Musings on designing experiences & (re)engineering complexity

Aug 2021

Ambient Computing Canvases

What if tablets are the canvas for ambient computing behaviors; not an analogous replacement for laptop/desktop/mobile’s client-networking shape?

There was a context, a little more than a year ago, where our workspace evolved from one tablet and a mobile to a more expensive, multi-modal experience. The workspace, (meaning really, the hardware being used to work on) expanded because there was a need for more screens because of the lack of mature development (justified?) in augmented/virtual interfaces. And so where virtual interfaces could not compensate, or extend productivity, there was the addition of various screens made ready at the point of context.

It’s interesting what contexts look like now… a larger tablet as the primary, occasionally offloading work to a stationary desktop (software reasons). In the second context there are two tablets, where luxury/recreation is the primary driving focus. The mobile and wearable are the accessories to this. Occasional camera and accounting agents, they sit in this space mostly because the table’s software has not matured such to get rid of the phone, nor is it as personalized as the wrist wearable.

All of that said, there are now three tablets in rotation. One for work, one for recreation, and the oldest one now playing duty as a recreational and beta workspace (currently iPadOS 15 Public Beta). This is not to dissimilar from what is seen from Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST-TNG)… or is it?

In ST-TNG, tablets extend a readily-available ambient computer. The concept of mobile, or desktop, doesn’t really exist. At least not in that function in ST-TNG. There’s the ambient system or platform driving the ship or campus, and tablets of various sizes are utilized for the kinds of input, analysis needed when micro-level tasks or decisions need to occur. For this to work, users of the platform need to have a macro vision of what they would like to do, but also a framework that allows the smaller, more mobile tablet to extend how they get there. Their ability to be agile is more (?) valuable than their tool. One could imagine some lower level of “the prime directive“ is the enabler to such macro knowledge; which later becomes codified, or at least provoked code and tools which enable platforms for supporting learning, enabling, and connecting with groups far outside of your own.

Within such a thought, we can probably see how the idea of desktop and mobile become antiquated if the tablet truly does connect to a platform which has all that is needed to develop and deploy. In this context, several tablets connecting to a platform don’t need to be a computer in and of themselves, but merely an enabler for what the person who wheels them is trying to enable the ambient platform do.

The challenge here is now answering the question, “what exactly does a tablet enable?“

Been chewing since this listen earlier // If the uniqueness of the iPad were pushed // Would the table fail // Not because it isn’t worth it’s expansion of computing // But because it exposes // How much hasn’t expanded // Within and outside of ourselves (tweet)

If the perspective is somewhere along side “deep thought“ or “metamorphic tablet canvas“ then we probably get to an aspect of computing that is one part logical, but a greater part subjective to the user/composer of the thoughts on the screen (does it even have to be a screen to be a tablet). Or, if the perspective is that a computer has to equal some sense of calculation or productivity, then is the tablet doomed to be perceived as a failure unless it completely usurps the desktop and laptop, it makes itself more “at the moment“ then a mobile? Or, is it possible that the tablet can live in the middle of all of these questions, skillfully being exactly what is needed, get exposing the edges for what is not? Is the better question about a tablet that it actually sits in such a space that it causes the nuances of mobile and laptop/desktop (keyboard/mouse) computing to be exposed?

Using the framework that an ambient platform can enable a tablet to be a lot more, one could probably perceive the services arm of Apple becoming something more like the computer in Star Trek the next generation. Not necessarily something that knows everything, or leaves the human contemplating, interpreting, and solving out of the equation. But, with the appropriate and contextually relevant piece of technology in hand, enabling that human to literally reach to the outer edges of their own universes.

With that said, let’s come back to the question: “what exactly does a tablet enable?“ Well, the answer is actually almost as simple as the tagline that went along with Star Trek: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.“ And if that was something already imagined and executed with a laptop or mobile, then the tablet doesn’t so much fill a gap as much as it exposes that we’ve not been using the mobile or the laptop as good as we should have.