In the Future, We'll All Be Harry Potter

by Jakob Nielsen on December 9, 2002

Summary: The world of magic is a world where inanimate objects come alive; it's as if they had computational power, sensors, awareness, and connectivity.

By saying that we'll one day be like Harry Potter, I don't mean that we'll fly around on broomsticks or play three-dimensional ballgames (though virtual reality will let enthusiasts play Quidditch matches). What I do mean is that we're about to experience a world where spirit inhabits formerly inanimate objects.

Much of the Harry Potter books' charm comes from the quirky magic objects that surround Harry and his friends. Rather than being solid and static, these objects embody initiative and activity. This is precisely the shift we'll experience as computational power moves beyond the desktop into everyday objects.

Next-Generation Magic

Here are some examples of agency in Harry Potter's objects, and how we'll achieve similar powers in the future:

  • The Daily Prophet newspaper has photos that come alive when the wizards look at them. Tablet PC version 3.0 should allow us to read multimedia news at the breakfast table. Combined with eyetracking (which is still a few releases away), we'll rid ourselves of those annoying, constantly moving video clips. Instead, videos will appear as still images that play only when you indicate interest by looking at them for half a second or more.
  • Socks scream loudly when they become too smelly. Developers could implement this using sensors, either in the socks (wearable computing) or in the environment. Smart clothing is one of the main research directions for the future of computing.
  • Action figures move around, exhibiting the personality of famous Quidditch players. Ever since Interactive Barney, we've had toys with some amount of autonomy. Personality, however, is still missing.
  • Pensieve stores thoughts and memories for later retrieval. Digital cameras will capture ever-bigger parts of our experience, especially as they're integrated with mobile devices that know our agenda and the people we're meeting with. Perhaps we'll even be able to subscribe to the videos of ourselves taken by the ever-present security surveillance cameras.
  • Mirrors comment on the reflectee's appearance. This will surely be a commercial product. In the far future, expert systems might issue the commentary, but in the interim it could be provided by networked fashion consultants: either cheap staff in low-salary countries or busybodies who will gladly appraise other people for free.
  • Omniculars offer instant replay. We already have binoculars with built-in digital cameras. Combined with the instant replay technology offered by TiVo/Replay TV, you have first-generation omniculars. Add-ons could include an expert system for bird-spotting that would match any bird with an ornithological database and annotate the image with the bird's common and Latin names.
  • The Marauder's Map has icons that represent people as they move around Hogwarts Castle. Smart badges already let us track employee movement in high-security facilities. GPS systems and your trusty 4G cellphone could bring the same feature to open spaces, pending only privacy concerns.

I'm not so nerdy as to suggest that you read Harry Potter as an idea manual for next-generation product development. But the books are filled with examples of products that we'll soon be able to build, and they do provide some idea of what it might mean to embody awareness in the physical world.

Don't Harm the Muggles

Harry Potter's world resembles the world of computers in another way as well: In the Harry Potter books, the population consists of two distinct groups — a small group of wizards, and a much larger group of Muggles (standard-issue humans) who know nothing about magic or the dealings of wizards.

Similarly, in our world, the vast majority of people don't understand computers or technology. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once said that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Unfortunately, computers and the Internet are this "advanced technology" as far as most people are concerned. Things appear on their screens, computers deliver the desired results, and how it happens is all just so much magic.

In the Harry Potter books, the ethical wizards have agreed to leave the Muggles alone and not do magic tricks on them. It seems that computer wizards have something to learn from Harry Potter, because they often use their power in ways that are harmful to regular people.

I typically argue against poor Internet usability because it reduces a company's ability to generate business value from its website. Bad customer service equals fewer customers. However, the bigger picture is even worse: Every page that doesn't conform to expected behavior and design conventions undermines users' ability to build a conceptual model of the Web, and thus reduces their ability to use other sites with ease, confidence, and pleasure. Designers who inflict poor usability on the world and its Muggles are wicked wizards indeed.

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