Convergence: Let's learn from science

by Luke Wroblewski June 20, 2004

From digital devices to media to science it’s all about convergence: inevitable mergers around shared assets and platforms. But all convergence is not the same. Convergence aimed at simplicity (found in science’s quest for fundamental underlying principles) is preferable to convergence that entails increased complexity (found in many integrated digital devices).

Convergence in science includes a plethora of unification theories. In Consilience, Edward O. Wilson argues that all knowledge is unified around a small number of natural, interlocking laws. These fundamental laws, which we are just beginning to comprehend, govern disciplines as diverse as physics and the humanities. In A New Kind of Science Stephen Wolfram uses simple cellular automata (265 programs) to produce many results found in nature such as: tree branches, streams dynamics, and even the possibility of a truly fundamental theory of physics. In The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene describes superstring theory: a theory of everything.

Convergence in digital content delivery emerges as integrated devices. Frog Design envisions petfrog: the first wireless communication and computing concept with a totally integrated hardware, software, and content user-interface. Springtime-USA foretells the Charm Bracelet: a flexible, foldable gizmo that includes a screen, a microphone, a multipurpose camera, a biometric thumbprint scanner, and a tactile control panel. Antenna Design’s semiflexible ultrathin OLED touchscreen (and integrated flat components) can be folded into different configurations for phoning, gaming, or full-screen movie watching. The first steps here are the cell phone/PDA/MP3 player combinations already on the market.

All this brings us back to interface design. Long a convergence of disciplines, interface design faces a dilemma. As Donald Norman has argued in The Invisible Computer, information appliances that fit people’s specific needs and lives are a highly probable solve to the current complexity found in computers. But the simplicity of single use devices such as the digital camera can be undone by the inclusion of added features such as mp3 player and cell phone functionality. As a result, how convergence (all-in-one devices) performs in the marketplace remains to be seen.