Making Sense: The Next iPhone will be a Tricorder

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This article originally appeared in CMSWire

This past summer, I took a cab from SFO to downtown SF. I pulled out my credit card to pay the tab, and the cabbie hands me his iPhone – with a little thing stuck in the earphone jack. It was a tiny little credit card swiper. Moments later I read the email receipt of this transaction on my iPhone. This was significant because a taxi driver in D.C. a few weeks earlier had told me how expensive it is to have a traditional card reader in his cab, so I’d better have $50 cash if I want to get to the suburbs. Then, on the airplane, flipping through that catalogue that no one ever buys from, I saw a blood pressure cuff for iPhone. Its also available at Walgreens which qualifies it as mainstream for me. Just yesterday the FDA approved a Blood Glucose monitor for the i-devices. A little Google time shows me that there are also body-weight scales, projectors, and high-end microphones available. Not to mention pedometers. Actually, lets do mention pedometers. Nike mapped data from runners in London over a 15 day period. Early starts, late starts, distance runners, sprinters, neighborhoods. Its inspiring, cool, social, big data and beautiful. It is action as art. I love Nike.

But my swooning over data-aggregation-and-visualization-to push-sneakers is not the point I’m trying to make here. I joked on twitter a few months ago that the iPhone 6 would be a tricorder. Since I’ve only watched the William Shatner Star Trek (in syndication), and I don’t know the Whoopie Goldburg-and-beyond lingo, I don’t really know if you “millenials” will get what I mean by that, so I’ll explain. McCoy – he was the tech-enabled country doctor and Captain Kirk’s wing-man. He had this thingamabobber that looked like (and probably was) a tape recorder (remember those?) turned on its side. When he encountered a sick or injured person or Styrofoam rock-creature, he waved this thingy, and was able to learn everything about it. What it was made of, body temperature, heart rate, how it felt about its parents, etc. Great theatre.

Extra sensory perception.

We are all (and by “all”, I mean me, and probably you, and the people who are like us) now walking around with these devices that bring the power of the interwebz to our current context. It started (for me) by being able to walk through a dark parking lot with a cell phone in hand so that I wasn’t afraid, because my friends, family, and police were literally in my hand. A decade or so later, sightseeing in London, I was able to find out the history behind the statue and this “Cromwell” figure I was staring at. Now I can not only view my banking but make transactions with my phone (not the browser, the phone). And join a community of runners who run when and how I do. Now my phone is not just a source of information and communication it is a sensor. I can sense my environment – where I am and how fast I’m moving. I can sense information through QR codes (yeah, I know they’re still bombing, but that’s a different topic). I can sense financial info through a little doo-hicky. I can sense my blood pressure and glucose. I’m guessing the next great thing will be a thermometer to check your child’s fever and send it to the pediatrician. Perhaps I can sense how many people are in line at Starbucks before I detour there. In Paris, I could “sense” how far I was from a metro station or Notre Dame (though not without some glitches). And, critically, I could record and share it all with my family in real time. I may never need to send another postcard again. My phone is becoming a tricorder. I bet the military or MIT is working on a spectrophotometer – something that you can wave around and detect the presence of airborne chemicals or agents. Our generation’s coal-mine canary. Or perhaps cheap, portable night vision for every smart-phone owner?

Its not the internet of things, its the internet of senses.

Let me draw a different arc. In the beginning, human-kind spent their time searching for food, water and shelter. We were at the mercy of our environment. Fire, electricity, engineering and chemistry helped us master our environment. Communications helped us transcend and connect environments (we’re still evolving there, but still). We do not exactly control our environment, but we control its impact on us (within certain limitations). We are now taking what William Gibson called our “Constantly-improving, communal, prosthetic memory” and giving ourselves the ability to sense, record, share and compare what is happening right now, in our own personal context. We have built extra-sensory perception. My daughter asked me how many senses we have – she was thinking of the big five, vision, taste, etc. But our phones (which were once about talking ) are giving us a personal sense of location, speed, density, momentum, chemistry and what else? How many senses do we have now? As we stumble through our business transformations from mobile to social to cloud to big data, we arrive at the shore of sensing.

Business Sense?

Is there a business of Sense? You tell me. But I’d pay a buck ninety-nine if I could wave my phone next to my kids ear and pediatrician McCoy could diagnose her ear infection without having to bundle her up and take her to the office and then the pharmacy. I bet my insurance company would even spot me the dough. Field MRI? Traffic de-congestion? Food freshness ? The consumer market may be ready to buy as much as we can deliver. And the enterprise too. We talk about crowdsourcing – now think crowd-sensing. What could it mean for our comfort, convenience, medical care, food safety? What if the organization as organism grows literal eyes and ears as the workforce forms its nervous system? How will we tumble apace with this cascade of possibility? How will markets, organizations and humans change?

The market will absorb lots of new tech for a while – the field is very wide open. But how quickly will we generate meaning? The social media frontier may be tamed (or taming) but the sensing frontier is just beginning.

How will organizations take advantage? Ahead of the game right now are the UPS-type guys in the field with scanners, and the Starbucks folks who know what coffee beverage I chose (and probably who I drank it with) this morning. Look for hints there. Tricky issues of price/cost and bandwidth I leave for others to tackle. But while I hold off spending $75 a month for my 12 year old to have the world in his pocket, I’m not sure I’ll be able to say no when my 7 year old hits middle school. Must it cost that much? The carriers will play a pivotal role here.

The real McCoy?

So as i walk down the street now able to sense if the street vendors have the flu, the only thing missing from my tricorder will be the ee-ooowooo sound, I hope to channel some of Dr. McCoy’s folksy intuition and wisdom (“Dammit, Jim, he’s just a boy!”). I wonder, though, will my innate senses atrophy? Will my ability to read a map, never particularly acute to begin with, wither entirely away? Progress is change, change is a tradeoff. Tom Wujec’s TED talk gives a flavor of this kind of tradeoff by looking at how we told time 500 years ago. In the 16th century, the 1% checked time on an an Astrolabe – an insanely complex device that requires a good bit of training, astronomy and agility. Now time is a trivial matter. We’ve learned a lot as a society, but we’ve forgotten a lot as individuals. Will the “Watson”-enabled doctor (or CEO, or mom for that matter) retain the ability to research and ask important questions and question their results?
Our society has always had a deep and ever growing pool of wisdom – though it spent a few years out of fashion, its definitely the new black. Art, design and philosophy are re-surging as essential tools of society and business. Are they building new wisdom as we trade some older wisdoms for our new techno-senses?

The best is yet to come.