Opinion

It’s time to burst our digital bubbles

The commuter's silent digital bubble is the final challenge for voice technology, but is it time we popped our bubbles completely? Tomas Haffenden, digital producer at The Works, explains.

Many people dread the daily commute. But for me, it represents a piece of time that is uniquely mine. I safely lock myself in my digital bubble, totally absorbed in a world of my own creation. And as I look around the crowded train carriage, I don’t think I’m the only one.

Jump on any public transport, and you will see the oversized noise-cancelling headphones and handheld screens are now accepted uniform for any commuter.

From the moment I feel the tight embrace of my headphones I’m in another world. There is just something immensely pleasurable about allowing your most recently curated playlist to narrate your passage from A to B. Or perhaps you are more of a podcast kind of person. Whatever your preference, we all enjoy the individual experience provided by our most commonly used technologies.

Yet once safely inside our digital bubbles, the outside world disappears. We are able to sit together, only centimetres apart, but hear and see our own version of reality. Ask yourself this. How many times have you managed to complete your commute without uttering a word?

But is our newest form of user interface, voice, set to change our increasingly silent world? In a word – no. Despite the utility of voice in the safety of our homes, to turn on lights and set timers, it is rare to see (or rather, hear) anyone using it in the real world.

This is probably not a surprise when you consider the kinds of interaction we have while out in public:

Hey Siri. Should I worry about a rash on my…?
OK, Google. Play ‘that bitch has left me again’ playlist.
Alexa. Search Instagram for photos of my ex.

Arguably, the most essential part of our digital bubbles is that the security and enjoyment derived from the fact that it is a world with a population of one. You might be sitting next to me, travelling in the same direction, but you may as well be on another planet.

To retain secrecy we need an interface that is silent and near impossible to decipher by an observer. Our inability to find a better way represents the greatest challenge to voice and any other new developments in UI.

For now, using fat fingers to stab instructions and messages is the only option, and it is one that is slowing the adoption and development of more than just voice. The Google Glass experiment and other wearable cameras are making slow progress when it comes to broad adoption. This could be because they make you look like a bit of a knob… but there is more to the story.

For a camera interface to work, it needs to be pointed at the object of interest. Like audibly dictating our commands, this breaks a fundamental rule of our digital bubbles. It reveals what we are doing to everyone else, turning a private enquiry into a public declaration.

That is not to say we are ever entirely insulated by our technology. There’s that moment when someone lets their guard down and reveals their screen to you. We can all pretend that we don’t look, but we do. I have seen messages of fury, love and more than a few revealing photos over the shoulders of strangers.

The thrill these glances give us is a reminder that we are still interested in the worlds outside of our own. They are unpredictable and entertaining, in a way that our media feeds can only ever attempt to mimic.

So what do we risk by removing the unpredictable cross-pollination of real life? Is it time we consider bursting our digital bubbles?

Tomas Haffenden is a digital producer at The Works.

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