Hold onto your hats.
Back when I was a kid we got our first computer, which came with a clunky 14 inch CRT monitor. A couple of years later we got a second computer, but this time it came with a slightly svelter 15 inch monitor — that’s a whole extra inch.
By the time I went to university in 2004, I had a giant 21 inch Sony Trinitron beast. It was Atlas-level heavy, but well worth it for the productivity gains in designing and programming.
After graduating in 2008 I bought a 24 inch Dell LCD monitor, and finally in 2012 I moved to a 27 inch iMac.
The original 1984 Macintosh had a 9 inch monochrome CRT display at 512×342. 2015 iMacs have a 27 inch 5k retina display. That’s 3x the size and 84x the resolution!
…then suddenly smaller!
Around 2007-08, developers in California made a massive breakthrough with smartphones and android devices. While we’d been busy adapting websites for larger and larger monitors, suddenly we had tiny pocket-sized screens to think about too.
So now user interfaces (UI) are going in both directions: larger and larger monitors, and smaller pocket devices that need big, tappable targets.
Oh, and in 2015 the Apple Watch popped out of nowhere, so there’s that too.
Now let’s wildly extend those trends.
It’s reasonable to make some (crazy) assumptions about the future too.
How much smaller can things really get? Smarty Ring thinks quite a bit! This tiny ring connects to your phone by Bluetooth, beeps when you receive an email, and is available in 11 different sizes. It’s 745% funded on Indiegogo — but it remains to be seen whether it can actually be built ¯_(ツ)/¯
Also interesting is the blink(1) from ThingM. All it does is display colours based on notifications and events you configure through your computer. It’s effectively a one-pixel screen, proving you don’t need much resolution to communicate a lot.
Meanwhile on the larger end of the spectrum, you’ve got some pretty large (35” plus) monitors coming on the market (curved! to avoid the neck craning that comes from using something that size while sitting in single swivular seat).
It’s also fun to go full sci-fi and think about giant standing desks. Here’s one I saw the other day on The 3% (a Netflix original series, available now!).
The actual usability of these for long periods remains to be seen, but there’re likely huge productivity gains to be had from utilising spatial memory more: Being able to physically place an open document on a different corner of the screen, so it’s not distracting from what you’re working on but can easily be grabbed when needed. It’s kind of like having different piles of paper for different projects on your desk.
Let’s go ginormous!
For physical monitors we’re already hitting practical limits (i.e. what can fit on a reasonably-sized non-structurally-reinforced desk), but there’s another way to go: virtual!
There’s a scene I love from The Matrix Reloaded that’s infested my mind for years. When the Nebuchadnezzar (a bug-eyed future hovercraft) returns to Zion (the last remaining human city, deep underground), the film briefly cuts to the city’s equivalent of air traffic control, which is a stark-white VR room created for this single purpose.
Despite the grimy “raw-sewage” aesthetic of the rest of Zion, this world is efficient, clean and focused. It’s effectively a distraction free mode for the real world.
“I dreamed a dream … but now that dream is gone from me.”
— Morpheus, quite sad that his beloved hovercraft has been destroyed.
A VR workshop is my dream. A perfect future office, tailored to the job at hand. I can imagine coding would be significantly improved if developers were able to fully utilise spatial memory to have the full stack of what you’re working on available at-a-glance.
It’s not for everyone, but would be extremely effective for high-information work, e.g. stock traders, data analysts and the like. Rather than inviting some horrifying monitor hydra onto your desk you just slip on a headset and live the data. Co-workers could be added or blocked from your environment as frustration levels ebb and flow.
Teensy nano-screens (for ants perhaps?)
With the Apple Watch, it’s clear we’ve already hit a hard wall for usefulness, so it’s unlikely smaller screens will be able to do much of anything.
But again there’s a another way: no screen at all!
If you’re a regular Amazon user, you’ve probably noticed the Amazon Echo. Google have a similar offering, the Google Home. Smart speakers like these listen to everything you say and allow you to make things happen using light informal instructions.
As time goes on the interface for these will get more and more conversational. We’re far away yet from being able to do actual work using only your voice or ordering computers to perform complex tasks on the spot.
We are on our way to closing the screen-size loop from both ends: it seems screens will simultaneously disappear completely and envelop us entirely.
This in mind, we’re going to need to rethink a lot of today’s UI tropes — so back to work!