Through the VR Desert


The year 2016 is the year VR takes off. This is the year where several high-end VR headset, such as Oculus and HTC Vive are released. And this is the year of the VR startups and VR hype. However, it might also be the year of VR setback and disappointments. Indicators might be that the headsets are barely ready and they are far from mainstream. There simply are not that many people that have VR headsets. And even if they wanted, they would need a PC that is able to power the experience. We still have 3-5 years until we have wide enough adoption of this technology and the immersion and quality needed. Until then it is a walk in the desert.

The second Slush Play conference was held in Reykjavík during 28-30. September 2016. The theme var VR and gaming. The conference is small but getting strong traction. In his opening remarks, Hilmar Veigar from CCP, an early player in VR, explained the company move to VR. Hilmar set the tone of the conference. VR works. It is here. However, we are early and we still need to figure things out. We need to get better headsets, smaller and cheaper. Research is still being done in academia to understand some of the subtle things of tricking the brain in a believable and immersive way.  So it will take 3 to 5 years to get to true VR experience with full immersion and to reach a market that can support big production games. Until then, Hilmar suggested, it would be a walk in the desert.

However, a walk in the desert has its opportunities. It is a quest that few will take but the brave ones have a chance of becoming leaders and creators in a new industry. VR is a new platform, just as the smartphone, the web and the PC. Platforms like these follow the classic S-curve. In their beginnings they are just a dream of crazy visionaries. Then when all the enabling technologies are ready, the new platform begins to emerge and work. The performance of the platform starts to increase as it gets better and more people start to use it. We then get into exponential growth as the performance increases rapidly. Finally, it will level off thus forming a forward slanting S. As we saw with the new released iPhone 7, it has reached the top of the S-curve, just as the PC has and the Internet.

Platforms such as VR usually develop in two waves. First wave is overhyped with lots of expectations and abundance of financial capital. But the solutions offered are similar to solutions older platforms, as people, used to the old platform (PC, smartphones) are taking old way of doing this and cramming them into the new platform. For example, the first web pages looked like flyers and brochures or research papers. Then in the second wave, people figure out what the platform can do. For the web we saw the Web 2.0 wave after the dot-com burst. Second wave is much more sober with realistic expectations and production capital.

So we are in the early stages of the VR platform wave and the smartphone wave is ending. In the coming years we will see VR headsets get smaller and lighter and at the same time better and cheaper. As the components needed to build those improve so will the possibilities. Understanding of how to create immersion will increase. When the second wave comes the desert walk will pay off.



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It’s time to Talk

“Hello computer…” Scene from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (c) Paramount Picture

The way we interact with computers has gradually evolved over the years. Early computer systems used punched cards and printers. Then we went to terminal based command line interfaces, then to more simple menu based systems still using command lines. The office desktop metaphor came with windows, icons and folders. First web sites where primitive and much more simpler and limited then the dominating Windows apps. But the web had universal access and became more popular. The second wave of web interfaces, Web 2.0, showed more advanced techniques for user interfaces. First mobile user interfaces were simple menus, usually poorly organised. Then came the smartphone app which is now dominating with cloud computing. But what comes after the app? One trend might indicate where we are heading next and that is conversational user interfaces. Apps of the future might not need to be visual. You just talk with them.

The application that are leading this development are intelligent voice assistants. Apple has Siri on their devices, Google has OK Google on Android, and Microsoft has Cortana on Windows. Amazon has developed Amazon Echo, a small device that can be placed in your home and Google has Home. We are already seeing this trend unfold.

Apple’s Siri has been here for a while and increasingly these system are getting better. When Siri first came out the expected thing happened. It did work remarkably well for simple commands. However, the task of Siri is enormous. You can ask her anything as the scope of subject is unlimited. And that is what people do. Youtube has many videos where people have fun using Siri. Searching “Siri Funny” will give over 500.000 results (11.09.2016).

Two adjacent possible trends are worth mentioning. First, processing power of small devices are getting so advanced that processing live speech in real time is possible. The iPhone 7, released in September 2016, has A10 Fusion processor. The A10 is a quad core processor with a clock speed of 2.34 GHz which would fit any laptop nicely.

Second, the AI behind language understanding is getting better at a dramatic rate. In only few years there has been a leap forward in machine learning. With faster and bigger clusters of computers, and with more data and better neural network algorithms, AI applications are getting more advanced and much better. One key observation is that these systems have some sort of a network effect. The more people use the language recognising software, the better it gets on understanding language. What is more, these systems can learn regional dialects and slang.

With these technological advanced imagine a new world of computing where you just have a conversation with apps. Be it travel apps that helps you organise a trip, a street navigator that can guide you (the device knows where you are), legal apps for legal council, psychiatrist that will listen to your perverted thoughts, a doctor app will listen to your awkward and embarrassing problems, sales representative will explain a product and the list goes on. Then add talking with things in your environment. Imagine talking with cars, elevators, coffee machines, automatic grocery store checks, hotel check-ins and so on.

However, we are not used to talk to devices or what? Just as any new technology, talking with devices will follow the law of diffusion of innovation. In a February 2016 User Adoption Survey results by MindMeld (likely US based), some 62% of smartphone users have and are using voice assistant. That is into the late majority of people adopting technology.

62% of US smartphone users are using voice assistants (source: MindMeld)

Technology moves in strange ways. We learnt how to use a mouse and keyboard and got used to that. Then pressing our touch screen phones. And now we can just talk to these devices. Surely this changes the form factor. What will the phone of the future look like?



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Perception of Technology

EarthOne of the topics that I talk about in my New Technology class is the concept of adjacent possible. It refers to the fact that any new innovation needs to come from existing innovation. What we have in our environment at any given time determines how we think and what we can invent. For example, it was not until harnessing electricity that we had home appliances like electronic toasters and washing machines. Personal computers were only possible with the microchip which was only possible with integrated circuits which was only possible due to transistors. And this determines our perception of the world. The current state of technology very much creates our perception of what we think is possible and at the same time limits our ability to invent. Perceptions are slow to change and usually we need to experience new technology to change our perception.

In 2000 I gave a lecture on the future. After the lecture I was asked about the future of the car. Two things came to my mind: cars of the future will be electric and self-driving. Today that might be plausible as we hear news about the Google self-driving car and electric cars like Tesla and Nissan Leaf. But in 2000 this was a ridiculous statement. The perception was that petrol was the only way and all efforts of electric cars had been disappointing disasters. And how could a car possibly drive itself?

People today that are used to driving their cars, will be hesitant first when they get into a car that drives it self. For some it will be scary and something to get used to:


People that will be born in the next few years will grow up with self-driving cars and can’t imagine a world where people had to drive themselves. This always happens with new technology since our perception is based on the world we know and grew up with. When automatic elevators were introduced people were scared to enter them because there was no one to operate the elevator. Prior to that a person would control the elevator. Today we would be scared if someone did.

Another way to describe the adjacent possible is to imagine that you are in a room. In this room is all the knowledge of the world as we know it. With that knowledge we get an idea and a door opens and we enter a new room with all the previous knowledge plus the new idea. Hence, ideas come from existing ideas. Now – describe a room far out. Something that needs many other rooms to get to. That is not adjacent possible. You loose the perception and the room looks like science fiction.

In 1964, author and inventor Arthur C. Clark made prediction about the 21st century. Due to the then recent development of the transistor and communication satellites, he said: “These things will make possible a world in which we can be in instant contact with each other, wherever we may be. Where we can contact our friends anywhere on Earth, even if we don’t know their actual, physical location. It will be possible in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now [which is 2014] for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as from London.” Although we take this for granted in 2014, this was science fiction for people in 1964. Not surprisingly, Clark’s Third Law says: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Perception depends on the old. The way we do things and what we grow up with. With new advances in technology our perceptions change and people slowly adjust as they are exposed to the new technology. I remember back in 2010 when I was explaining the importance of smartphone to people. I was recommending building mobile apps instead of web pages. Some people would laugh in disbelieve and I would then ask them what type of mobile phone they used. The disbelievers had one thing in common. They used a non-smart Nokia phone. It was impossible to explain the importance of mobile apps to those people as they did not understand the potential of smartphones like iPhone. I see a similar thing happening now with Virtual Reality – VR. Try to convince someone about VR that has never tried it.

With new perception our behaviours changes. Many brilliant business ideas were turned down due to old perception of the world. As more and more of services will be accessible by talking with our devices we need to update our perception world.

This text is a new addition to the 2017 edition of my textbook New Technology.

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