Beyond Tablets: The Next Five Computing Form Factors

With the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2012 a few short weeks away, it’s a good time to look ahead at what’s next for consumer technology. All eyes have been on tablets: Apple sold 40 million iPads in just 18 months, with 11 million sold in this past quarter alone — phenomenal growth for a new form factor. With the Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Tablet finding their own successful markets, it’s easy to see why tablets attract so much attention and excitement. But computing evolution doesn’t end here — tablets, while still growing rapidly as a category, are not the final form factor.

Product strategists in the PC industry are gearing up for 2012 to be the year of the “ultrabook” — very thin, very light laptops, usually with solid-state drives (SSD), that compete with Apple’s MacBook Air — such as the Asus Zenbook and Lenovo U300s. We agree that ultrabooks’ lighter, thinner form will appeal to many consumers. Already, 21 percent of U.S. online consumers say they’re interested in owning one, according to a Forrester Research survey fielded in September. But we see the ultrabook as an evolution of the laptop rather than an entirely new form factor. So what is the next big thing in consumer computing?

The “next big thing” is likely to be many things — we anticipate accelerating form factor diversification beyond the desktops, laptops, netbooks, tablets and smartphones we have today, as we advance deeper into the Post-PC Era. Based on what we see in research and development labs, new products beginning to come to market and gaps in consumer computing experiences, we’ve identified these five form factors as the best candidates for what comes next:

  • Wearables: Wearable devices, or “wearables” for short, are devices worn on or near the body that sense and relay information. Many wearables, like the heads-up display (HUD) contact lenses in development at the University of Washington, are years from marketability. But other wearables are already available as consumer products, for uses such as communication and health and fitness. An increasing number of wearables in the health-and-fitness space interact with Apple iOS devices, such as the Lark Technologies vibrating wristband that doubles as an alarm clock and a sleep sensor; and BodyMedia FIT Armbands, which have four sensors to track activity, sleep and calorie intake. WIMM Labs, a Foxconn-funded start-up in Los Altos, Calif., has designed multifunctional wearables, based on Google’s Android software, that it will license to other companies.
  • Embedded devices: We define embedded devices as physical objects that incorporate computing processors and sensors, excluding those worn on the body, which we classify as wearables. Like wearables, embedded devices are diverse in form, ranging from devices such as Livescribe smartpens that fit into your pocket, to LG Thinq refrigerators that sit in your kitchen. Embedded devices may or may not have a display — Livescribe pens don’t; the LG Thinq appliances do. Today, embedded devices are widely used in industrial automation and automotives, and they have emerging consumer uses in home automation, entertainment and productivity.
  • Surfaces: Surfaces are large interactive displays, which may incorporate multitouch, voice and gesture control, facial recognition, near field communication (NFC), quick response (QR) codes or other input/output mechanisms. Today, surfaces are found mostly in public places such as hotels (Microsoft Surface tables in Sheraton bars) and conferences and events (Obscura Digital’s custom multitouch video installations), as well as in education (interactive whiteboards) and news media (red state/blue state maps), but we see potential for additional uses, especially in retail and marketing. For example, retailers such as Victoria’s Secret have commissioned the design firm frog design to create interactive displays for their retail stores. In Seoul, South Korea, retailers use surfaces to extend their reach beyond their stores: Tesco Homeplus, the No. 2 grocery retailer in South Korea, built “virtual malls” in subway stations to reach more customers without building more stores. Commuters take pictures of QR codes under the groceries they want to buy, and the groceries are delivered to their homes.
  • Flexible displays: Flexible displays are computing screens that can be rolled, folded or flexed. Flexible devices can take the form of personal devices, such as an e-reader, or larger surface displays, such as furniture or wallpaper. Flexible displays are likely the farthest from becoming commercialized products because of the lack of a defined use case or customer: Polymer Vision, a spinoff of Philips Electronics, promoted its flexible eBook Reader for years, but declared bankruptcy before bringing the device to market. HP has been developing printable Mylar displays that it imagines could be used for candy wrappers, armband computers for the military or living room wallpaper, but the displays are still several years from commercialization.
  • Miniprojectors: Miniprojectors are small devices that project a larger image onto another surface or, in the case of holographic projection, into 3-D space. Miniprojectors can be combined with cameras that recognize gesture to become interactive, similar to the Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360. Today, miniprojectors such as the Brookstone Pocket Projector are gaining in popularity as iPhone accessories. But they’re still niche products, as consumers must purchase them separately. Apple has already filed a patent to embed interactive projectors into its iPhones, iPads and Macs. Embedded miniprojectors would appeal primarily to information workers, but there could be broader consumer uses as well, such as impromptu photo slide shows or YouTube viewing in a group.

It’s easy to read about computing wallpaper, or contact lenses with embedded heads-up displays, and think that these form factors have no bearing on what product strategists are doing today. But product strategists who see what’s coming can anticipate disruption — or even innovate and become disruptors themselves. As you think about what’s coming in 2012 and beyond, know that none of these devices will operate in isolation. The most successful products will work with other products — for example, wearables that talk to smartphones and TVs; surfaces that are activated by the presence of your smartphone. We’re living in a multidevice, multiconnection world, and the best experiences will be those that work across devices and platforms. In that sense, the next phase of the Post-PC Era doesn’t look so different from today.

Sarah Rotman Epps is a senior analyst at Forrester Research, serving consumer product strategy professionals. Follow her on Twitter at @srepps

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