We are standing on the brink of a new reality. For some 200,000 years, all our energy has been focused on influencing the physical world around us. We built campfires to warm our caves, we farmed vegetables to nourish us and we built massive cities and infrastructure to make our lives more comfortable. All of this has taken place solely in the physical domain. This is about to change. The breakneck speed of technological developments in recent decades has enabled us to open up a whole new domain of reality: Virtual Reality (VR). Yet, while VR (and its little brother, Augmented Reality or AR) have succeeded in capturing our attention, its applications so far are rather limited. Sure, we can use VR/AR to play games and ride roller coasters, but that’s relatively lame compared to its true potential. It is my firm belief that VR will turn out to be one of the technological pillars on which we will build the future.
Together with two other exciting new developments, 3D-scanning and plug-in API’s, VR and AR technologies will completely redefine our view on reality and what’s ‘the truth’ in the form of “Converged Reality.”
“Hold on, back it up,” I hear you say. “Redefine reality? This guy’s spent a little too much time drinking cheap airplane wine at high altitudes, hasn’t he?”
Well, no, I haven’t. Allow me to explain.
When you look at technological developments happening across the world, the scope and scale is simply staggering, along with the pace at which we’re advancing our technological capabilities. One of these technologies is 3D-scanning. While 3D-printing is undeniably a part of the physical realm, 3D-scanning allows us to enter the virtual realm. World-renowned DJ Armin van Buuren has already experimented with it live on tour (see this fun video). The ability to Skype with a 3D-hologram rather than a two dimensional moving photograph may be interesting, but it’s hardly groundbreaking. It would be a vast underestimation of the 3D-scanning potential if we would only focus on 3D communication.
If we combine the potential of 3D-scanning with another rapidly advancing technology, plug-in API’s, it becomes much more interesting. Plug-in API’s allow us to use the functionality of one app (say, a payment processing module such as Apple Pay or Google Wallet) within another app, without needing the app to be downloaded on our phone or tablet. By sharing code, functionality can be shared among apps to form a web of applications. A mega-app, if you will. Add voice recognition technology such as Siri, Cortana or Google Now and a new version of Google Glass (or similar) and we have a very powerful piece of technology in our hands (or on our heads).
So, what will this mean for us? With every technological advancement, Luddites and early adopters alike have equally exaggerated visions of how the new technology will destroy/improve our lives. They envision a future where we’ll either be harvested by machines The Matrix-style, or an early retirement for all with robot butlers 24/7 at our disposal. But the truth is, we are notoriously bad at predicting the impact of technological advancements. This sentiment has been expressed in “Amara’s law”: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”. Despite the red warning flag, I will give it a shot, without assigning a definite timeframe to my predictions.
Right now, my 3 teenage kids are often on the phone with their friends, apping and snapchatting and instagramming away. Sometimes, they hardly seem to notice that I’m home. Our phones and tablets, while providing a portal to those far and away, often distract us from those around us. But imagine putting all the aforementioned functionalities in a device with Google Glass functionality. Don’t like the wallpaper? Change it. Don’t like the scenery? Change it. Don’t like your wife’s new haircut? Download Beyonce’s hairdo and project it on her head. (Perhaps you shouldn’t tell her about this, though).
We can use Converged Reality to alter our interpretation of the physical reality around us and voila, suddenly, we are gods – able to create something out of nothing, a feat generally ascribed only to the divine.
The business implications are staggering, too. Of course, designers will quickly come up with whole new libraries of 3d-scanned ‘objects’ that we can use to enhance our physical environment. Gaming companies and music artists will soon find new ways of creating immersive experiences, as will the recreational sector. A weekend in Malibu will become available to a much larger audience. What about professional sports, or the educational sector? A great example is Derek Belch, who through his company STRIVR Labs, created a profitable business within one years time, by using VR to train NFL players.
The potential for a fully immersive learning experience is huge. What can such a Converged Reality mean for treating people with specific phobias, such as a fear of heights or water?
Once we cross the Rubicon towards Converged Reality, there will be no way back. It will be too convenient to reject, the potential too large to ignore. But the question is, what will it do to us on a psychological level? Already, there are voices saying that the personalized news and videos that we’re offered based on our likes and tweets are creating a bubble around us, enhancing our narcissistic tendencies. Converged Reality will only amplify this. It’ll be interesting to discuss the psychological and sociological implications of “playing God” in our personal reality in a further blog. Will it foster isolation, or break through it? Will it enrich our social lives, or erode personal contact? It’s too early to say, but it sure is exciting.