices. Today, the personal computer is no longer a device that sits on desk, and it’s not even a single device, it’s an amalgamation of interconnected devices, working in unison to deliver a truly personal experience.
The term “personal computer” was first used as a label for computers that were small and simple enough for an individual user to operate. This label was specifically given to desktops and laptops, with the desktop computer in particular being the size and shape we most associate with the term “personal computer”. The desktop computer wore the personal computer label almost exclusively for around 3 decades.
In the last few years, we have seen the dawn of the “Post-PC era”, which is defined by a downward market trend in traditional personal computers, in favour of post-PC devices. These new devices are powered by a range of modern operating systems, and offer immense portability and ubiquitous connectivity.
We keep these devices close, often living in our pockets, or in our hands for extended periods of time. Despite discarding the “personal computer” label, the current generation of computing devices are far more personal than their desk-bound predecessors could ever be.
The Rise of The Smartphone
It all started in 2007 with the announcement and release of the original iPhone. Smartphones had been around since the 1990s, but the iPhone heralded a new generation of devices that were both easier and more powerful than the smartphones that came before.
The iPhone shook up the competition, and was unchallenged for a time. It took a few years for a wave of new devices, powered by Android, to match (and arguably eclipse) Apple’s efforts with the iPhone. Today, we live in a world that has been profoundly shaped by the rise of the smartphone.
People in every corner of the world can be seen glued to their screens, communicating, gaming, and working during their commute. In cities around the world, phones are routinely swapped out for newer models every 2 years, which has resulted in a vast portion of the population having a very modern personal computer on them at all times.
In the palm of your hand, we can now access all of the worlds public information (the Internet), harness the power of billions of dollars worth of global positioning systems (GPS), and draw on a pool of over a million apps through the App Store and Google Play.
Gartner recently predicted that 2015 would be the year that tablet sales overtake PC sales, the post-PC era is truly upon us!
As post-PC devices continue to take over from the PCs that came before them, we are left wondering what’s next? What is the future of the post-PC device? What does the personal computer of the future look like?
Consider the computers that we are most reliant on today, the computers that are most personal to us — our mobile phones. They are small, we carry them around everywhere we go, and we look to them frequently for updates that are important to us. They know where we are, where we’re going, and can recommend contextually relevant information to us with increasing degrees of usefulness and accuracy.
We are already in a world where computers are at the heart of everyday items that we don’t traditionally think of as computers. Smart TVs are computers in a TV, modern cars have a multitude of computers without which many features and functions could not exist. WiFi routers are computers, as are fitness trackers.
Additionally, the personal computer today is not so much a single device, but an individual entity that connects and interacts with dozens, if not hundreds of other computers every day. Our phones back themselves up to other computers, sends and receives data to keep our email and messages up to date, the “Cloud” itself is in fact just a mini-Internet of sorts with a whole heap of computers working together to perform feats they are not capable of individually.
Today, the personal computer is on the verge of another major evolution. This time the change will happen even more rapidly than the previous transition to post-PC devices and will focus on growth and change in 3 main areas: size, sensors, and interface.
Computers are continuing to get smaller. Intel recently announced the Edison, a full computer with WiFi, Bluetooth, and more, all in the size of an SD card. Computers that are this small can make their way into physical objects that aren’t traditionally “smart”, or computer-enhanced. Just one real-world product made possible by Edison, and already available for sale, is the Mimo baby monitor.
Unlike a traditional baby monitor, Mimo is integrated into a baby’s clothing, as a cute, if slightly bulky turtle. Beyond monitoring just audio, it monitors ambient temperature, sleep duration, sleeping position, and more, all recorded and graphed via Mimo’s smartphone app.
This is just one of many early examples that smaller computers are enabling. Other products exist in categories as broad as home automation, pet minding, fitness, and security, and this is only the beginning.
As computers become smaller, their applications become broader, enabling what has come to be known as IOT, or “Internet of Things”. We will start seeing more and more real-world objects connected to the Internet and other devices/computers.
Computers become more and more useful as they’re connected to the physical world through various sensors. Modern phones already have microphones, cameras, accelerometers, magnetometers (a type of compass), and ambient light sensors. These sensors enable a range of applications that make our phones respond to our environment, and the greater context we operate in.
New devices feature pedometers and heart rate monitors; and we’ve even heard rumours of devices that offer constant health monitoring of metrics such as blood levels (via painless micro-needles), and temperature.
To enable a broader range of sensors, computers will be worn on our bodies. We can already see this happening with products such as Android Wear and Google Glass. These devices are very early examples of the upcoming personal computer evolution, but we can already see the possibilities enabled by these more personal, more intimate computers. One of the Android Wear devices currently available includes a heart rate monitor, this allows the wearer to check their pulse using a computer that lives on their body.
The iPhone was in part a huge leap forward because of its interface. Instead of using the buttons and complex menus that prior devices included, it instead relied on pointing devices we all know, use, and carry around with us, the human finger.
We’re seeing a shift from interaction methods that have to be learned (such as the keyboard and mouse combination), towards touch, voice commands, virtual reality, and body tracking.
Touch and voice are both useful and available right now on a range of post-PC devices, but there are other upcoming types of interaction made possible through emerging technologies.
First up, the Oculus Rift is a device that is worn on the head, filling your field of view entirely. Oculus immerses you in 3d worlds where your perspective in the world shifts as you move your head around as you would in the physical world. Take a look at the below video of some reactions to using Oculus Rift.
The initial applications for Oculus revolve around gaming, but after Facebook’s recent acquisition (for approximately $2 billion), the long term goals for Oculus go beyond gaming and into the realm of creating an entirely new communication platform. This type of interface is in its infancy, imagine what the virtual reality of the coming years (and decades) will bring about.
Recent rumours point to Oculus building a new type of interface to compliment the headset. Could it be something like Myo? (video below)
New interfaces don’t end with body tracking and giant goggles. This year’s World Cup featured a paraplegic man make the first kick off using a mind-controlled exoskeleton. As this sort of technology evolves, the way we interact with computers and the countless devices we’re embedding them in, will change forever.
Farid Wardan has been developing software for over 10 years. He is the lead software engineer at Terem Technologies. Terem works with companies that want to develop or extend cloud software applications, web applications and mobile applications.