If we were to ask you to name one thing you wish your computer (or another Web-enabled device) could do, but doesn't now, what would you say? How about the ability to "touch the things that are in the screen, to feel and move them." That's what 7-year-old Daniela* wants. Matthew, 6, wishes he could play 3D games on his computer, and Jenna, 7, would like a solar-powered laptop. Cristina, 12, thinks it'd be great to travel more - to experience new, far-away places with the help of virtual reality.
Understanding that kids are excellent innovators, Latitude Research in conjunction with ReadWriteWeb recently conducted a study asking children to ideate concepts for new computer and Web technologies - and the results are in.
While it's not too surprising that kids today think about digital technologies (and the experiences they enable) as a given, the study found that kids desire increasingly immersive content experiences, better integration of digital technology into physical objects, spaces and activities, and more intuitive interfaces - 37% of participants' creations didn't even bother with the traditional keyboard/mouse interface.
What's more, our participants' ideas weren't just forward-thinking; they were also surprisingly down-to-earth, with only 4% of kids' "future requests" being impossible demands for today's developers (e.g. time-travel, teleportation, etc.).
"Future computers" - Natalie, Age 10
"We chose to use kids for this study because they're closer to the problem at hand - closer to their core desires," said Jessica Reinis, an analyst at Latitude who headed up the study.
"They're not thinking within the confines of current market offerings or in terms of routine life situations; they're thinking about what they'd like to do right now, without regard to what's possible or what would be popular with other people. Those are questions that we explore more in adult innovation studies like The New Sharing Economy, but kids are able to tap into a more basic creativity that's great for ideating on really broad questions like this."
Kids today have different experiences with technology during a critical learning period than present adults did, which means they also have different understandings about what it can and should do. "Kids will figure out how to use whatever they get in front of, and that will become the framework inside of which they experience, critique, and create everything else," said Geoff Barnes, Director of User Experience at Elliance. "I think that kids' visions into what the future of technology will look like are highly collaborative with present-day, actual paradigm shifts, like the interaction paradigm shift of multi-touch."
"The computer becomes 3 dimensional and, instead of a keyboard, it's controlled by voice." - Aisling, Age 11
The study was comprised of 126 children, aged 12 and under, from across the globe. Here's what we asked them:
"What would be really interesting or fun to do on your computer or the Internet that your computer can't do right now? Please draw a picture of what this activity looks like."
Parents told us some basic facts about their child's Internet usage and technology exposure, along with household demographic information, and submitted their child's drawing.
Screenshot of participant drawings in a Web application (part of Latitude's Lumière Suite) that allows users to contribute and interact with visual input in a behavioral environment.
Latitude coded each of these images (future technology ideas) for common themes, then analyzed them in aggregate. Some examples of broad themes included: interest area, interface characteristics, degree of interactivity, physical-digital convergence, user's desired end-goal, social connectivity, etc.
Study Findings: Digitize the Offline World
Thirty eight percent of children's innovations called for more immersive content experiences than are commonly available now, with features like 3D effects (10% of all submissions incorporated 3D) or seamless integration of digital technology into the physical world. In many cases, devices could create physical objects such as food or facilitate physical activities such as playing a sport.
"I'd like it if my computer could convert images or food and make them real." - Joanna, Age 10
These requests don't seem too radical if you've ever encountered MIT's SixthSense technology, which transposes digital information onto everyday, physical surroundings, and relies on more instinctive, gestural interactions:
For kids today, true synchrony between physical and digital worlds is becoming an expectation rather than a novelty. And the demand for it is expanding beyond the realm of visual media.
"Currently, we have the 'iGeneration' understanding of device as simply an extension of oneself - and we still think that's pretty novel," said Reinis. "But kids are showing us that the next step will be exactly the converse of that. It'll be a shift from smartphones that can go anywhere to The Internet of Things which is everywhere."
There may be openings to apply mobile RFID/sensors, or even something like Stickybits (which allow people to attach digital content to real-world objects) to register and socialize offline activities through smarter device interactions. HopeLab is currently developing gDitty, a wearable device for kids that records and converts physical activity to points which can be redeemed for "virtual goods and real-world rewards, including customizable avatars, gift cards, even the opportunity to make a donation to a cause."
Regardless of physical world integration, the vast majority of participants, 83%, desired technologies capable of highly intuitive interaction. They requested responsive virtual environments, 3D games, "homework help" computers, telepathy as a form of device input (4% of all submissions), etc.
"Virtual mind-reading games" - Mark, Age 12
Future Request: Content Interaction (As Opposed to Device Interaction)
Kids are already thinking about 3D effects for in-home gaming and media viewing, an offering which is just beginning to hit the market as 3D-enabled TVs. This anticipation of the near-future suggests that visually immersive features alone won't satisfy any audience for long. "We've been investigating a number of emergent media trends and this big idea always comes through; essentially, that users are, more and more, desiring additional ways and means to interact with content - to interact with it and to personalize it," said Reinis, who has worked on 3D studies recently and specializes in interactive advertising research at Latitude.
Kids today approach technology with matter-of-course acceptance - and greater expectations. "It took my 7 year-old son, Alex, under 10 seconds to figure out how to turn it on and unlock the iPad's screen, and no time whatsoever to understand that touching icons launched apps. Or that swiping the screen controlled pagination. Or that pivoting the screen revealed different data presentations," wrote Barnes in a recent blog post.
"I'm hard-pressed to envision his generation entering college and enrolling in required courses with names like 'Introduction to Computing,' to learn about file systems, Microsoft Office, the worldwide web, and email. As I watch Alex, in fact, the idea is as nonsensical to me as offering college courses on how to read an arrow. It's become that obvious," he wrote.
So what might next-generation interaction be like? Based on study findings, it seems that, eventually, each user will crave the ability to architect his or her own content experience: to step into it, to interact with characters, to add and remove plot constraints - ultimately, to alter the course of future events. It would mean the difference between interacting peripherally with a technology, and interacting with the actual story being told through the device.
Download a PDF of the study summary. Part two of the results will be published tomorrow, July 8.
*The names of some of the children have been changed to protect the participants' privacy.
Latitude is an international research consultancy exploring how new information and communications technologies can enhance human experiences. Latitude's user-centered research approach unites generative, media-based methods with robust quantitative analysis to identify concrete opportunities for Web-based innovation. "Children's 'Future Requests' for Computers and the Internet" is one installment of Latitude 42s, an ongoing series of open innovation research studies which Latitude publishes in the spirit of knowledge-sharing and opportunity discovery. For more information on this study and its applications to your business, email Neela Sakaria.