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Like magic…

December 22, 2008

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

~ Arthur C. Clarke, The Third Law of Prediction

Perhaps it’s getting older. Perhaps it’s truly magical advancements in technology. For the first time I can ever remember, I experienced three technologies in 2008 that seemed fantastic, in the genuine sense of that word.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve used technologies that are life-changing. The oft-referenced DVR, for example, has fundamentally altered my expectations around entertainment. But as someone who grew up with VCRs, I see them as an advancement that simply better meets user needs. Netflix, while equally revolutionary, never seemed magical. The inner-workings were always more or less in plain sight. In fact, technologies that don’t perform quite as expected or make obvious compromises of course lose that magical quality. (For me, for some reason, it’s the proliferation of barcodes on Netflix DVDs and packaging.)

The introduction of third-party applications on the iPhone, however, has created a space for technologies that seem magical. They’re useful, work as expected, and are at times delightful.

(My apologies in advance for the iPhone bias. I’m not the thing’s biggest fan, having my fair share of frustrations with it. At the same time, the simplicity of the platform makes it a ripe place for magic.)

  1. Shazam: Hear a song on the radio you don’t recognize? Fire up Shazam. It’ll grab a sample, spin its wheels for a moment, and then tell you exactly what it is, complete with links to buy the song. (This even worked with ambient music in a crowded coffee shop.) While I can probably guess how this is done, there’s something about the application that seems magical. It has what appears to be a vast knowledge of popular culture, and ability to perceive its surroundings, and the capacity to put it all together.
  2. Pandora Radio: On your desktop, Pandora is a custom radio station. Enter a few artists or songs you like and it will consult its database to find similar-sounding music. I’ve gravitated toward Pandora on the desktop because it’s easy to use, and has successfully introduced me to some new and interesting music. Their iPhone app isn’t much different than what you experience on the desktop. There’s something about being able to take all that customized music with me wherever I go, though, that’s exciting. (Some people I know experienced delays or interruptions in the music streaming, but I’ve never had that problem.)
  3. Amazon Remembers: I recently discovered this little feature in Amazon’s iPhone app. Take a picture of anything and the app will find the product in Amazon’s store. What I appreciate about this feature is that it leverages a habit I already have: taking pictures of things I want to remember. The app then makes it easy for me to take the next step.

There’s something about explaining them all here, in writing, that kind of takes the magic away. While there are no obvious bar codes exposed, the inner-workings are not too hard to figure out. Amazon even describes the process, lest we grow suspicious of sending them all kinds of pictures.

So, what makes these applications magical? We designers revel in products that delight. I don’t think there’s much beyond that going on here, but the applications are each a perfect storm of traits.

  • Simple: It’s pretty easy to explain what the trick is, even if I have no idea how it’s done.
  • Inhuman: It would take a savant to be able to name any song, anywhere, any time, or to find a relevant product among the millions that Amazon sells.
  • Personal: These applications are very much about who I am, where I am, and what I’m doing.

The purpose of each application is one that’s imaginable, and we might have even thought about it at some point in a “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” moment. In those moments we conceive of something simple and personal, but know that such a task would be impossible. It’s when technology transcends that imagined threshold–a boundary that comes only from our biased impressions of the State of Technology Today–that it wakes up the child inside each of us.

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