Smartphones are the most effective attention magnets ever created. Our infrequent breaks from using them are short. And as if the lure of their endless apps wasn’t enough to draw us back in, notifications ensure that our second mind is always top of mind.
Now, two visions of a post-smartphone landscape offer contrasting perspectives of how our lives could reach even higher levels of tech ubiquity. How they play out will determine how much of our future is spent acclimating to a new world versus living in one that accommodates us.
On one hand, we have the metaverse, a destination that Mark Zuckerberg has steered Meta—the former Facebook—toward. Today, the most mature version of what may evolve into the metaverse is virtual reality. Having captured a leading position in VR with its Quest headsets, Meta has expanded into a higher tier of mixed reality—where headset-mounted cameras can help position digital objects in the real world—with its new Quest Pro. Core upgrades, plus visual quality improvements, put the Pro at more than four times the price of the consumer-grade Quest 2.
On the other hand, major tech companies such as Amazon and Google are embracing a vision of ambient technology. This approach requires no layer of digital objects superimposed on the physical world, much less one where we shut out the real world as with VR. Rather, it defines new methods of interactions in a personalized, intuitive environment awash in sensors, connectivity, and intelligence. As much of a design philosophy as a technology direction, it promises to ease the draining demands of our devices by creating interactions only when they’re needed.
The first wave—really a ripple—of consumer products to fly the ambient banner were a handful of novel 2000s-era information appliances. These were mixed wireless push technologies, such as the venerable paging network with nontraditional displays. For instance, the Ambient Orb, a glass sphere from Ambient Devices, changed color based on cues, such as if a certain stock was up or down.
The company would later offer a product called Dashboard that tracked up to three bits of information, such as temperature or stock indices via acrylic overlays of red pointing needles to take on a VU meter-like appearance. And in a time before 3G networks, Microsoft also touted the ambient nature of its so-called SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) smartwatches, which received newsy snippets via FM radio signals—the same technology used by clocks and watches that automatically set them to the right time. In 2006, Chumby, a screen-enabled beanbag that pushed infotainment from “channels” of content providers chosen from a web-based dashboard, would pave the way for modern smart displays, such as Amazon’s Echo Show.
These early ambient products delivered glanceable experiences as opposed to the active, hands-on experiences of PCs and smartphones. The modern concept of ambient experiences retains the contrast versus using devices as tools, but takes the notion further. For one, advances in speech input and synthesis have allowed Alexa, Siri, and a growing host of hey-makers (“Hey Roku,” “Hey Sonos,” “Hey Disney”) to deliver information without even being glanced at. That said, the growing popularity of smart displays shows that glanceability can still play a role in ambient functionality.
More significantly, though, the road map for ambient experiences creates high bars for ubiquity, seamlessness, and personalization exceeding the grasp of early experiments. And while today’s ambience includes a level of proactivity that knows your preferences and guides your choices, it doesn’t always imply passivity, but rather engagement-as-needed.
At Amazon’s fall device event where it launched the note-taking Kindle Scribe, Amazon device chief David Limp retconned the original Kindle’s launch as a foray into ambient technology. (At the Kindle’s 2007 debut, Jeff Bezos emphasized the need for devices to fade into the background.) But a better example from the fall event would be Amazon’s Halo Rise nightstand sleep-tracking device. It’s smart enough to track only the sleeper closest to it and doesn’t require the user to put on a smartwatch or other wearable.
WITHER THE SMARTPHONE?
Today, the smartphone is our portal into a world with constrained access to sensor-driven information. For example, many municipal transit systems now have digital signage conveying when the next train is arriving within the station or perhaps at its entrance. If you’re not close enough to see those displays, you may have to rely on a smartphone app. In a true world of ambient intelligence and connectivity, such an interaction wouldn’t be necessary.
Last month, at Google’s Pixel 7 launch, Rick Osterloh, SVP of devices and services, referred to Pixel devices as providing “immersive, ambient” experiences. That apparent oxymoron could be reconciled with the position that, in an ambient world, the environment becomes immersive, or atmospheric, rather than the user being immersed.
Building a fully realized world of ambient technology is no less ambitious than creating the metaverse, which raises the question of whether the two technological directions are compatible. Chip vendors have been among the loudest metaverse backers. At its recent executive forum, though, consumer chip device giant MediaTek—the primary silicon vendor for Amazon’s devices as well as for Sony’s PSVR 2 headset—saw both ambient computing and the metaverse as key to its future.
At best, their convergence seems far off. Today, VR is about engagement of limited duration for specific tasks. Beyond VR’s killer app of gaming, applications include tourism, collaborative design, and simulations. However, augmented reality could evolve to the point where it blends into our world so well that it becomes part of an ambient environment. In this sense, Google Glass was ahead of the metaverse’s time the way the Ambient Orb was ahead of broadly adopted ambient technology.
In any case, the road to an ambient future is better paved than one to the metaverse. Communities like Meta’s Horizon Worlds and Roblox may offer a preview of life in the metaverse, but mass adoption hinges on development of smart glasses that reconcile the competing demands of affordability, visual quality, style, and battery life. Meanwhile, devices that provide ambient-voice experiences, such as smart speakers, are already popular and affordable, and the technology has been embedded into a range of products wide enough to make a run at ubiquity.
Indeed, Amazon and Meta have invested billions in advancing their visions. Beyond R&D, these investments have included selling devices at a loss or for little profit. As these companies face economic headwinds, many of Amazon’s recent layoffs have come from its Alexa and devices group. In contrast, Meta—a less diversified company that has bet the farm on the metaverse—hasn’t cut deeply into its Reality Labs group developing headsets and related tech. However, there have been reports of some projects being cut and work on its Portal video chat device products has ceased.
From here, ambient technology should evolve organically as sensors, digital intelligence, and networks proliferate—a fittingly gentle ramp for disruptive technology designed to not disrupt.