Within the next decade, the smartphone in your pocket will take a back seat to the augmented-reality or virtual-reality glasses on your face. That's according to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who hosted a Q&A yesterday (June 30) on a wide range of subjects. After VR, Zuckerberg predicts, the next frontier will be high-tech telepathy.
Here's part of Zuckerberg's answer to a question on how he envisions the world in 10 years' time:
We're working on VR because I think it's the next major computing and communication platform after phones. In the future, we'll probably still carry phones in our pockets, but I think we'll also have glasses on our faces that can help us out throughout the day and give us the ability to share our experiences with those we love in completely immersive and new ways that aren't possible today.
VR and augmented reality (AR) are really just getting off the ground now, with Facebook-owned Oculus VR scheduled to debut its Oculus Rift headset in 2016. In the short term, the technology will mostly be used to deliver immersive, 360-degree games. However, as Samsung has already demonstrated with its Oculus-powered Gear VR headset, everything from concerts and virtual tours to sporting events will be experienced in a whole new way.
According to research firm CCS Insight, augmented and virtual reality will become a $4 billion market by 2018, with sales of VR devices increasing from 2.2 million units this year to 20 million. The report also predicts that sales of AR devices, such as Microsoft's HoloLens, will grow from 300,000 units this year to 4 million by 2018. As a quick refresher, virtual reality is a fully immersive experience that places the user into a different environment, while augmented reality adds a digital overlay to your live view of the world around you.
It's clear that Zuckerberg didn't invest $2 billion in Oculus just to transform entertainment. That's just the first step. At the time of the acquisition in March, he wrote about making "Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students from all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face - just by putting on goggles in your home."
In other words, to Zuckerberg, VR and AR represent a whole new way to communicate, one that will be powered by phones when we're on the go. If most of us do wind up donning VR and AR glasses - despite the Google Glass debacle - our phones will become more like personal servers and will be used less frequently and directly over time.
However, Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight, doesn't believe that the smartphone will be relegated to second-class status anytime soon.
"The mobile phone is the most prolific consumer electronics device on the planet, and a whopping 1.5 billion smartphones are forecast to be sold this year alone," said Wood. "It’s definitely a bold prediction from Mark Zuckerberg, and although we share his enthusiasm for virtual reality we don’t believe VR devices will surpass phones in a decade."
Wood says there are big obstacles in the way of high-tech goggles becoming ubiquitous, including social acceptance of wearing them in public. "Google Glass has done untold reputational damage in this area as it became a lightning conductor for privacy issues," he told Tom's Guide. "These challenges will be overcome, but ubitqitous use of VR devices in ten years seems unlikely. The 12 million unit sales of VR devices we forecast for 2017 is merely a drop in the ocean compared to smartphones."
Zuckerberg is also thinking about what's after AR and VR -- sharing our thoughts directly via tech.
One day, I believe we'll be able to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You'll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too, if you'd like. This would be the ultimate communication technology. ...We'll have the power to share our full sensory and emotional experience with people whenever we'd like.
It seems pretty sci-fi, but researchers have had some early success with basic brain-to-brain communication experiments, such as the one conducted by both Starlab Barcelona, in Spain, and Axilum Robotics, in Strasbourg, France. So don't be surprised if your VR headset in 2020 comes with electrodes that go on your scalp to measure your cortex's activity.
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