In 2013, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that the gadgets we wear on our wrists “could be a deep area of technology”.
This was not the case. You might own a Fitbit or an Apple Watch, but the impact of this category of digital devices hasn’t been as big as Cook and many other tech optimists hoped.
Half a decade ago, Pokémon Go persuaded people to scour their neighborhoods to hunt for animated characters they could see by pointing a smartphone camera at their surroundings. Cook was among business executives who said gaming could be the start of a transformative fusion of digital and real life, sometimes called augmented reality or AR.
“I think AR can be huge,” Cook told Apple investors in 2016.
This was not the case. Augmented reality, virtual reality, and similar technologies remain promising and sometimes useful, but they haven’t gone big yet.
Today, Cook and a million others are betting that a combination of these two technologies will become the next major phase of the Internet. Apple, Meta, Microsoft and Snap are heading towards a future in which we wear computers on our heads for interactions that merge physical and digital life. (You and Mark Zuckerberg can call it the metaverse. I won’t.)
Given technologists’ uneven track record of predicting digital revolutions, it’s worth considering why their claims have yet to come to pass – and whether this time they’re right.
There are two ways to look at the predictions of laptops and immersive digital worlds over the past decade. The first is that all past inventions were necessary steps on the way to something great.
People laughed at Google Glass after the company released a test version of the computer headset in 2013, but the glasses could have been a staple. Computer chips, software, cameras and microphones have improved so much since then that digital headsets may soon be less obtrusive and more useful.
Likewise, Pokémon Go, virtual reality video games, and apps for discovering a new lipstick via augmented reality may not have been for everyone, but they helped techies refine ideas and got some people excited about the possibilities for more engaging digital experiences.
Next year, Apple could launch a computer headset resembling ski goggles that aims to deliver virtual and augmented reality experiences. Apple gave only hints of that work at an event on Monday to unveil software changes to the iPhone, but the company has laid the groundwork for these technologies to be its next big potential product category.
The second possibility is that the technologists are again wrong about the potential of the next iterations of Google Glass plus Pokémon Go. Maybe more polished features, longer battery life, less silly glasses and things things to do on face computers aren’t the most essential ingredients for the next big tech innovation.
One of the problems is that technologists have yet to give us good reasons why we would want to live in the more real digital world they imagine for us. Any new technology inevitably competes with the smartphone, which is at the center of our digital lives. Everything that comes next should answer the question: what does this thing my phone can’t do?
This challenge does not mean that the technology is stuck where it is today. I’ve been excited about workouts that feel like a trainer is dragging me along a virtual mountain lake, and I can imagine new ways to connect with distant people who feel more intimate than Zoom. Apple in particular has a reputation for making existing technology concepts, such as smartphones and music streaming, appealing to the masses.
But the richer our current digital lives have become, the harder it will be for us to embrace something new. That’s something that past and current predictions of a more immersive computing future haven’t really taken into account.
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