Letter from San Francisco: The future of reading, by Guy Tiphane
4 September 2012


The ergonomics of reading could improve dramatically with new technologies, well beyond the current generation of e-book reading devices. Let me predict that in less than five years from now it will be possible to read a book without holding it in your hands.

It will be possible, I think, to wear glasses equipped with lightweight electronics delivering the text to your eyes in the shape and form adapted to your vision acuity. If you worry that this might be awkwardly distracting in the way the widely publicized Google Glasses seem to be (basically they're glasses equipped with a camera and a display on the edge), you should be aware that is only a prototype used by developers to imagine new applications. And there will be many.

Suppose for an instant that your book can be projected in front of your eyes. You would then be able to read your book anywhere, in any posture you find comfortable. Suppose that the glasses will be able to analyze your gaze too, to figure out when it’s time either to scroll the text or to interrupt the reading if you fall asleep or if you are looking away. These would be ergonomic improvements to reading. Another would be to actually ask you to take breaks and focus on the landscape around you. Beyond that, reading might be enriched with audio (the author's voice reading in your ear) or video (for illustrations).

The broader question to ask, though, is will we need to read?

It is clear that reference books, especially, have been advantageously replaced by interactive media. Searching for a word in a dictionary can now be instantaneous. Learning how to use a washing machine is a matter of watching a video. Now imagine that you might be wearing those glasses while seeking assistance from someone else (remotely) or from a reference manual. You might approach that new washing machine, and the machine might talk to you and highlight through the glasses the buttons and dials that are relevant to your current needs. Here too, applications are limitless.

I once had a conversation with Doug Engelbart, the inventor of the computer mouse and, I would say, most concepts in interactive computing. He predicted that we (“kids” as he used to call people of my generation) would have all our experiences delivered to our senses electronically. It sounded unbelievable back then, but it is much more believable now.

Guy Tiphane 2012

Guy Tiphane grew up in Laval and obtained an M.Sc. In Computer Science from Université de Montréal. He joined the founding team of Logitech, first in Switzerland, then in California, to write innovative software and to include users in the design of software and hardware. He obtained an M.A. in English Literature from Notre Dame de Namur University (Belmont, CA), winning the thesis award for his collection of short stories, Heating up the Fog. He lives in Berkeley.

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