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I came across the picture above on Twitter a few times the past couple of days. In it is Mark Zuckerberg, strolling past unassuming tech journalists enjoying their virtual reality headsets at a Samsung press event.
In many ways it’s a perfect picture. The sea of headsets, the middle-aged man in the centre with a MacBook at hand as well, and of course, Mark Zuckerberg himself, knowing full well the ignorance of every person he’s strolling by.
Rich McCormick at The Verge seems to think it’s the perfect picture to represent the future. He writes:
"A billionaire superman with a rictus grin, striding straight past human drones, tethered to machines and blinded to reality by blinking plastic masks. Golden light shines down on the man as he strides past his subjects, cast in gloom, toward a stage where he will accept their adulation. Later that night, he will pore across his vast network and read their praise, heaped upon him in superlatives, as he drives what remains of humanity forward to his singular vision."
The phrase “It’s almost fiction” comes to mind. It’s easy to see why it seems all too foreshadowing. Except it isn’t.
I watched the talk Zuckerberg was about to give in the picture. Here it is:
It’s full of SV tech bubble red flags that had me pausing the video a couple of times. Then came the cherry on top: he declares “VR is the next platform”, and that “VR is going to be the most social platform”.
It’s evident Zuckerberg and Facebook want the next 10 or so years in tech to revolve around VR. They want it to be the next tech paradigm in which everyone plays and works, like the smartphone is for us now.
But I don’t see that happening, and not just cause I’m an old man in a young body.
There seems to be a pervasive notion in Silicon Valley that views the evolution of technology linearly, as if a timeline of events. It kind of goes like, “First came the household computer, then the PC, then the smartphone.” It reminds me of fashion, albeit on much larger time intervals.
The notion seems to rub off on tech journalists, especially as it ties quite nicely with modern journalism’s increasingly sensationalist culture. It seems the next big thing should outright replace what came before it.
It’s clear to see what I’m getting at. This simply isn’t the case. If it was, laptop and desktops would’ve ceased to exist years ago. But if you walk to up to any work desk, even your own, what do you see? Probably a desktop.
At one point not too long ago, we all thought tablets were going to succeed the smartphone, if not quickly dethrone it as the defining technology of our time. It seemed so obvious at the time - it screamed “The future is here!” Today, the iPad, the only relevant tablet market and profit share-wise, is in decline.
About two years later, Samsung came out with their Gear smartwatch after rumours of Apple developing one of their own. Two years after that came the Apple Watch. Despite the successes of the Apple Watch, including outselling the original iPhone in its first year, tech journalists and investors were left unimpressed as it couldn’t match the smartphone in functionality (despite the watch being marketed as a more complementary convenience device). Today, there seems to be little coverage and deeper analyses, let alone realistic analyses, for the smartwatch market.
A theory of mine is that they’re trying to protect the throne (whether they know it or not), saving it for a truly worthy technology that can surpass and replace the smartphone. When they saw the iPad fail to replace old technologies despite the enthusiasm, it seemed like a mistake techies didn’t want to make again.
And now we’re hearing about VR inevitably taking over the world, with a tone similar to how people glorified the iPad. A lot of the current enthusiasm is actually justified. For decades now, we’ve seen countless attempts at VR transpire and fail, but that hasn’t stopped us from picking the idea from the shelf and dusting it off. In that sense, it’s now a multi-generational technology that can garner enthusiasm from just about anybody. In addition, the idea in of itself - of being transported into another reality - is just really compelling, even in the most primal sense.
But I can’t help but think Zuckerberg is betting on it for the wrong reasons. Look at Facebook’s bottomline and imagine VR’s possibilities - VR enables their biggest dream come to life: virtually unlimited ad real-estate. And it’s not like you can truly look away from an ad in VR either, at least for ads that can take up the whole virtual space. Sure, they’ll be some novelty from more engaging ads, but I bet it’ll wear off real soon. If VR is everywhere and nearly unavoidable - as Facebook wants - so will these more pervasive forms of advertising.
So what is the future?
What I think we’re witnessing here is a state of confusion from the tech press. I think technology’s biggest ideas have been exhausted. What I mean by “biggest ideas” are the ideas that had:
- Inevitability - in that it would only be a matter of time before technology would catch up - and;
- Obvious implications and use cases that would almost guarantee widespread adoption.
When the technology was available to develop these ideas into economically feasible devices, perfect storms were brewed.
I think VR is almost one of these perfect storms, which is why I’d partially forgive the excitement. But it just doesn’t seem like a device that can match all the functionality of what we have now. One particular function is an adequate pointing mechanism that enables object manipulation in an intuitive way, like multitouch accomplishes for smartphones today.
VR will surely be a piece of the puzzle, but I don’t see it being as large a piece as many think. I don’t think it’ll be “the most social platform”. (Anybody else see the irony here?) It’ll, at most, be the future of gaming, as initially intended. Maybe even for movies and home video. But it’ll probably only be ideal for consumption.
There are other emerging technologies that are currently being developed that, I think, surpass VR’s impact in the future. There’s electric cars. Today, it is but a foundation for clean energy to truly power automobiles in the distant future, and only viable economically as a luxury car today through Tesla. There’s also a lack of innovation from car manufacturers, creating lots of room for improvement. The modern automobile is an amalgamation of longstanding, unsolved problems, a lot of which are design problems, and companies like Apple and Faraday Future might have recognised that already.
There’s also augmented reality technology, or AR. Today it takes the form of Microsoft HoloLens. But a bigger argument I see for its wider adoption is, again, in the car, particularly in the form of reflected images on the windshield. It can offer truly distraction free driving, negating the need to look away from the road, as well as better direction systems to replace current GPS displays. Internet connectivity can also enable other functions like warnings for upcoming road construction or car accidents, perhaps even superimposed on the road in real-time.
One technology I’d consider a “sleeper hit” is cloud technology. Tech companies are veering away from local storage and processing and towards the cloud. iCloud gets a lot of flak, but now there’s a way so that your music and photos previously stored on your hard drive are now made accessible from any Apple device connected to the internet. Google’s web apps, while not talked about often, have significantly changed productivity in their own way, encouraging collaboration within groups of people, be it classrooms to media companies. While not primarily a cloud service, better internet-enabled intranets like Slack and Igloo are increasing in popularity, replacing the archaic email systems of yesteryear in some companies. The only trajectory I see for these services is up.
I mentioned earlier of a state of confusion, and with all these technologies shaping the way we play, work, and socialise, it’s easy to see why people are confused. Before we could see technology evolve linearly, and pinpoint the milestones exactly. But it’s easy to forget the information age is still a young one that’s yet to evolve in new ways.
We exhausted our perfect storms, and now technology seems to be branching out into much different industries not directly associated with technology even five years before. Because its branching out, I don’t think there can any longer be a definitive, sweeping, be-all-end-all device/technology/platform that will change everything we do forever.