Intimate computing

I wrote the following post on my then Medium blog. Listening to Ben Thompson’s post on his conversation with Sydney (a persona of Bing’s GPT-based chatbot that some folks have managed to unlock) made me want to revisit it, and I thought it was worth sharing 9 years on.

Highly recommend listening to his post (versus reading it). In many ways, it made me feel a lot of similar emotions to the experience I describe below, and gives me confidence that a new interactive paradigm might finally be around the corner. This doesn’t mean smartphones would go away (just like personal computers haven’t), but reaffirms my old thesis that voice is likely the manner in which augmented reality would scale more than glasses.

What “Her” can teach us about Technology and UX Design

There are a few movies that have shaped my outlook towards design and technology. Typically, these were Sci-Fi action movies, such as iRobot which taught me the importance of software having a conscience, so to speak, and not purely relying on numbers. Minority Report and its biometric identification inspired me to create a patent-pending “targeted Out-of-Home advertising” system. Iron Man piqued my interest in digital assistants and interactions besides purely touch and type.

However, if I had to pick one movie that influenced me the most would be Her.

I’ve seen the movie twice. The first time was a typical lazy night after a long, productive day of work. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I must admit I said a silent, atheistical prayer hoping I lived during the era in which systems like Samantha existed. But it was not until my second viewing that I truly fell in love with Her.

My girlfriend and I were travelling from New Delhi to San Francisco. When I saw that the movie was available in the in-flight entertainment system, I pestered her to watch, promising I’ll watch it again with her. About half an hour later, though, I was tired and wanted to put my head down. I opened my tray table and rested my head on it, choosing to keep my headphones on. Almost immediately, I realised something: I was enjoying a movie more than I ever had.

For those who haven’t seen Her, it’s the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha isn’t your typical OS, in that she learns from experiences, grows both mentally and emotionally, and falls in love with Theodore, too. After she booted up for the first time, her first words were an unsure “hello”, like someone who walked into a room for the first time and couldn’t see anyone around. At a later stage, she hangs up on Theodore, saying she needed some time by herself.

Nearly the entire movie sees them interact by voice, with a few instances when a cellphone and a monitor are used. And although the visuals are strikingly beautiful, it is the conversation between the two of them that is the centrepiece to the movie. With my eyes closed, I felt closer to what I consider the true experience that the story meant to convey.

The evolution of computers

I keep marvelling at where we’ve reached in technological terms. When my parents were growing up, mainframes were the only computing devices. These devices were meant to be used by multiple people, with no relationship between the user and the machine.

Then we had the personal computers, which in all honesty were “family” devices. Yes, we established a degree of connection with it, with a bit of work hiding files and covering our internet history. However, we knew that what we were doing wasn’t really private, and could easily be detected.

Smartphones were a big leap forward in those regards. Inherently, they’re designed to be personalised, allowing each user to install the apps they require, to quickly perform the tasks they need to be done. If ever someone asked to use our device, we would hesitate. Apps began to emerge that would keep even these few people from seeing what they were not supposed to.

Samantha is the pinnacle of this evolution

Her had a profound impact on me, but it isn’t until about last week that I could say why. The key moment for me, strangely, was the launch of Motorola’s latest generation of mobile devices. It was no secret that we were going to see a new flagship phone, or that the Moto 360 smartwatch was finally going to go on sale. However, it was this tiny little bluetooth headset, called the Moto Hint, that caught my eye.

The Moto Hint is on the left, Theodore with his earpiece is on the right

In Her, Theodore uses a similar earpiece to communicate with Samantha. He just puts it in his ear, and can now command her to read out his E-mails, proofread the letters he writes as a profession, and more. That small device is now his computer.

Seeing the Moto Hint and its promo video, it hit me that we are not necessarily very far from the future Her showed us. From a pure hardware sense, we already have what we would need. And on the software front some of the ground work has already been put in.

The New Multi-Screen World

Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a shift in our reliance from individual devices to ecosystems that were cross-platform. The lines between these devices are rapidly blurring. We can begin work on our laptops, continue them on our phones, answer calls from our wrists, and more.

Samantha, as shown in Her, feels like the natural direction we’re heading towards. As Google Now has already shown, the benefit of committing to one ecosystem is that our computers can provide us with the information we need, when we’ll need it, because of their increased understanding of us. The device itself does not matter, which is why the earpiece is all that Theodore ever really needs.

Wearable devices like smartwatches and Google Glass are in demand (even if not by the majority of the people) because they are provide the simplest way of performing several tasks they do on their mobile phones, such as receive calls or send texts or check for updates on Facebook or Twitter or news. The Moto Hint, and Samantha, take this a step further, saying why do we even need any screen to do this if we can just order someone else to do it by voice.

Falling in Love

When I first heard the storyline for Her, I dismissed the movie as some crazy, nerd fantasy. But the chemistry between Theodore and Samantha is undeniable pretty much from the moment after she’s installed. The first few interactions are a little awkward, with both coming to learn about each other.

Mostly, Theodore takes some time to adapt to just how natural it is to work with Samantha, now that he doesn’t have to rely on any particular syntax. Samantha understands this, and guides him encouragingly. She emits positivity, which clearly rubs off on Theodore who so far had been struggling to come to terms with his divorce. This positivity eventually leads to Theodore falling in love with Samantha, since he finds greater happiness, with less effort, in his interaction with her than with a woman.

Unsurprisingly, we’re seeing a greater amount of “positivity” in computing today. The mainframes, as described before, were functional machines. Now, we find these nuggets in our systems that are there purely for our pleasure. They range from aesthetical, such as the Yahoo! Weather app and its use of imagery, to verbal in the manner several task lists congratulate you one completing all your tasks. They might feel minor, but are often the reason for us choosing one option over another: they simply make us feel better about ourselves.