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.
Alternatively, walk into a supermarket, hold a bottle of wine up to the phone and it tells you it’s cheaper in another store and puts it in your shopping basket – no RFID, no barcode.
For advertising, every physical object becomes inventory. Want to put an ad on the Tower of London, or over your competitors’ doors? You can. All print ads become animated and, more importantly, responsive. Hold your phone up to an ad in the paper, see the video, get taken to the website and buy it.
Find and connect with people. The phone lets you know which people that share your interests are nearby, and by simply holding up the phone to those people, what they want to say about themselves floats above their heads.
Then there is media. Imagine walking down a London street with the Harry Potter channel turned on – all those buildings can now be seen in Harry’s world, with dragons flying overhead, goblins in doorways: a whole new world, with you in it. The number of channels that can be layered over the real world is endless. You can view Piccadilly Circus as Harry Potter, James Bond, The History Channel or even in the adult media world.
I believe these new technologies will fundamentally change advertising, e-commerce media and our whole idea of how we interact with the world around us in fundamental ways.
For those of you that think that this is just science fiction, it now works – just. Issues around image recognition, real-time registration and perspective viewpoint rendering, as well as the back-end Meaning Based Computing have been solved. It’s early days but as the surety of network connection, processing power and resolution and displays of handheld devices follows its inevitable Moore’s Law curve, it will only become more persuasive and pervasive.
On top of all of this, there will be communities that build the socially-generated, augmented world. While it’s always hard to predict the speed of such changes, one thing’s for sure – it will never be the same again, at least until Easter.
About the author:
Mike Lynch is the founder and CEO of UK software company Autonomy