Short Circuit is a quarterly newsletter intended as an antidote to the onslaught of information that characterises both technology and financial markets. Inspired in part by Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock, I hope to use some of the latest news, events and developments as a jumping off point for discussing a broad range of issues that will be vaguely technological and future related. It is designed to be thoughtful but relaxed; as a comfort blanket against the barrage of the outside world; like your first cup of tea in the morning. Try it on your tablet.
London, UK & Chiba, Japan
There are several events on the technology calendar that attract a lot of attention. They tend to offer up the latest increments in consumer electronics and are accompanied by all the polish and glitz you could wish for. CES in Las Vegas, which takes place in January, is a good example. As impressive as these are with their Moore-driven developments, they do induce what might be called megapixel fatigue. That Toshiba have moved from 360 pixels per inch to 496 is not that, well, exciting. I guess that is the issue with the roadmap; we can see the direction everything is heading.
Last week saw the 13th holding of the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies, also know as CEATEC, in Chiba, Japan. And whilst gigapixel cameras et al do make an obligatory appearance, CEATEC is definitely one of the more intriguing exhibitions on the technology industry calendar. The real meat of it are the rudimentary displays of futuristic prototype technology which, combined with Japan’s sometimes wacky approach to innovation, promise a much more creative jolt. So as not to miss out I spent most of the week attending virtually.
In summary then, there was some hubbub surrounding a handful of Windows 8 devices and a few nifty apps such as real time translation and fingerprint unlocking, although nothing with quite the utility of last year’s bad breath analyser from NTT. What a shame it would be if that was the last we ever see of that.
However, the focus at these events tends to coalesce around certain developments and this year the biggest wow factor was generated by several displays of eye-tracking technology. The basic idea being that you can use your eyes to perform functions that at the moment one might use a mouse or latterly a finger to achieve.
Immediately there are several niche applications that spring to mind. It may help with certain disabilities where touch is a problem, and Tokyo is famous for its crowded commuter train carriages. Assuming you managed to get your device out in the first place, gaze tracking tech may help you flip pages on a Kindle for example. There was also an in-car demonstration where the virtual dashboard stays permanently in vision.
Valid use cases these may be, but the technology seems to me to miss the point. Excluding situations where our subconscious brain might be able to manipulate others with subtle eye movements, generally our eyes are sensory input organs. It is our hands and feet that are more typically manipulative, obviously. That fact alone is what probably explains the amazing intuitiveness of smartphones and tablets, as evidenced by stories of young children trying to prod and poke televisions. I think anything that purports to be the future must pander to either our intuition or our productivity. Eye gestures don’t appear to do much of either.
Instead, for a view of the future I think it is much more exciting to look at what Pranav Mistry and his colleagues at the MIT Media Lab are doing with their SixthSense device. It wouldn’t go amiss at CEATEC: unrefined and a touch kooky as it is. But crucially it begins from an exploration of “how our knowledge about everyday objects, and how we use those objects, can be leveraged to our interactions with the digital world.” What you end up with is a camera, a projector, some coloured electrical tape and a thrilling look at how our devices might evolve if we continue down this gesture driven path that has begun in the last few years.
Google’s Project Glass is another endeavour with futurist aspirations. The video makes it all self explanatory, but the basic idea is that through a pair of glasses and some nifty voice recognition you can achieve all of the major functions of today’s smartphones without the device itself. Again it has our intuitions at heart, or at least the intuitions of those of us who like telling people what to do. The reality of the technology today is significantly more modest than the video suggests but it is a lot of fun all the same. I would highly recommend taking twenty minutes to watch both Pranav and Project Glass for a glimpse into a, if not exactly the, future.
You might loop this back to CEATEC and ask whether there were any more prosaic developments that might one day enable these ideas. There was a small projector from Panasonic, and back in 2010 at this event TDK unveiled curved and semitransparent OLED displays. There were no reported developments on that front this year but if Google is serious about Project Glass this kind of technology has to feature down the line.
Coincidently the same week saw Looper released in the UK, a time travel film set in the period 2044-2074. It is always interesting to watch these films with an eye to the future if only because ideas in popular science fiction can often become self fulfilling. It turns out that apart from defying Einstein and discovering time travel, writer/director Rian Johnson has a very restrained view of the future. He thinks that in thirty years’ time we will still drink coffee and guns will still fire bullets. We will still be using mobile phones no less. For better of worse there was nothing from a technologist’s perspective to really rival the swiping and eye-popping Tom Cruise in Minority Report.
Which brings me to note in passing there appears to have been a lot of teeth gnashing over Apple’s latest iPhone, and from what I can see this is probably with good reason. They certainly seem to have ceded the technological lead, on both software and hardware, to Android and its ecosystem. That may signal the beginning of the end for their ascendancy. Android is bearing out the wikinomics of open source; iTunes by contrast seems like everyone’s favourite headache. The software’s intrusive tentacles appear to echo a natural shift for Apple from pioneer to consolidator. There is also form to consider: the Macintosh lagged behind the PC in the Wintel era of the eighties and nineties in large part because of its closed platform and again the market is setting up a similar division.
But none of that is necessarily fatal. The flip side of the coin that says it is intuitive devices that become indispensable is that it is not always the best outright technology that becomes ubiquitous. That is what Looper reminds us. Network effects, scale benefits in mass production and switching costs are a handful of factors that work in favour of the incumbent, which Apple most certainly is. The stock price is most likely to tell us first that their potency is at an end; when it does, the outcome I suspect will be rather like Microsoft for the last ten years. But as to whether that comes a month or ten years from now, no one commentator can know for sure ex ante. It is a shame they have stopped, for now, propelling us into the future with their products but to proceed incrementally after such a paradigm shift is inevitable if not imperative. The paradigm has to become established before you can shift it again. One day someone will, and it will likely not be them, but until then they will remain ascendant.
Chris Woodcock is an independent technology analyst and sometime global nomad. Get in touch: chris [at] cedillaresearch [dot] com / @chrisjwoodcock