The Library Website Will Disappear

A new year always elicits thoughts about the future, but this month, my library has been considering our next strategic plan, which has focused those thoughts for me on my library and the profession in general.

Since I’m principally charged with managing the online aspects of my library, I come to these kinds of discussions focused on web platforms, online communication and consumer technology trends. One of the biggest trends (you may have noticed) has been the adoption of mobile, touch screen devices like iPhones and tablets. I include even Microsoft’s attempt at reinventing the PC with its Surface Tablet, despite early failures to woo consumers. And given this apparently irresistable move toward mobile, tablet-like computing, I have to ask: what does this ultimately mean for the library’s web properties: our websites, our online instruction guides, our discovery systems and our digital collections?

Palo Alto Venture Capital firm KPCB recently explored this very issue in their 2012 Internet Trends Report. Some major insights from their report include:

  • Mobile traffic is now 13% of all global Internet traffic, up from just 1% in 2009. In some countries, like India, mobile Internet traffic has surpassed desktop traffic.
  • Almost 1/3 of US adults own a tablet or e-reader
  • Together, iOS and Android are 45% of the OS market share, vs. 35% for Windows
  • The install base of Tablets + Smartphones will surpass PCs + Notebooks this year

But one trend that stands out in KPCB’s analysis is that of the Asset-Light generation. A long-form definition can be found via a very Asset-Light resource: Quib.ly. But to put it more succinctly, being asset-light means your lifestyle is one less reliant on physical commodities and personal know-how, but instead, relies on cloud and crowd-sourcing just about everything. You don’t carry around notepads, you don’t buy maps, you don’t rely on “experts” for medical advice or which movie to see next. Asset-lighters, meet their needs by streaming, connecting and sharing.

From KPCB’s perspective, this is quite important in terms of where the web is heading. Some notable examples relavent to libraries include: MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), Amazon Textbook Rental and of course, good-ole Wikipedia.

So, socially, we’re moving toward a very different economy and radically different means of information distribution, especially when it comes to learning.

Add to this, two major and imminent innovations and you will get a glimpse at just how different the world will be in only 5 years:

  1. Wearable devices, especially eyeware will give people the ability to navigate the Internet by voice command, gesture and all through lenses fixed to their faces. Status: Google Glasses are expected to enter the market in early 2013 and Apple won’t be far behind.
  2. Artificially-intelligent agents will not quite resemble HAL from 2001, but be very capable of understanding your vocal commands and then ferreting quite reliable answers to your questions or carrying out mundane tasks, like creating appointments or sending messages for you. Status: Did you see IBM Watson slaughter Jeopardy’s world champions or used SIRI on your iPhone?

So, the way we gather information and where we go to get it is already changing. And the interfaces are already being revolutionized and that pace will accelerate dramatically over the next 5 years as voice and sight overtake the the very impractical and immobile keyboard…even the touchscreen may be reduced to the point where iPads seem like a whimsical dead-end much like 8 track or Beta tapes.

All of these changes will have an immediate effect on the core of our current Internet paradigm: the Web Page.

Text and links with a smattering of images have been the key content types of of web pages since Tim Berners Lee first formulated the WWW. Mobile devices have changed all that. Not only do they steer away from typical web interfaces in favor of “apps,” they actually de-link parts of the web from each other. The result, in most cases is a much more curated and manageable Internet.

And this is important for libraries, whose pages are almost hard-wired around interconnecting pages together in rather daunting tangles of hyperlinks, portals and gateways. Unfortunately, this paradigm is increasingly less relevant to today’s devices and today’s Asset-lighters, who expect a web page to cut through the clutter and get them the answer. In fact, they want an app to do the heavy-lifting for them.

And add to this, semi-intelligent software agents and a re-conceived commercial Internet based around voice and sight and you can see how much work libraries have ahead of them.

The users 5 years from now that enter our libraries’ virtual spaces, will expect a curated, largely automated experience. Already, we see this on the ground where incoming students are completely beside themselves in the antiquated library environment. One recent Facebook post on my library’s newsfeed noted: “The Library has a website?”

Another telling anecdote: One colleague of mine defined her job as teaching people to fish. I then asked: How many people actually go fishing anymore. Fishing to them is dropping by the supermarket. Full-stop.

The world is just getting too complicated for people to be expected to take the time to find information on their own. Information will continue to be a commodity, yes. Information will continue to badger the human mind. But AI servants and wildly different means of gathering information, will mean that single individuals will never have to tackle almost any information problem alone. The crowd, the bots and the apps will do the fishing.

And the web page will be like Matrix code that few ever need to concern themselves with. Get ready…

Insight into the future of Augmented Reality

Just a good video that explores where all this augmented reality stuff is headed. If it seems far-fetched, think again. Consultants in Silicon Valley are actively engaged with the big tech firms to develop eyeware, beginning with goggles due out this year. Contact-lens AR ware, as explored in this video, is forecasted to be on store shelves in by the end of the decade.

Sight from Sight Systems on Vimeo.

We Are All Terminators Now

For years, tech analysts and insiders have speculated that augmented reality goggles were just a few years away. These products would provide a data layer superimposed over the real world similar to that depicted in the Terminator movies…albeit one less likely to place crosshairs over Sarah Conner, and more likely to allow you to friend her.

Well, last week, the NYT wrote that such products are within months of coming onto the market, and will likely be released in time for Planet Niburu’s arrival (aka Christmas 2012). That’s right, folks, all that talk about the world-as-we-know-it coming to an end in 2012 is really going to happen. Only, future historians will log 2012 not as the realization of a Mayan apocalypse, but as the beginning of the end of the Internet and the rise of something much better.

Imagine you’re walking down the street and want to find the closest biker bar. Simply input your search (I’m fascinated to see how this will get pulled off) and then start scanning the surrounding world around you for the results.

Far more than virtual reality or cyberspace, augmented reality is the real future for information seekers. My guess is that 20 years out, people will look at examples of web pages and have to laugh at how rooted in the 20th Century file cabinet mentality they were. They will scratch their heads and wonder how anyone ever found anything relevant. The very idea that you would create information that was not tied to a physical space will astonish them.

Once AR goggles come online, relevance will be tied to location…period. We’ve already seen this with our location based services via our smartphones, but these too, are merely a stepping stone. And I think if you look at Google’s product line you’ll start to see that they have been anticipating the AR future for some time.

Here’s my take: The web of the future will be something akin to Google Earth + Planet Earth. Let’s say that you’re looking for a woman named Sarah Conner. A few years ago, if you ran this search, you would be treated to all kinds of location-agnostic results that would drown you in a flood of irrelevant data. Run that search on Google today and you might get the Sarah Conners your contacts on Google Plus are associated with and perhaps the ones listed in directories in your current town. Fast-forward to an Internet that is oriented around goggles, and suddenly your top search result would be the Sarah Conner closest to you on Planet Earth at that moment (assuming she allows any random killer robot from the future to locate her online).

Or, let’s say that you really don’t want the closest Sarah, but just the ones in Los Angeles. Flip over to Google Earth in your goggles, run your search and zoom in on L.A.

Termination was never so easy!

All of this will really challenge the utility of the simple web site, suspended in the cloud, independent of the real world. It seems that at the very least, web sites will be dramatically reorganized over the next decade as we scramble to geo-locate wikipedia articles and the like. Some things may not be so helpful if they are tied to a location (where does StarWars.com go? Up in the sky? Lucas Ranch in California?), but the vast bulk of sites related to locations will move from the web to the world.

And now for the compulsory cliché: The future’s so bright, we gotta wear…

Future is More than just Mobile

Prediction season is upon us. We’re coming up on 02012, and prepping for my library’s 6 month review of our annual plan. So, why not a few thoughts on the future of libraries?

Obviously annual plans only look a year out and so immediate technologies are top of mind in that particular document: mobile, Quick Response Codes (QRC’s), location-based services (LBS) and eBooks, to name a few. But I’m a far-focused futurist, so allow me to indulge that perspective as I consider the future of libraries and what we’re doing at DePaul University’s Libraries.

Let’s start with mobile. This is a hot topic among librarians, but few understand that the long-term mobile story is just getting started. In just a few years, brands such as Android and Apple will offer the truly killer app of mobile technology: Google Goggles and iShades. And when that happens, those augmented reality devices will dwarf the techno-social impacts the Internet has stirred thus far.

Think back to when Bill Clinton began heralding the age of the Information Super Highway back in the mid-1990s. Readers of Mondo2000, that shining, but short-lived Silicon Valley technobabble magazine (before there was Wired!), will recall its pages filled with dreams of global social uprisings spawned by the freeing of information from the oppressive clutches of the physical world. Anything would be possible…perhaps, gulp, a psychedelic, neo-anarchistic Utopia that would make Occupy Wall Street shudder!

Mondo2000 and the Clintonians had big ideas and many have come true in one way or another. But nowhere in that vision was mobile.

Fast forward to 02012 and mobile is changing the Internet once again. We hear about “responsive design” for our websites that take the mobile view as the starting place and build out from there. We hear about mobile reference services. QRC’s in the stacks. Mobile-friendly knowledge management services embedded in our web services.

But this is near-focused planning that, by 02022, will prove as naive as Mondo2000’s 01991 musings on Mandelbrot fractals that will one-day synch with your CD Player!

Google Goggles and iShades will be about taking the Internet and laying it over the physical landscape: Your street, your friends, your sports, your own person and, yes, your libraries. Information formerly at your fingertips, will now be on your eyeballs, on demand, curated to your personal, social and professional history with relevancy also weighted by your actual location. And I might emphasize, that physical location itself will be embedded with a history of FAQs built up by previous Killroys that stood there before you.

So, you might ask, if I’ve got Wikipedia, Yelp, Google and Angry Birds super-imposed over my world, why do I even need a library in my town or university?

Let’s be honest, many people will not. Quasi-intelligent web services (akin to today’s forerunners like IBM’s Watson and Apple’s Siri) will be able to field most public library-type questions, basing their answers on all the kinds of data curation variables listed above. Information commons will also be made redundant for most people as software moves to web versions that you can manipulate in the air just in front of your physical body. And books…give me a break. Print…and text for that matter…will soon be confined to a narrow set of use cases. Video, web-demos and avatar instructors will be the new medium of most communication in the world of Augmented Reality. And I would add, web pages will be as antiquated in 02022 as the yellow pages are in 02012.

But all this said, the library will still have a role, some of it fulfilling its traditional mission of bringing information to those without the means or skills to access it on their own. And let’s face it, we are moving into a world of reduced resources and scaled-back prosperity; a world that will need to go through some painful transitions in how it supplies affordable energy, right down to affordable calories for those 7+billion human engines going viral on Spaceship Earth. So, there will be no shortage of people requiring a central technology and information access point…that place we will call the library.

But new services will also be core to their work. Despite a more humble economic outlook, the world of 02022 and beyond will hardly be standing still. Technological change will be accelerating and with it, there will be pressure for even extraordinary people to cope. Enter the techbrarian: an expert in emerging devices, web services and information resources whose job it will be to train students, business people and the general public on how to keep up with the dizzying changes hurdling us into Tomorrow.

At DePaul’s Libraries, we’re laying the groundwork for this Age of Augmentation (and disruption). QRC’s are our starting point, even though they are really just a bridge technology like the Prius is to Electric Vehicles and the Walkman was to the iPod. Layering our stacks with those distorted crossword-puzzle-looking codes is akin to assigning a URI to a physical location, which is a baby-step toward augmented reality.

Our plan comes in three initial phases, starting with creating QRC access points to reference services, leading to integration of our LibGuide Research Guides with relevant sections of our stacks and then on toward taking the QRCs outside the library to other locations around campus. Eventually, we envision applying this technology to allow users to check out computer terminals and reserve rooms.

But QRCs are small potatoes. Ultimately, we envision taking the URI’s assigned to physical locations and generating augmented reality services. Imagine walking into our library with your iShades on and being able to instantly identify available rooms based on green indicators super-imposed over our library doors. Imagine being able to have a virtual chat with a reference librarian/machine whose avatar appears in a window hovering over the rare book you are examining…a librarian who can see what you see on the page and help you understand the nuances of the book’s illustrations. Imagine coming in to the library broke and confused, but with an urgent information need that requires you to visit the sub-surface oceans of Ganymede to understand the recently discovered xenocology swimming in all that Jovian brine.

Welcome to DePaul’s Libraries of 02022! This is your techbrarian speaking: Check out the latest in augmented eyeware, sit back and prepare for liftoff!