Book review: A clear-eyed look at the mind-blowing changes in spatial computing dead ahead
Title: “The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence Change Everything”
Authors: Robert Scoble & Shel Israel
My rating: ☆☆☆☆☆
Release date: December 7, 2016 on Amazon
At the Launch Scale conference in San Francisco on Nov. 14, technologist-futurist Robert Scoble held forth for 20 minutes wearing a mixed reality headset, allowing him to interact with the attendees (startup founders, angels and techies) while projecting a presentation behind him. “Within two years,” he said at one point, “everybody in this room will be wearing a glass. And you might say ‘I’m never going to do that,’ but I’m telling you right now, you will.”
A few minutes later he insisted: “You all are going to have this in 12 months or less.”
It was classic Scoble: forward-looking, brash, boundlessly optimistic, a bit aggressive on the time line, and passionate about plunging headlong into a blossoming new era — the age of spatial computing — which he and co-author Shel Israel lay out so vividly in their new book, “The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence Change Everything,” which goes on sale on Amazon in the next week.
It’s easily their best, most accomplished and most important book. (I reviewed their last book, “The Age of Context,” here in 2013.) As the authors explain, following a terrific foreword by social marketing superstar Gary Vaynerchuk, the new computing age we’re about to enter follows the eras of the mainframe, the personal computer with its graphical point-and-click interface, and the mobile device era that kicked off with the launch of the iPhone in 2007.
They predict that by 2025 (holy crap! that’s only 8 years and 1 month away!), more people will be using mixed-reality smart glasses in their everyday lives than will be using their mobile devices — a heady claim, considering that there are more than 6 billion smartphones in circulation and nearly 2 billion smartphone users.
A new era that will upend existing business models
As Scoble — who joined UploadVR as an entrepreneur in residence earlier this year — told those of us in the audience, “We’re at the beginning of a new age, a new user interface, that’s going to bring lots of opportunities to lots of you and change some of your businesses.”
He encouraged us to go out and try on a HoloLens, or Magic Leap glass (still in development), to get a sense of this new world, because just describing it doesn’t do it justice. It’s like trying to describe television to a caveman.
Back in 2013 I did try out Google Glass and came away greatly underwhelmed. For the record, in their last book, the authors predicted that Google would sell a minimum of 100 million units of Glass, at an average of $300 each, by 2016 to 2018. I wrote in late 2013 that it just wouldn’t happen, and Google decided to shelve Glass in January 2015. (It would be nice if the authors humbly acknowledged how some of their previous predictions didn’t pan out. Nor do they make more than a passing reference to privacy concerns, which helped doom Glass and remains one of the biggest obstacles to smart glasses’ widespread adoption.)
But while the “glass” we’ll be wearing in the new era owes its provenance to Google’s not-ready-for-prime-time Glass, the similarities stop there. Goldman Sachs predicts revenue from all forms of VR (as they call it) will reach $110 billion by 2020. Investors are pumping billions of dollars into the space. Apple has 600 developers working on this and plans a major release in late 2017 or beyond. And the first prototype devices are quickly evolving into mainstream units that you might be able to snag at Best Buy or Amazon two years from now.
‘Mixed reality’: Merging the real & virtual worlds
In their book, Scoble and Israel adroitly lay out a future where “mixed reality” basically displaces virtual reality with a form of hyper-powered, next-generation augmented reality: It all becomes one seamless, integrated experience where a layer of visual computing (yes, like in a Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick), including virtual characters and objects, is overlaid on top of the real world. Call it Pokemon Go times 100.
In their 138-page book (not counting the glossary, index and links), which flies by, the authors take us along for a tour of this new landscape. They look at the impact of mixed reality (or spatial computing) on gaming (where today’s games will soon seem as quaint as Pong or Asteroids), on mixed reality’s impact on business — including shopping, augmented workplaces, the health sector — and on education and society. Nicely done.
They offer an informed look at how software workplaces are evolving into software studios as the Visual Web moves to the fore. There are also extended sections that look at the rise of Eyefluence (bought by Google a few weeks ago), and its accompanying use of artificial intelligence, which uses sensors and laser technology that detects changes in the environment and acts on them.
As you read along, you find yourself largely agreeing with the authors’ conclusions that entertainment, retail shopping and other sectors will soon be transformed in fundamental ways.
Live concerts will become amazing. Students will use the new technologies to expand their learning opportunities and push on-campus interactions in interesting new directions. In-take nurses and surgeons will soon be wearing mixed-reality eyepieces in the emergency room. Want to design the rooms in your new house? You’ll reach for your glass. Anyone working on car repairs or fixing a tractor would benefit from their use. Mixed reality will lead to new forms of journalism, photography and video. Uses for modern warfare? Oh yes.
Even some scenarios straight out of the universal translator in “Star Trek” now seem within reach: Glass gizmos will some day let you converse with artisans on the other side of the world who don’t speak English, but with whom you can barter before their glass grabs your shipping address.
Will we as consumers use them in our everyday lives? In some cases, yes. In less than a decade you should be able to walk into a mall wearing your glass (with a 3D sensor) and your smart glasses will point you to the merchandise you’re looking for — and perhaps to some items you didn’t know you absolutely needed.
“By 2025,” the authors write, “shoppers will be overwhelmingly in headsets; only the elderly will still be using phones.” That seems reasonable, if we’re talking about the U.S.
Prediction games: You vs. the authors
In other cases, it’s less clear how widespread consumer adoption will be, just as Google Glass didn’t pan out. The authors predict that mixed reality movies will displace today’s big screen Hollywood fare. “Over time the glassless theater will get smaller, then eventually disappear,” they write. “In the next five years … non-VR films will be relegated to minor categories like foreign language and documentary films.”
Well, I seriously doubt it, and I’ll wager that it won’t happen. We go to the movies to escape technology and to immerse ourselves in a collective storytelling experience. New media formats will flourish but won’t take over the cineplex.
I’m also not on board with other predictions. In the color-me-dubious department, I’m not sure anyone other than gamers will be interested in having aliens or zombies come crashing through our living room walls (except perhaps at parties). When the authors say they “could think of nothing that would not be done better on an eye-interactive headset than on a mobile or desktop device,” I doubt the next generation of great writers will do so with their eye sensors (even as it becomes indispensable to others, like the disabled).
But this is the absolute fun part of reading “The Fourth Transformation.” You get to pit your wits — your own sense of technology trends and their impact on society — against the authors, who admit that they write “not as objective observers but as tech optimists.” Think of it as a geeky drinking game that you can watch unfold over the next 10 years.
The authors predict self-driving cars will outnumber people-driven cars, or come close to it, by 2025. Once again, I think that won’t come close to happening — if it surpasses 10 percent of the cars on the road I’ll be surprised. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see bills in Congress to outlaw self-driving trucks, given that 3.5 million jobs would be put into jeopardy (including my next-door neighbor).
Sports will get into the action as fourth-transformation technologies roll out in the coming years and the NFL starts outfitting footballs and players with sensors. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the NFL Players Union will step in and say, no, you can’t broadcast Russell Wilson’s heart rate and pulse after each play to 80 million viewers.
Final words: A warning note
In a riveting and sobering chapter near the end, Scoble and Israel smartly discuss some of the possible downsides of spatial computing on sex and relationships, on potential abuses by the government and big business, even on the potential that people will put up virtual filters to filter out the ugliness in our lives. They offer some much-needed dark warnings about “the possible Orwellian isolation of individuals” in the future just ahead.
It’s fun and thought-provoking when Scoble proclaims on stage, “This is going to be the user interface for everything.” Well, no. But that’s OK. As I said, these are quibbles and part of the parlor game of predicting the future. If there is one immutable law of Silicon Valley, it is that futurists assume that the masses will adopt insanely cool new technologies much, much faster than they actually do. We’ve seen this with online commerce, where brick-and-mortar shopping still outpaces ecommerce (after 20 years) by $144 billion to $38 billion and 78 percent of consumers still prefer to shop in-store.
We’ll see the same growth curve in mixed reality technologies: an impressive early burst from the early adopters followed by a long time for mass adoption to kick in.
Just hang on for the wild ride, because we’ll get there.
Robert and Shel (who are friends) have done well with their decision to self-publish their books with corporate underwriters, and “The Fourth Transformation” continues that pioneering trend with the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform — a wise choice, given how long a traditional publisher takes to get books to market and given how fast this space is exploding.
J.D. Lasica, an entrepreneur and former book editor at the Sacramento Bee (among many other things), releases his book reviews under a Creative Commons license; his reviews may be republished with attribution.