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Thoughts: Will We Ever be Truly Screen-Free?

Will we ever be free from the digital screens that bind us?

Or has our belief in screen-free life blinded us? Our pursuit of a screen-free solution has, at times, missguided us, like a dog chasing its tail. Our motivation for pursuing screen-free accessibility has always been clear. My dad is visually impaired. Growing up with a visually impaired father was not a hindrance, but rather an inspiration. While blind to the world, he was almost entirely digitally capable; a more digitally free man that was not to be pitied but instead worth emulating.

Yet a deeper dive into the details of what a screen-free world actually is at times, a frustrating and confusing endeavor. To start, the term implies the absence of something, no screens, but in no way indicates what is meant to replace it. Some might consider putting away digital devices ordigital fasting to be considered a form of screen-free. But the kind of screen-free we are trying to define is not merely a form of abstinence from technology, but rather an alternative way of interacting with this beautiful digital world we’ve created. Imagine this: a free-flowing, non-disruptive form of computing.

So what does this next phase in computing look like? We don’t have enough information to clearly map the frontier, but throughout this five-year journey we’ve observed a few key lessons:

Our first hard lesson was that the screen-free world must interact with the screen-based world in order to add value. There are certain functions that were made for the screen-free world, and certain functions that belong on a screen. A primary alternative to screens is voice assistants. Understanding what voice assistants —both broad assistants such as Siri/Google Assistant or limited domains like OFLO—can and cannot do will reveal a lot how screen-free fits in our digital puzzle. 

Currently, a voice assistant cannot fully function without its screen-based counterpart. Navigating settings, correcting a message, pursuing long-format pieces of information, though functionally all possible, are incredibly difficult to execute in screen-free fashion. Imagine dictating a message, and trying to correct the third word of the second sentence by voice; don’t bother. That’s because its simplicity is audio’s greatest strength and weakness. Audio solutions are less distracting due to the lower amount of information that is presented to the user. Yet, audio information can only be delivered sequentially, unlike its screen-based counterpart. It’s a blessing and a curse. 

But this leads into our second finding: screen-free is about inclusion and not exclusion. It’s not about building killer apps and features that are exclusive to an audio first screen-free world. Instead, screen-free is about augmenting certain functions and allowing users to pick and choose how they want to digest information, or to use an application depending on the environment they are in. Sometimes a voice query is just what the doctor asked for (if it’s accurate, fast, and private but more on that in another post), and other times our screen-based devices will suffice. This dynamic doesn’t just exist between voice assistants and screen-based devices; it exists within the spectrum of mobile-based devices, such as the relationship between the smartphone and the computer.

Functionally what we do on our digital devices is the same, it's how we do it that varies slightly. Digital freedom is about allowing a user to choose how they want to use a function, whether computer, laptop, phone, or eventually screen-free.

There are many barriers to a fully fledged screen-free operating system. But beyond technological barriers, the biggest is the gap between the expectation of voice assistants and the reality of their abilities. The current state of voice assistants and other screen-free alternatives pales in comparison to what a general consumer would come to expect, while we do have Blade Runner, Her and Hollywood to thank for that.  

Seamless human like interaction with technology in the way Hollywood depicts would require several pieces of technology to make large leaps:

  1. Our interaction with these personal assistants will be through some form of a wearable, and a smaller and more discrete factor is needed. Smartwatches and smart glasses don’t cut it.
  2. Data infrastructure must be built. Today’s voice assistants understanding of our world is restricted to the digital landscape, and paltry voice commands we feed it. A true personal assistant would need to see and hear more of the world and be able to connect that with the digital one.
  3. Understanding and interpretation of this data must become more sophisticated. Our current processing of visual and audio data is in the realms of translation and transcription, when instead we need to be working towards contextual understanding.

But Hollywood doesn’t need to be the bar. Though the consumer world is not ready for screen-free yet, the enterprise world could be. The computing world has always been about phased growth. The personal computer took decades before it became reality, and the smartphone required countless failures (even from Apple itself) before the pieces finally came together. Rather than to promise the world a do-it-all omniscient voice assistant, perhaps the scope needs to be set smaller. Core functions of a screen-less interface can be executed well, and we can learn from our iterations faster

All of this leads to our current pursuit of OFLO: ambitions to empower the deskless force, with the long term goal of freeing the world from its dependence on the screen. But that’s a story and a dream for another time.