Smart Body, Smart World: The Next Phase of Personal Computing

Clients frequently ask me about the big picture: How is consumer computing changing, and what’s coming next? My new Forrester report, published today, takes on that question. It’s called “Smart Body, Smart World,” and it describes the paradigm shift in computing that we see happening now. Computing has evolved from the mainframe to the desktop to the shoulder bag to the pocket, and now computing is taking over new frontiers: Our physical bodies and the physical environments we inhabit.

When we look at new, sensor-laden devices (SLDs) like the larklife or Progressive Snapshot,we see the beginnings of a new phase of personal computing that will transform the way we live and work. Sensor-collected data, when combined with intelligence and advice, will influence our decision-making and self-expression in domains as diverse as health, finance, shopping, navigation, relationships, work, and communication. SLDs could take any shape; in this report, we talk about them in two broad categories:

  • Wearables. “Wearables”—devices worn in or on the body—include accessories like Google Glass or the Nike+ FuelBand, but can also include electronics actually enmeshed in our skin and organs like the “electronic tattoos” developed by Nanshu Lu at the University of Texas at Austin, or the heads-up display contact lenses developed by researchers at Washington University (one of whom, Babak Parviz, is now leading Project Glass at Google). 
  • Embedded devices. By “embedded devices,” we mean sensors integrated into otherwise “dumb” objects, such as textiles, toothbrushes, pill boxes, mattresses, mirrors, thermostats, doorways, steering wheels, or parking spots. These devices are sometimes called “The Internet of Things.”

Wearables collect data about our physical bodies; embedded devices collect data about the physical environments we inhabit. When we use the data collected by these devices to make information-enhanced decisions, we create a paradigm we call “smart body, smart world.” It’s hard to overstate how different our lives will be when the smart body, smart world paradigm is in full force. For consumers, effects are likely to be positive and negative: With more information and guidance, humans can make more “rational” decisions, but if we’re always listening to our devices we may experience less spontaneity too. For product strategists, designing for more simpatico human-device interactions means that:

  • Devices diversify. Computing devices will take all different shapes, and interfaces in some cases will be invisible. Companies like HP making devices in box-shapes must diversify or sacrifice growth.
  • Big data gets enormous. The thousands of data points per minute collected by sensors on the body and in the environment have to be stored, managed, normalized, and interpreted; products and services that manage and parse this data see tremendous growth.
  • Verticals fuse: “Health and wellness” is not its own silo, but is connected to our finances, our shopping habits, our relationships. As bodies get connected, everyone is in the body business.
  • Retail disperses: All retailers become computing retailers, and computing-specific retailers like Best Buy go the way of Blockbuster. You wouldn’t buy a smart toothbrush at a specialty CE store; you’d be more likely to buy it in the channel that solves the rest of your hygiene needs.
  • Research gets more complete and “objective” input. Academic, medical, and market researchers will have access to vast, detailed data sets of actual, not reported, human behavior.

There’s a lot more to say about this topic; I encourage clients to read our report and get in touch if you’d like to discuss it further.