2018 marked the 10th year since the release of the iOS SDK. And while the fact that I have been developing for iOS devices for over 10 years is astounding in itself, it also raises a question that has come up more and more frequently over the last few years: what is, or is going to be, the next big thing in technology?
Since the revolution of touch screen mobile devices, there have no doubt been several strong contenders — wearables, AR, VR, and, most recently, voice controlled virtual assistants. Are any of these technologies contenders, simply waiting for that killer app to take a neat technology to the can’t-live-without-it category?
Wearables and Smart Devices
Although there was a lot of talk about wearables, and more broadly The Internet of Things, we here at Glowdot were hesitant to jump on the bandwagon, and it seems history has proven us right. The rush to put computers and the Internet into any and everything that they will fit into failed, in my opinion, to take into account one simple truth: just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. At the end of the day, there needs to be a purpose to making a device “smart”. Does your refrigerator really need an always-on connection to the Internet?
One simple example of over-engineering I encountered in the wild a year or so ago were a crop of sous vide appliances, all of which boasted WiFi capability and a companion app that would help home cooks determine how to configure their new expensive sous vide. The problem is, a sous vide is a ridiculously simple device. You set the temperature, put it in the water, and wait. Why does something so simple need wifi capability and an app?
In fact, one high-tech sous vide device I was looking at was getting positively destroyed on Amazon by customers because the device required the app to use, and the app was poorly built, buggy, and overcomplicated even when it did work. Ultimately, users just wanted to be able to set the temperature and cook their food, and these over-engineered devices were making that simple act impossible.
But at the same time, some attempts to cram the Internet into ordinary things was a relative success. The best example, in my opinion, are smart watches. But while these devices launched with big promises of life changing applications, in reality they really only shined in a few limited areas. notably fitness applications (timers, run trackers, weight loss tools), health applications (heart rate monitors, medication reminders), and messaging and utility applications (push notifications, SMS, weather).
AR launched with some lofty promises of changing the way we see the world. From very ad heavy “in your face” Yelp-like applications to more educational uses promised by Microsoft’s HoloLens, AR promised a new world littered with ads, popups, and map pins in your face at all times everywhere you go. Early demos were, to me, quite horrifying, as the benefits were far outweighed by the annoyance factor. This is largely a result of over-eager evangelists, though its hard to ignore the fact that early devices like Google Glass flopped really, really hard.
The 2012 Kickstarter for the Oculus Rift definitely sent shockwaves through the tech community, as it looked like the virtual reality experiences we we’re promised in the 90s were starting to become a potential reality. With big, legendary names like John Carmack jumping on board, and no less than Facebook buying the company for a whopping $2.3 billion, it was hard to deny that VR was here in a big way. Six years later though, I have to ask: do you know anyone with an Oculus, or any other VR device for that matter? I know a few, but a very very small few — certainly not enough to convince me that the market is clamoring for this technology. And this lack of demand, like AR and wearable tech, is probably largely a result of there being no real killer app for VR as of yet. Its a neat, cutting edge technology that we really still don’t feel a gripping need to integrate into our lives.
Voice Controlled assistants
Which brings us to the latest tech to hit: voice assistants like Google Home, Siri, and Amazon Alexa. We’ve had these devices available to us in standalone form (as opposed to extensions of our phones) for about a year now, and while they came with some amazing buzz at the start, it definitely seems like the thrill is wearing off a bit. Do these devices, too, need a killer app to make them ubiquitous in our homes and our lives?
So what’s next?
Ultimately, I think all of these device categories are getting us closer to the next big thing. And in my estimation, that thing is not a device or category of devices, but a concept. It’s the reduction of the barrier between us and our technology.
Devices like Alexa reduce the time it takes for us to interact with our technology but allowing us to avoid pulling up a keyboard, typing, correcting mistakes, and hitting enter. We just say “Hey Alexa what is the weather” and immediately get that feedback. But its not just about the conservation of time, its about the reduction of the barrier between our brains and whatever it is our brain is seeking. There is latency in every interaction we have with our computers, starting with the latency between the time our brains fire signals to our fingers until they start typing a Google search, all the way to the latency in the Internet as our request is sent, processed, and received, and finally there is latency between our eyes and our brains as we input and process the results of our requests.
Visionaries like Elon Musk and his Neuralink company are seeking to reduce that latency down to nothing. Time will tell if he’s successful, but in the meantime these existing technologies are incrementally getting us closer and closer to a low latency interface with our technology. VR can bring it into 3D, sparing our brains from having to take information and map it spatially onto our three dimensional world. AR similarly does the work of mapping information onto our reality. Voice control allows us to ask for information and receive information faster than ever (when it works properly, of course!) and wearable devices like the Apple Watch allow us to receive messages with the flick of a wrist — without having to reach into our pockets, pull out our phones, unlock them, open the messaging app, etc. etc.
In my opinion the next world changing technology will either be an application of existing technology that truly reduces the latency we experience down to near zero, or a new technology that fully bridges the gap between our minds and the universe of information we currently carry around in our pockets. The applications of that technology will allow us to recognize faces and remember names of people we otherwise might have forgotten, be reminded of scheduled events without having the check our phones, and even navigate the world intelligently and efficiently.
The key will be identifying the areas of human life where that technology is truly needed, not simply where it is neat or novel.