We’re about to find out. Within three years, 30 percent of all web-browsing sessions will be done without a screen. Christopher Ferrel, a Digital Strategy Director at The Richards Group, explains what this screenless future looks like, and what it means for brands.

Firstly, it’s worth clarifying that, at present, ‘screenless’ almost exclusively means voice. Humans interacting with computers through voice isn’t a new concept. In 1961, IBM developed a voice-activated computer, dubbed ‘shoebox’, that could understand simple arithmetic instructions.

The reason it has taken so long to get from IBM’s Shoebox in the 60s to Google Home and Amazon Echo living in our homes is down to one thing — the ability for computers to accurately understand language.

With that ability now comparable to human beings, voice-activated human-computer interaction is fast replacing screen-based interactions for many routine tasks. For some, screenless digital time is predicted to surpass digital screen time.

Communicating with computers through voice allows us to perform simple search and discovery tasks that make life easier. Asking Alexa to play a song or Google Home what score a film got on Rotten Tomatoes is simpler than performing the same task via a screen. It should also feel more natural.

To this end, Amy Webb of the Future Today Institute predicts that 50% of all human-computer interactions in industrialised countries will be voice activated by 2021.

Going over the top of screens to make life easier seems like a good use of technology, but accusations of sledgehammers being used to crack nuts could be made in some cases – voice activated toilets would be one such example.

Beyond the convenience benefits of search and discovery tasks, voice-activated outcomes are transforming lives for people with disabilities. Voice-led interfaces for people who can’t access or see screens become incredibly relevant.

For brands, this means that TOV and personality will be put under the microscope like never before, with the voice of the brand becoming the brand.

There is also an opportunity for brands to start creating and optimising content for spoken search. The way we search via screens vs how we speak is very different. Keyword lengths for typed searches are much shorter than when we speak.

Beyond voice lies gesture and thought. Ideo has talked about how designing for the margins, in this case controlling music using hand gestures for the visually impaired, can lead to inclusive features that improve accessibility for everyone. Emotiv has developed a commercially available neuroheadset that enables users to interact with computers through thought – like flying a drone.

The big takeout of the session and others predicting the death of screens and smartphones is that screens aren’t really going anywhere. We may use other means to filter or find information, but in many cases, that process will still lead to a screen. “OK Google, what’s the Rotten Tomatoes score for Her?”, is most likely followed up with “OK Google, play Her”.


Full coverage of SXSW 2018:

SXSW Day 1: Empower Displaced People Through Technology. 

SXSW Day 2: Google as the Translator Between Humans and Machines.

SXSW Day 4: Are Driverless Cars Really a Thing?

We Love Ester Perel.