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Digital Natives

The company already produces a Kinect for Windows, and hackers have been busy working on connecting the device to older versions of Windows and to a whole host of other devices, including robots:

With devices like the Leap Motion following the Kinect, gestures may someday become as common as the touchscreen is today.

You’ll be able to use your machine’s microphone to control it as well. Microsoft already brought speech recognition to cars with Ford and Fiat’s infotainment systems, and now it plans to make it ubiquitous in every device it touches.

We’ve just begun what promises to be a wholesale revolution in the way we interact with computers, as big or larger than the introduction of the mouse and graphical user interface, yet already, the first crop of these devices is beginning to change the entire way we think about interacting with computers, from top to bottom.

First, it’s not that we have “a” computer; we now have multiple computers. And they carry names like “phone,” “tablet,” and “Xbox.” With each, we touch the screens, talk to them, wave at them, and expect them to understand what we’re doing. Increasingly, they even interact back with us through speech or by navigating our physical world.

By the time my sons reach 8 and 10 – I was 10 when I received my Tandy, which came standard with a 256-color video graphics setup that I thought was pretty awesome at the time – the term “click here” will have about as much personal relevance to them as “turning” the channel or “dialing” the telephone.

The fact that I had to “sit down at the keyboard” to type up this message is even a half-truth. I’ve been bitten by the speech recognition bug, and the majority of what you read here was spoken aloud to my computer, which did the typing for me, whilst I paced around my office.

For me, that’s still novel. But for my sons, who have known nothing different in their short lives, gestures and voice controls and touchscreens are so common that they now expect as much from every new device they encounter. To them, it makes no sense that they cannot just talk to the GPS (something which, now that it’s been pointed out to me, seems equally preposterous given its position inside the car where inevitably both of my hands will be otherwise occupied at the 10 and 2 positions on the steering wheel).

The touchscreen is for them – sons of a geek – the lowest common denominator. Everything does that. Speech? Gestures? Why not?

User interface expectations are built very early on. Painted on the blank canvas that is a screen, they often come to be based on metaphors we know from our previous lives.  Once comfortable with the way things work, it takes a pretty large benefit for us to change our behaviors (if that were not the case, the iPad onscreen keypad would have used the Dvorak layout, which has been proven time and again more efficient for typers than the QWERTY keyboard, which was invented to minimize mechanical movement and thus repairs of mechanical typewriters – like the metric system for most American people, it’s just not enough better to make it worth even considering).

It is likely for this exact reason that, despite my penchant for gadgets, we still live in an iPad-free household. It’s because Dad (i.e., me this time) doesn’t like the thing. I find it terribly constrained. I cannot bear to type on the screen. There’s no easy way to position the screen to a good angle. But most of all, I hate not having a file system where I can download a presentation and leaf through it, making small changes, adding slides, etc. The idea that a computer doesn’t contain folders and files is as foreign to me as the lack of voice control in the car’s GPS system is to my sons.

Luckily, as one of the technological one-percenters from my own, original digital-age group, adjusting is easier for me than for most.

I almost never thumb in a message on my Android phone. I rely instead on the excellent voice recognition built in (I only wish there was a button on the phone to hold to put it into voice mode, like on the iPhone).

I use the Kinect voice controls regularly… so much so that given the choice between hopping around the nice “Metro” interface of the Xbox with my voice commands and trying to surf through cable channels, I end up watching “reruns” (another of those archaeologically rooted technical terms) on Netflix, via the Xbox, every single time. (Bonus: I never have to find that darned remote again!)

My youngest son, sneaking upstairs for some additional fun with Curious George’s online games, has (largely unnoticed by me until now) made the same choice with the computer in my office. He’s elected to exclusively use the giant touchscreen I installed up there – as a geeky thing for me to explore and mostly never use – as his sole input device. To him, the mouse on the desk might as well be the furry little creature, as it is has just as little to do with the computer as its mammalian namesake.

No, for my two young sons, their Tandy moment will not involve a black screen with blinking cursor. They may not even have a Tandy moment; or they may have had many much smaller ones already. Maybe, just maybe, they may never even know what it’s like to understand a colossal leap forward in technology stepping into their lives seemingly overnight. After all, for them, computing is already an immersive experience – one where you interact with dozens of devices, each purpose-built for its task, each designed to work around you, rather than you having to bend to their somewhat quirky and limited means of interaction.

While members of my generation were the original “digital natives,” things will look much different viewed through the eyes of our own children. What to expect of computers has changed in a seeming flash. But still, the geek in me knows deep down that it is precisely because many of the most inclined in their generation – like me, Zuck, and millions of others in the prior age cohort – will be as frustrated by the limitations of what today’s adults dreamt up that they too will work to throw them out and replace them with something even further, inspired not by Star Trek, whose vision of the user computer interface wasn’t much beyond what’s in the Xbox and iPad, but maybe by Ready Player One… or even Harry Potter.

The implications of this trend loom large for investors as well. The new paradigm for computing is about natural interaction. And any company that ignores it will ultimately limit its market going forward. PCs ate the mainframe. The Blackberry destroyed the mobile phone. The iPhone wiped out the Blackberry. The Xbox trounced the Wii. What will the next major shift in the interface bring? Time will tell, but our experiences thus far suggest the mouse will likely play a lesser role, and our hands, voices, and maybe even just our minds will play a much larger one.

I’m excitedly awaiting the arrival on my doorstep of a novel “learning” thermostat (yes, I’m that kind of geek). Just adjust the temperature by turning the dial as you go in and out, as you wake and get ready to sleep, and it learns your patterns, creating a constantly adapting program to both make you comfortable and save energy. It adjusts to weekends – it knows what date and time it is. The weather – it knows where you live. When you aren’t home – it has motion sensors. Cool stuff.

But when it arrives, I am sure my son will ask why I have to “turn the dial” in the first place. Why can’t I just tell it to make it cooler? Why not, indeed…

As amazing as these advances are, they all are driven by the brilliant individuals whose visionary dreams guide their work. To be in on the companies most likely to survive the stiff competition in tech, an investor must understand this and keep up with the ever-shifting front lines of the tech wars.

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