by Jörn Leogrande
August 03, 2016

As we conduct more and more aspects of everyday life online, we yearn for greater simplicity in the digital world. This is the next evolution in connected living.

Connected living is all about making life easier and more convenient: A fridge that tells us when we’re out of milk, a thermostat that adjusts itself according to our preferences. These innovations are helpful because they free up our minds. Gone are the days when we have to make a second trip to the supermarket to pick up the one item we forgot, or ruin a vacation because we can’t remember whether we turned off the air conditioning at home.

More and more objects become connected to the internet

But as more and more objects, machines and day-to-day activities become connected to the internet, the convenience factor actually decreases. Instead of simply having to remember to buy milk, our mind is now preoccupied with remembering how to navigate the intuitive user interface of each connected object. Is the refrigerator’s “Energy Saver” feature located under “Power” or “Settings”? Is it the mobile payment app or the mobile banking app that uses fingerprint authentication?

 Invisible apps are the next stage in Connected Living

These may seem like trivial problems, but because so much of our daily lives are spent navigating different websites, apps and devices – over 8 hours per day on average – we end up feeling frustrated and distracted by their discrepancies. We no longer want to download a new app for every task, or learn a new user interface (UI) for every object and machine we own. Instead, we want to search, shop, schedule appointments, conduct our banking, manage our homes and do everything else online simply, without having to think about the particular context.  We expect convenience in an Uber way. Something that Amazon has created with one-click-shopping. A automated process, that we can trust. A real no brainer.

Enter the world of invisible apps. Sometimes referred to as conversational apps, these programs eschew the traditional UI involving drop-down menus and instead function via simple back-and-forth messaging. Since we are already so familiar with the messaging format (consider the immense popularity of WhatsApp, WeChat and Facebook) there’s no need to learn or remember a new UI. We can simply tap into the natural human tendency to state our needs and get information through dialogue.

A bot answers questions and complete action items

So far, the most common application for such message-based programs is a virtual assistant app like Hound, Magic, Operator, or Google Assistant, which can be directed either by voice (with Google Home) or text (with Google Allo). These apps allow users to carry out a variety of multi-step tasks, such as rescheduling a meeting at a mutually-convenient time or making travel arrangements, simply by sending a text message. A bot or human is on the other side to answer questions, provide options and complete action items.

The next big step for message-based apps involves e-commerce

This is something we see coming: the e-commerce website will go to the background and people will make orders and communicate with the retailer through WhatsApp, Telegram or Facebook – in professional world also Slack. This will not only simplify the shopping experience, but also the payment process. Because messaging companies generally have a lot more data about users than retailers do, they could potentially identify and authenticate customers based on language and behavior patterns for faster and more seamless transactions. This may be a crucial advantage in the post-Uber payments landscape, where the ideal transaction is both invisible and automatic, as well as secure.

Some of the world’s biggest tech giants have already embraced invisible payments. Take Amazon Dash, for instance, a small electronic device that can be used to order common household items, like laundry detergent and bin bags, with the simple push of a button. The tiny device sends the order to its linked Amazon account via WiFi, and the item arrives on the doorstep a day or two later. We don’t have to confirm the order or payment information, or even look at a screen to use Dash.

Automatic transactions streamline the payment process

Google’s Hands Free payment solution for brick-and-mortar stores takes a similarly screen-free approach. In this case, we can simply tell the cashier, “I’ll pay with Google” when we check out. No need to fumble for a wallet or wave a smartphone in front of an NFC terminal. Thanks to face recognition software and beacon technology, the cashier can easily verify our identity and charge the account.

With this, we are seeing an evolution in identifying customers using different data points: biometric, behavioral stuff and the way people use the infrastructure. These kind of technologies are getting much stronger. And while all of this certainly does a great deal to simplify our connected lives, there are some who would take it even further.

Imagine a digital world with no user interface

No UI is a concept in which sensors, wearables, distributed computers and connected devices work together to free us from our screens. For instance, instead of pulling out our smartphones to pause a song, we can simply tap our jacket cuff, which has been woven out of special conductive yarn to interact with our music app. This will actually be possible when Google’s Project Jacquard is released in 2017.

Another Google project, which is still in development (Project Soli), uses an RFID chip to detect micro hand motions and carry out their associated functions. In this way, we might be able to unlock a door without entering the code, or silence a phone call without having to touch our device.

As we become more sophisticated users of technology we will continue to demand more powerful and less intrusive tools. The no UI phenomenon, invisible apps and seamless payments are just the first steps towards our simplified digital future.