technology is going to change not only your world
but the world around you -
12th April 2017
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was only 20 years ago that the default mode for even
the most enthusiastic geek was offline. Connecting
to the internet meant going to the internet, like
fetching water from the village well. To get online,
early users would dial a phone number using a modem
that sat beside a towering desktop computer, waiting
patiently as the connection bleeped and blooped to
life. Today, in the rich world, the internet is all
around us, with ubiquitous Wi-Fi and mobile coverage.
The transition from a default offline world to a default
online one is largely not remarked upon today. Like
running water, it is something noticed only by its
similar will happen over the next few decades to the
devices that serve as our gateways to the internet.
They will disappear. Sitting at a desk with a computer
or whipping out a smartphone will seem as old-fashioned
as manually making a connection to the internet. Indeed,
the word computer itself will drop away from the lexicon.
When everything around you is capable of computation,
what constitutes a computer any more?
change will be driven by huge advances in virtual
reality, its cousin augmented reality, and a family
of related technologies that will allow us to interact
with the cloud (or whatever we are calling it by then:
"the world", perhaps?). It will drive a
shift in human behaviour bigger even than that caused
by the advent of smartphones and the web. Personal
technology will at last be truly personal.
with virtual reality (VR). The most remarkable thing
about it the thing that makes it unique in
the rich history of human communication is
"presence". This is the deep, visceral feeling
of "being there". Those who have experienced
it recount memories from VR as though it were a place
they visited, not something they saw on a screen,
even if the experience itself is of a low-fi, obviously
computer-generated world. In 2017 that still inspires
a feeling of awe. By 2050 it will be the most natural
thing in the world.
are the benefits of being there? The first application
is entertainment. It will not take until 2050 for
people in the Western world to start attending concerts
and sporting events from the comfort of their couches.
Nor need it cost the earth just as 3D movies
are slightly more expensive than their 2D versions,
so VR entertainment will be priced comfortably within
reach of those who already pay big sums for pay-per-view
sports and other events. As more people join in, the
prices of the devices will drop.
the cost declines, so too will the heft of the gadgets.
The first VR rigs, invented by VPL Research, a pioneer
in the field, were huge things, bulky body suits with
lots of trailing wires, data gloves and heavy headsets
that looked as if a mechanical octopus had attached
itself to the top of the wearer. (A later, smaller
version cost some $9000 and was called the EyePhone.)
Today they come in two forms. The simpler version
is a cradle to slip a smartphone into, such as Samsung's
Gear VR or Google's Cardboard (literally a piece of
cardboard). The other type is exemplified by the Playstation
VR, Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, which come with built-in
displays but rely on external processing power (typically
in the form of a computer or game console). It is
a safe bet that by 2050 even the most demanding devices
will not require external processors, and they will
be lighter and smaller than anything that exists today.
second early application of virtual reality is gaming.
Gamers have always demanded faster processors, better
screens and more reliable connections, happily paying
large sums for the privilege of being at the cutting
edge of technology. They will do the same again with
VR, creating the initial market for new products and
giving manufacturers a sample group on which to test
new ideas. In the 33 years since Tetris was first
released, computer games have become eerily lifelike
and immensely complicated, with computer graphics
that rival anything in big-budget superhero action
movies. The year 2050 is another 33 years away
and the rate of improvement in computer graphics is
early, easy wins will lead to more useful ones: doctors
examining patients from afar; immunocompromised children
attending school without fear of catching bugs; factory
inspectors checking products via remote robot; soldiers
training for unfamiliar terrain; business negotiations
where participants can see every fidget of their counterparts
the list goes on.
it is when you look beyond the obvious that VR becomes
truly compelling. Chalktalk, a program created by
Ken Perlin of New York University, suggests one possible
future. Chalktalk is a virtual pad on which its users
can sketch anything shapes, graphs, computer
code, mathematical equations just as they would
on a blackboard. The difference is that the shapes
become three-dimensional objects, the equations work,
the code compiles. In one example, Perlin draws a
pendulum and sets it swinging.
swings are measured on a graph, which is also drawn.
In another, he makes a chart, which resolves into
a 3D graph. A matrix of logarithms influences the
curves. In a third, he sketches a vase, finessing
it and refining it until it becomes a fully formed
3D object. Step out for a coffee just a decade or
two in the future, and the 3D printer in the corner
will have finished manufacturing that object by the
time you are back. These far-out ideas are already
possible using computer screens and existing technology.
But it is easy to see how advanced versions of similar
ideas might be used in virtual reality for teaching,
collaboration, business, or applications yet to be
presence is what makes VR so uniquely powerful, it
is also what limits it. This is where augmented reality
(AR) comes in. If virtual reality is something that
requires being in a delineated space where you don't
crash against walls or coffee tables, augmented reality
is made for the outside world. AR is to smartphones
what VR is to desktop computers.
existing technology hints at what is possible. Pilots
have for years used "heads-up displays"
projected onto the front of their cockpits or on visors
mounted on their helmets. These displays are becoming
common on car windscreens too. But this is the most
primitive form of AR. A slightly more advanced version
is Google Glass, which displays information in a pair
of spectacles worn like normal glasses. But it shows
only a small rectangular display, which is not that
much better than a screen held in a hand and seen
at a distance. Magic Leap, a secretive Florida-based
start-up, goes one better: its technology shows 3D
objects that bear some relation to the objects around
these too are for the moment novelties models
of the solar system, for example, rather than useful
information overlaid onto the real world. Indeed,
that is what makes AR trickier than VR: the glasses
must not only display information but also map and
understand the physical world, sense depth and distance,
crunch data to figure out what they are looking at
and place objects in the correct positions.
2050 this will be the norm. In advanced societies,
AR glasses will have replaced smartphones for all
but the most technophobic. No longer will directions
be displayed as blue lines on flat smartphone screens.
Instead they will appear as trails to be followed
on the streets ahead. Restaurant menus will be redundant.
Walk past a café and its entire selection will
be available to scroll through, with steaming projections
of what the dishes look like. Conversations with people
who speak other languages will be simultaneously translated.
will go out of business as detailed visual instructions
for fixing a blocked sink will be readily available,
overlaid on the problematic drain. Buses need not
display information. Your glasses can tell you the
bus number, its destination, its route and the expected
time of arrival in a language of your choice. Municipal
authorities could scrub away the road markings and
signs that mar our cities.
visual clutter of early 21st-century life will be
replaced by pristine environments in which what we
see depends only on what we need to know, and nothing
more. We will also be able to decide what level of
reality we want. Most of it? Or as little as possible?
We could spend our days wandering around 14th-century
versions of our cities if we so desired, and still
be fully functioning creatures of the 21st. Just as
no two smartphones are the same once you turn them
on each user has a different set of apps, shortcuts
and contacts so will the world appear different
to each one of us.
this sounds far-fetched, consider that many newspapers
no longer publish print editions, that London buses
no longer accept cash as a form of payment, that there
are taxis on our streets that bear no external signage
and can be hailed only through an app (and for all
practical purposes are invisible as taxis to those
without smartphones), and that all of this has happened
within a decade of the introduction of the first iPhone.
coming of virtual reality has been predicted for at
least a quarter of a century. The latest wave of excitement
triggered in large part by the purchase of
Oculus, a VR start-up, by Facebook for $2 billion
in 2014 brings to mind the optimism of the
early 1990s. But there is cause to believe that this
time is different.
the number of people who use computers is manyfold
larger. The pool of early adopters who might cough
up cash to buy the latest thing is correspondingly
much larger as well. Second, the amount of money needed
is tiny by most standards. In 1990 a prototype VR
headset cost nearly $10,000; in 2016 the Oculus Rift
was priced at $599. In less than a decade the price
is likely to have dropped by an order of magnitude.
2050 it will be cheap enough to reach much of the
world, not just the rich bits. Third, VR has gone
from something that was the domain of geeks in Silicon
Valley to a technology for which every major entertainment
company is preparing content. More and more film festivals
have a VR section; gamesmakers are releasing titles
in VR. In the early 1990s, studio executives would
say, of embracing new technologies, "Why bother?"
recalls Nick Demartino, who at the time ran a technology
studio at the American Film Institute. Today, he says,
they are terrified of missing out.
fourth reason for optimism is that the technology
VR needs has now advanced to a point where it is not
wildly impractical to think that it is poised to take
off. The internet is everywhere, processing power
is cheap and plentiful, and high-definition displays
have been here for years.
for VR to fulfil its potential, technology needs to
progress farther, making both incremental improvements
as well as great leaps.
incremental improvements first. Already telecoms operators
are racing to be the first to offer 5G mobile networks.
The vast majority of the world uses either 3G mobile
broadband or 4G/LTE, which transmits data 10 times
faster than its predecessor (the G stands for "generation").
The next version, 5G, will be anywhere between 10
and 100 times faster than 4G/LTE, but it will come
with other improvements as well, including support
for lots of devices at the same time and extremely
low latency (the time lost in the process of transmission)
connections are important not only to access information,
but also to connect to processing power. As Moore's
law, the 1965 rule of thumb whereby processors get
twice as fast every 12 months (later amended to 24
months), stops working its magic (see Chapter 4),
computation will move to the cloud. For lightweight
AR glasses to become a reality, they will need to
be in constant communication with bigger computers
somewhere far away.
technologies will need to improve too. Displays will
become lighter, pixels smaller and denser, and computer
graphics will have ever more polygons. These things
are a matter of when, not if. They are already in
there are the technologies that are yet to mature.
A modern smartphone conceals within it a dozen or
so sensors. But that number will explode, both within
and outside our machines. The world will need to be
crammed full of tiny sensors for our new devices to
know where they are and what they are looking at,
and to understand space and depth. This is easier
to imagine indoors. Living rooms or offices can be
kitted out with sensors and 3D projectors. Discreet
devices can project lifelike objects or avatars of
people, while sensors track our movements and interactions
with them. This too is not far in the future: Microsoft's
Kinect, a gaming device, can sense movement.
in artificial intelligence and machine learning will
also be important. One person using an AR device is
a lot less useful than a hundred million people using
AR: the usage patterns and behaviours from a massive
number of users can be analysed to improve the technology,
allowing machines to figure out what people expect
when they look at something or tilt their heads in
a particular fashion.
into the future, it is the great leaps that will make
VR and AR appear seamless in 2050. We may experiment
with things like sensor-laden wristbands or clothing
with circuitry woven into them. As time passes, technology
will come ever closer to our bodies eventually
finding its way inside us. It starts with contact
lenses instead of glasses. The technology for this,
in a rudimentary form, is coming into view. In 2016
Samsung applied for a patent for smart contact lenses.
contact lenses it is a short leap to imagine a simple
operation to replace the lens of the eye with a technologically
superior version, perhaps done at birth. While we
are getting speculative, why not replace the entire
eyeball with one that comprises all the gadgetry required
to make AR work? Indeed, as human beings become more
comfortable with the idea of implants, technology
will burrow its way deeper into us, perhaps concluding
with implants in the brain.
is how we receive information. But how do we transmit
it? When Minority Report, a film directed by Steven
Spielberg and based on a short story by Philip K.
Dick, was released in 2002, its vision of the future
was one where computers were panels of glass that
required touch and gesture to manipulate. This has
come to pass; moving our fingers around glass screens
has become a natural form of input. Even infants can
figure it out. Dale Herigstad, an "advanced interaction
consultant" and one of the people who worked
on the film's futuristic interface, thinks he didn't
go far enough. Why do you need big screens when empty
space is a good enough canvas to project upon and
draw shapes on?
as glass screens as displays will seem archaic by
2050, so too will the idea of bashing away at a keyboard
seem antediluvian. Google is working on something
called Project Soli, which uses radar to sense the
movements of fingers; the idea is that natural actions,
such as turning a radio knob or pressing a button,
can be simulated without the need for actual knobs
or buttons. Herigstad thinks that we will create something
akin to sign language: entire new grammars and vocabularies
to communicate with our machines, languages that will
feel as natural as swiping left on a smartphone screen
(which itself is something that did not exist a decade
perhaps systems will evolve by 2050 that allow machines
to look directly into our brainwaves. This is not
as remote as it sounds; at least one company, called
Emotiv, has been formed to explore the possibilities
of what it calls "brain-computer interfaces".
Long before that we will be able to control things
simply by looking at them and blinking. The technology
for this, too, is in development and it works,
if in a rudimentary fashion.
is a third, equally important aspect to virtual reality,
beyond display and input: haptic (or physical) feedback.
Touching a smartphone screen is a satisfying experience
because of the resistance offered by a stiff piece
of glass. Drawing shapes in the air may work because
of visual cues. But what of things that require physical
sensation, such as shaking hands? A decade or two
ago the answer might have been tech-enabled gloves.
But the future offers better. Nonny de la Peña,
a pioneer of VR, believes it is sound you cannot hear
that carries the answer to haptic feedback.
travels in waves, and as anyone who has ever attended
a rock concert can attest, it is possible to feel
the bass pulsating through the crowd. At the right
frequency, pitched at the correct angle, sound could
also provide the sensation of touching something,
of shaking hands with a virtual friend several thousand
of these systems needs to work perfectly on its own.
Nor will they be right for every situation. But working
together, along with technologies as yet undreamed
of, they provide the basis for a world in which computers
have ceased to exist as things we carry around. Instead,
they will be everywhere, including inside us.
will have to accept certain trade-offs to enjoy this
future. The first is constant, near-perfect surveillance.
Today, the data collected by your smartphone already
know more about you than your partner or your mother.
With GPS tracking, motion sensors and call logs, it
is possible to draw a rich picture of your day-to-day
activities. Add in browsing on social networks and
search history, and your smartphone may know you better
than you know yourself.
there are still things that machines don't know about
us. With VR, this will change. The companies that
make these devices will transmit back to their headquarters
every twist of your neck, every flick of your pupils,
every reaction to stimulus. This surveillance will
reach further in AR: devicemakers will be able to
see everything you see. They will, literally, be able
to see the world through your eyes.
companies in charge will claim they have no choice,
as these data form the basis on which the service
works and, besides, they help improve it for the next
version and for other users. They will point out that
no human beings have access to this information, that
only machines and algorithms ever sift through it.
They will have a point. But that does not make it
any less creepy. Moreover, governments will inevitably
want access to all that information as well. It will
be too valuable to pass up.
users of smartphones and free web services have shown
that they are willing to give up some degree of privacy
in exchange for convenience. This is on the understanding
that their data will be used to make profits
through targeted advertising, for example and
not abused to track their moves. So long as this compact
holds, increasing surveillance is unlikely to bother
the future will require a more robust framework than
exists today. Those that work in the field hold out
hope that regulatory, legal and enforcement powers
will keep large corporations, as well as overreaching
government agencies, in check. The debate that started
with Edward Snowden's massive leaks in 2013 is gathering
momentum, and both companies and bureaucrats have
pushed back against excessive data collection by states.
Meanwhile, antitrust agencies around the world are
keeping a check on big tech companies.
second concern is that our world will be irredeemably
mediated by corporations. To judge by the current
state of consumer technology, it will be a small handful
of firms that come to dominate the business of VR
and AR. Every developer will be beholden to them;
every consumer will have to agree to their terms and
conditions. Their views of what constitutes acceptable
behaviour and content (informed by the cultures they
come from and by lawyers who want to limit liability)
will form the basis of our interactions with the world.
Indeed, just as they can disappear things from search
results or social-network feeds, the power of AR may
allow them to disappear people and objects from the
real world too it is all there but you just
can't see it.
who don't comply with the rules may find themselves
cut off, cast adrift into a world with no reality
but the real one. And the manner in which VR is evolving
is very different from the development of the internet.
Whereas the web was built on open standards and on
the principle that anyone should be able to access,
publish and link to each other, VR is being dominated
by large companies with a fondness for "walled
will have to come up with ways to check the power
of these companies, perhaps by enshrining new rights.
Today, if Facebook or Google shuts down an account,
its owner has little recourse. But as our online selves
take shape, the question of who has the right to our
avatars will become more urgent. Is signing up to
a company's terms and conditions enough to sign away
your virtual life? Or will companies have to allow
their users to freely import and export their data?
The latter seems more likely. Other rights will be
up for debate too. What is your right to see the world
unmediated, with naked eyes? Does that conflict with
others' rights to block you or stay hidden? For a
world based on virtual and augmented reality to work,
these questions will need to be answered sooner rather
third worry is security. Despite years of work, computer
security is nowhere near perfect. Even the most secure
systems can be broken into by a determined hacker.
And at the consumer level, security is only as good
as any individual's ability to adhere to best practices.
It is possible that by 2050 computer security will
have advanced to a point where strong encryption,
properly implemented, is the default, where passwords
are a thing of the past and where it requires the
might of a nation-state to break into systems. With
the notable exception of Yahoo, the biggest tech companies
have shown themselves up to the task of maintaining
user security: hacking incidents at Facebook, Google,
Amazon and Apple are notable by their absence. This
may be one positive result of a VR world run by giants.
final concern is perhaps the least worrying. Pessimists
predict that VR will make the world a lonely place,
with people absorbed in their private virtual worlds
at the expense of the real world around them. VR will
rot our children's brains, they fret. But these worries
have been repeated over and over, about everything
from social media, video games, television and rock
music in the 20th century to the printing press in
the 16th and indeed the written word in the time of
Socrates (at least according to Plato).
complain that children these days spend all their
time staring into smartphone screens, but the kids
in question are using their devices to engage with
the world around them taking pictures to Snapchat
to their friends, Whatsapping about things they see,
observing life in all its colour rather than
wandering around in made-up worlds. Even as technology
changes, human beings remain fundamentally the same,
and this means we will always want to interact with
the world of flesh and flora.
above is an edited extract from Megatech by Daniel
Franklin, published by Allen & Unwin.
Mirani is The Economist magazine's news editor. Previously
he reported on technology for Quartz. The author would
like to thank the following people for their generosity
with their time and insight: Justin Hendrix, Janet
Murray, Alastair Reynolds, Mark Skwarek and Saschka
Unseld. Megatech is a production of The Economist