Immersive tech may be the future of human-computer interaction

October 17, 20165 Minute Read

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Whether you’re talking about a Renaissance sailor using a sextant or an American farmer using a cotton gin, throughout the course of civilization, technology has played a critical role in the way we work and live. But while it represents progress in very real ways, new tech can also create dissonance.

A “social-technical gap” inevitably emerges between what people want to do and what technology is capable of doing, and this gap can hold progress back. This is why a team at HP Labs is dedicated to developing immersive experience technology, which Alexander Thayer, senior manager of the Immersive Experiences Lab at HP, says focuses on people and their practices. “We do not start with technology to see how it fits in with people,” Thayer says. “We start with people, to understand what they do and why they do it today. We look for those gaps in opportunities to improve people’s lives and then respond by crafting the best experiences with the appropriate technologies.”

Thayer said this approach requires patient, careful observation of people through field research techniques to glean data-driven insights. Innovations come from these insights (not the other way around), and they represent the foundation of everything that the Immersive Experiences Lab works on. The HP Labs team views technology as an opportunity to create end-to-end experiences that provide real delight and value.

“I like the phrase ‘immersive experience technology’ because even though someone may think it means virtual reality (or some specific technology), it draws a parallel between the things people want to do and the tools they use to do those things,” says Thayer. “Part of why we say ‘immersive experiences’ is because we consider the whole body.”

The case for immersive experience technology

One example can be found in wearables. A smartwatch is not just a piece of technology that people wear on their wrists—it has the potential to change the way people interact with the world. But many wearable products have garnered criticism for being “useless” and are quickly abandoned by users as a result, Business Insider reports. One of the current explorations of immersive experience technology at HP Labs is kinetic jewelry, which can crawl across your clothing. The central question is: How can this idea actually improve people’s lives?

This trend is sweeping the realm of consumer technology, and it’s only a matter of time before it hits the workplace. “Workplaces are a really rich, useful area to study from a research perspective,” Thayer says. “In the workplace, people are nominally trying to be productive, but technology that is meant to help people be more productive is still a big challenge.”

Thayer says that in workplaces, the “social-technical gap” can be particularly pronounced for a number of reasons. For example, the person buying the technology may not be the person using it every day. Or, one technology is purchased for a large group of employees that represent different audiences with different needs. When people aren’t put first, the results of implementing new technology can be disappointing.

Crafting this technology for the workplace (and in general) means that technology isn’t treated as an isolated tool or a silver bullet. It’s part of an infinitely complex ecosystem and series of negotiations that requires researchers and technologists to dive deeper and seek out implicit needs, not just go after pain points. “The trick is that technology by itself isn’t necessarily a problem solver,” Thayer says. “It’s all about the experience—situating products or technology appropriately in people’s lives so they know what to do with it.”

Future tech interactions and security at work

One area that the HP Labs teams is addressing is Shaping Future Experiences, exploring next-generation interfaces and how people interact with technology. For example, people are using chatbots in a variety of ways, such as using a Slack bot to order Taco Bell from a phone. The team at the Immersive Experiences Lab is taking this inclination and going deeper by thinking about what it means to shift from “device” to “contact” and how else this shift can be applied.

One idea is that this shift could help people have timely, useful interactions with their printers. The Lab studied how people could use text messages to interact with their printers in more conversational ways. The HP Print business unit is already leading the way with their development of the HP Print Bot. Another area of study is “Advancing Blended Reality Experiences,” where the team is looking into how to extend the value of products like the Omen X VR PC Pack to generate valuable insights for business stakeholders.

Underlying all this research and development is a focus on security, which is a key component of building immersive experience technology. Businesses that want to adopt mobile, wearable, and IoT technology have to make security a top priority. A recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers study found that use of wearables in the workplace is halted by lack of trust and serious concerns about data security. To unlock the potential of these technologies, employers have to implement security provisions that inspire trust—without compromising the experience.

Employees won’t want to jump through a slew of hoops to use these products. Again, this goes back to human-centered design and engineering: How do you create a product that balances security with usability and still optimize user experience? Another team at HP Labs focuses specifically on security innovations to address this question. They’re exploring how to design products for cyber resilience to get ahead of and prevent any attacks before they happen; head-off and identify attacks that don’t penetrate defenses already put in place; and ensure swift recovery from any attacks that do slip through existing defenses. The team is also researching infrastructures with security built-in from the start, to ensure safe and user-friendly experiences for future cyber-physical solutions and IoT.

It can be easy to divide “human” and “technology” into two distinct, opposing categories—but the future exists in immersive experience technology, which blends the two and uses technology to help people nurture human connection and live more meaningful, productive lives.

Follow Alexander Thayer on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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