It often seems that one of the qualifications for a role in Silicon Valley is to come up with the Next Big Thing. Of course the vast majority of these ventures turn out to be turkeys but by the time their gobbling nature finally comes to light, everyone has moved on well past Easter and all is forgotten.
Often, the prediction is about an outcome which seems to be, as my old university professor would say — a statement of the bleeding obvious, but bereft of any detail about how it might be made to actually happen. So it is as a brave man that I have to put all my years of training in British cynicism (PhD level) to one side to predict that we are about to really see the Next Big Thing.
It’s Augmented Reality. There are at present two worlds: one is the real world, which those of you standing at a rainy bus stop waiting for the Number 47 on a cold dark winter evening know all too well; the other is the shiny, bright and endless virtual world. In practice, these two worlds could be kept pretty separate, as the latter was generally encountered at a keyboard in a warm bedroom or well-lit office, and was primarily text-based.
However there have been some momentous changes going on:
1, We have all been issued with a portable image-processing, audio analysis transmission and storage reduced instruction set, topographically and accelerometerily-aware, persistent storage processing and understanding unit, otherwise known as a smartphone.
2. Most population areas are now covered by a 3G network and, with the cunning, little trick of BT-FON and the like that makes us all unwittingly BT’s employees (how did they con us into that?), setting up their base stations with our power on our sites, Wi-Fi accessible across towns and cities.
3. Meaning Based Computing that can mash all the information out there at the back end, in a scalable, practical, non-editorial kind of way.
So why am I so convinced? What Augmented Reality does is to bring the two worlds together. Hold your iPhone up in the street at a billboard and you see the billboard, in the context of the street, come to life. Think of those moving oil paintings in the Harry Potter films. Point your phone at a flat-pack furniture assembly manual and the pieces on the page start to move.
Walk down a street, see a historical building or a statue, hold the phone up and get all its background history. No typing, no URL, no search engine and the result is a combination of the real world in front of you enhanced by the knowledge of the virtual world.