Some Thoughts On The Future of Reading

Like any good technologist, I’m very interested in the future. I’m waiting anxiously to hear what Tim Cook will say this week at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference, of course, but for this post I’m going to look a bit farther in the future.

Google Glass has been in the news lately, including an interview with Sebastien Thrun of the GoogleX research lab on the Charlie Rose show, where he showed the Google Glass device and even kind of demonstrated it. The fundamental idea of Google Glass, apparently, is to put a virtual layer over the real world to enable people to do cool stuff without interacting directly with a traditional device like a mobile phone, tablet, or laptop.

A question that occurred to me was how will people read in a Google Glass world? And by “read” I mean long form items like books, magazine articles, and so on – not the messages that come up on a phone screen.

Humans Remain Humans (At Least For A While)

Even in the future, there will be some “fixed points” of human behavior. For example, people will still be talking to each other. And they will still be reading books and long-form articles, and a smaller group will still be writing. But just as today we have many more ways for people to talk to each other than our ancestors did 100 years ago (i.e., the phone, text messages, email, video chat, and so on, in addition to the basics of speaking face-to-face), in the future there will be even more new modes by which people are talking.

The same is true for reading. We’ve gone from hand-written books before Gutenberg, to hard-cover books for several centuries, to broadsheets, to paperbacks (as an addition to hardcover books), and lately to Kindles and e-readers (again, in addition to the physical books), as well as audio books.

In the activity of talking to people, we’ve essentially dematerialized the conversation – you don’t have to be in the same place as your interlocutor, and you don’t have even speak.

Do We Need A Device? Not Technically

Today, we still need a physical artifact – a book, or a magazine, or a device – to read (versus listen to) a book. In the future, is there any reason that people need to read books on a device at all? Or on a device that’s so ubiquitous that it’s not really a device, such as Google Glass or its tenth generation descendant (Google Contacts)?

Well, there’s no question that this will be possible, and it will definitely be the way we consume some reading material, just as today I do occasionally read books on my iPhone, when my iPad or Kindle is not handy.

In fact, there’s no intrinsic reason it has to be a device. It could be a reengineered brain that hijacks the visual signal and adds something on it, like a book.

This is one vision of “the brave new world” of augmented reality, and as I say, there’s no technical reason this can’t happen.

Pitfalls Ahead?

But while I think this is an awesome and cool vision, there are some potential practical pitfalls, which I’ll talk about tomorrow in a follow-on post. In the meantime, what are your “visions” for the future of reading, and for anything else related to Google Glass?

About the author

Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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