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A Glimpse At The Face Of Computing, Three Decades On


Apple's share price has tumbled since the company's announcement yesterday that it didn't sell as many iPhones as expected. Now, Apple is by no means in trouble. They had recorded more than $13 billion in profits last quarter. It has more than $160 billion in cash and is still setting new sales records.

But as NPR's Steve Henn reports, Apple's fans and investors have been waiting for the next big thing for years.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Apple wasn't the first computer company to introduce a mouse, and it wasn't the first tech company to use a touch-screen. But for millions - actually, for more than a billion people now, the Mac and then the iPhone and the iPad have transformed how we interact with machines.

TIM COOK: This is still alive and kicking here in a big way - to create the next product and to see around the next corner.

HENN: For Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, talking about the future of computing is a tricky business. Anything he says, any hint of interest in a new kind of device or service can set off a flurry of speculation. But let's leave behind whether or not Apple is going to release a smart watch or a new flat-screen TV, or revolutionize mobile payments. Because when I think about how this company has changed computing, I think the really big innovations have all centered around how people interact with the devices Apple makes.

So when I interviewed Cook about the 30th anniversary of the Mac, I asked him how he thought people would interact with computers and devices 30 years from now, what role would the person play?

COOK: There are things going on now in the labs that I can't talk about, but input is a huge, huge area for innovation, and it's not stopping in 2014.

BUD TRIBBLE: We have tens of thousands times as much computing power today as we did 30 years ago.

HENN: Bud Tribble is Apple's vice president of software technology and one of the original designers of the Macintosh.

TRIBBLE: Apple's point of view is that one of the best uses of that computing power is to use that to adapt the computer to the person using it, not the other way around.

COOK: A lot of what we do is explore things and keep pulling the string. And if you do that long enough and you have faith that it will lead you somewhere because your gut tells you so strongly this is unbelievable, that it's great, that's exactly what created the iPhone, was that kind of thinking.

HENN: What is Tim Cook's team at Apple thinking about now? What strings are they pulling? Well, probably lots of them. And they aren't going to talk about it too much. But there are some intriguing clues about what they're up to. And for me, one of the most intriguing is Apple's recent purchase of PrimseSense.

PrimeSense is a little Israeli company that makes a couple killer 3-D sensors. A year ago, I met a little robot named Turtle that was using a PrimeSense chip to see.

ANDREA TUNBRIDGE: And when you turn it on, you just need to walk right in front of it and then it will follow you around.

HENN: That's Andrea Tunbridge.

So it's sort of like a little baby gosling that imprints, or a puppy dog?

I turn it on, take a few steps. And when I stop, Turtle lightly nudges my shoe.

Oh, my God. So now, it's following me. Now, if I just walk away, do I get to keep the robot?

The same technology that allows Turtle to navigate through the world can also help a machine recognize gestures or someone's gait or an individual member of a family. These chips can be attached to a projector and transform a wall into a touch-screen. They're now small enough to be built into a tablet and used to map the world in three dimensions.

Yaniv Vakrat was a VP at PrimeSense before Apple bought the company.

YANIV VAKRAT: We believe that it's as revolutionary as anything that you've seen because it really is changing the way machines perceive their environment.

HENN: Machines that can really see the world around them will be able to interact with people in all sorts of new ways. So does Apple have a plan to build these chips, these little sensors into its devices anytime soon? Frankly, I have no idea, but I'm pretty sure that inside Apple's labs right now, they're pulling on this string.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.