Elon Musk is leading the charge to connect us all to everything.
It’s hard to imagine, but the impulse to reach for your smartphone at every opportunity will soon be a thing of the past. According to a study carried out by Ericsson ConsumerLab, the dopamine rush you get from an alert is due to be superseded in four or five years’ time, by something that only a few years ago would have been considered science fiction.
Replacing the sleek slab in pocket and hand will be devices offering augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology that, in the most extreme example, could well see man and machine become one and the physiological and digital worlds seamlessly integrate into each other.
But before you dismiss this notion, remind yourself how outlandish the capability of you current device would once have seemed. Given the apps you rely upon and the technology behind them, it’s not such a big leap to the next iterations of comms tech and wearable devices. It may not be too long before headsets project 3-D images directly into your eyes: calls, messages, films, games and more beamed directly into your line of vision. Who needs a screen in your pocket when the world is your interface?
Brain interfacing is moving at a rapid pace and we’ll definitely hear more about it over the next 12-24 months
Despite major uncertainties in the economic outlook for key tech markets (thank Brexit and Trump) the rewards for being at the head of the next wave of personal technology are considerable. According to Forrester, a research institute, the global tech market is currently worth £2.24tn and is projected to grow 3.2 per cent in 2017 and 3.9 per cent in 2018 (with the US tech market predicted to grow more strongly in those years, at 4.8 per cent and 5.2 per cent respectively).
The wearable tech industry has even greater growth ahead, according to analyst firm CCS Insight, with a predicted growth from £10.8bn in 2016 to £25.45bn in 2020, when consumers will purchase an estimated 411 million smart wearable devices. And by then, all of those wearables will be connected to the Internet of Things, the rapidly expanding grid of internet-connected devices. The management consultancy Bain & Company estimates that revenues for IoT software, hardware and service providers will reach £362bn in 2020, realising a profit of £46bn.
Two technologies are leading the charge to these vast sums of the near-future. Magic Leap, a US start-up backed with £3.47bn of Google’s money, seamlessly overlays 3D graphics on real world objects directly in a person’s field of vision, via a headset with a transparent lens. Details are scant about Magic Leap’s products, but expect to see something that’s more a glasses than goggles: an iteration or two beyond Occulus Rift, HTC Hive and other existing VR headsets. A first Magic Leap product is rumoured to come to market before the end of 2017.
Already available, and far less sophisticated, are Snap Spectacles, a pair of sunglasses that record 10-second videos that mimic what the wearer sees and upload them to Snapchat. “There’s an increased adoption of wearable tech, like Snap Spectacles,” says Amit Shah, tech industry analyst and CEO of HIROLA Group, a smartphone software company. “But we’re at the point where the technology is complementary to on smartphones, rather than replacing them.”
Those replacement technologies are pending, however. “The most visible example is Elon Musk’s Neuralink,” continues Shah, “which effectively enables humans to merge with computers, creating devices that can be implanted in the brain.” Announced earlier this year, Neuralink is developing what it describes as “ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers.” Musk, like many others, sees a point where we connect to cloud-based artificial intelligence, and this ‘brain interface’ is, he says, is about a decade away from being a reality. First, his scientists and engineers will have to learn how to record and replicate the behaviour of neurons, the brain’s communication cells, before they can develop a technology to work with them.
“Brain interfacing is moving at a rapid pace and we’ll hear more about it over the next 12-24 months,” says Shah. “One of the hurdles in technology is investment, but there are large organisations investing a lot of money in R&D capabilities for this. I certainly see an accelerated amount of progress as far as Neuralink is concerned. I know it sounds outlandish, but everything Musk does comes with a certain credibility and you have to take it seriously.”
As exciting – and frankly, scary – as this is, it would be wrong to write off current technologies in the face of future developments. Virtual assistants, in particular, still have much to offer, especially when viewed as an integral part of the Internet of Things concept. Despite evangelists and early adopters pushing VR and AR wearable tech as the norm in a few years, Samsung’s Bixby, Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and the rest will be with us for a while yet. “The power of those things will continue to grow,” says Shah. “You just don’t see large powerful brands investing time and money in such technology without the foresight of them being a substantial part of their strategy moving forward.”
A best guess for the tech for which you’ll trade in your smartphone would be a hybrid of virtual assistant and AR/AV wearable: a headset-and-glasses combo that you talk to and which augments your world view. It will talk back, making suggestions for new media you like to consume, learning your behaviour and reacting to your actions in the real world. A benign curator of life-enhancing content, or humankind’s first step towards the jelly-filled pods of The Matrix? You decide.
Wesley Doyle is a writer and editor who specialises in trends, technology, health, cycling and fitness.