August 20, 2018   3 mins

Technological change is happening all the time, but what counts as a technological revolution?

I’d argue it has to be something that makes a big, enduring and noticeable difference to the way most of us live and work.

My parents’ and grandparents’ generations lived through many such revolutions. The car, the telephone, the washing machine, radio, TV, the refrigerator, air travel, natural gas, central heating, antibiotics, motorways… it’s a long list .

In terms of direct personal experience, I’ve lived through just two – the internet and mobile phones. Other advances don’t really make the cut. This might be because they’re improvements on an established technology (e.g. safer jet aircraft) or because they’re not significant enough (e.g. the microwave) or because, though important, they haven’t altered day-to-day life for most people (e.g. renewable energy).

Obviously, this all depends on context – for instance, a solar panel could have a revolutionary impact on someone in a developing country who’s never had access to electricity before. But, if we limit the context to people of ordinary means in a developed country, what might be about to change our world?

Obviously, there’s a lot of excitement around AI (artificial intelligence) right now – which promises a whole sequence of revolutionary developments. However, when it comes to the next big thing, Benedict Evans makes a strong case for AR (augmented reality).

He compares the development of AR to that of the multitouch smartphone, and suggests that the stage at which AR is now is equivalent to where multitouch was in the run-up to the 2007 launch of its breakthrough commercial product – the Apple iPhone.

But, first of all, some definitions: Augmented reality is like virtual reality (VR) in that it’s a display technology that you wear in front of your eyes like a pair of goggles or, ideally, a pair of glasses; the key difference is that you can see through it into the real world, with digital images overlayed on top of your ‘natural’ view. These images can be simple – for instance, text that labels the locations you’re looking at or an arrow to provide directions. A more advanced version might display 3D animations or even hyper-realistic simulations – in effect a mash-up of the real world and computer-generated elements that is sometime called ‘mixed reality’.

A few years ago Google attempted to launch an AR product called Google Glass. It wasn’t exactly a resounding success. Like the not-smart-enough-phones that launched before the iPhone, the technology wasn’t quite ready to change the world. Evans explains why the coming wave of AR products might succeed where Google Glass failed :

“…with what one might call ‘true AR’, or, perhaps ‘mixed reality’, the device starts to have some awareness of your surroundings, and can place things in the world such that if you suspend disbelief you could imagine that they’re really there. Unlike Google Glass, the headset will do 3D mapping of your surroundings and track your head position all the time. That would make it possible to place a ‘virtual TV’ on a wall and have it stay there as you walk around, or make the whole wall a display.”

In other words, good AR enables you to see what you want to see – and not as a distracting image hovering in your face, but as an apparently real object at an appropriate depth and location within your field of vision:

“This is the real augmentation of reality – you’re not just showing things in parallel to the world but as part of it. Your glasses can show you the things that you might look at on a smartphone or a 2000 inch screen, but they can also unbundle that screen into the real world, and change it.”

Will augmented reality be so convincing as be indistinguishable from, er, real reality? Probably not in the immediate future, but then it won’t have to be. It would be like a pair of decent headphones, which might not convince you that you’re actually at a live music performance – but nevertheless provides an auditory experience that is worthwhile in itself and, in some respects, superior by comparison. At the very least the headphones provide an acceptable substitute for a fixed and bulky sound system.

If AR can do the same for the primary human sense, i.e. vision – providing what Ben Evans calls an “infinite screen” – then that really would be a revolution.

Screens are quite literally the focus of modern life. Smartphones, laptops, tablets, TVs , electronic displays of every kind – all could be replaced and carried around wherever we go by high quality AR. That in itself is a huge deal and would profoundly disrupt the IT sector.

The full implications go much further than that, of course – but AR could be as commercially consequential as multitouch smartphones were in the previous decade. Whether today’s tech giants stay top of the tree like Apple, or get squashed like certain other companies, may come down to their ability to make you see things. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.