In 2013, Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, said gadgets we wear on our wrists “could be a profound area of technology.”
It was not. Maybe you own a Fitbit or an Apple Watch, but that category of digital devices has been as momentous as Cook and many other tech optimists.
A half-decade ago, Pokémon Go persuaded people to roam their neighborhoods animated characters that they could see by pointing to a smartphone camera at their surroundings. Cook was one of the corporate executives who said that the game might be the beginning of a transformative melding of digital and real life, sometimes called augmented reality or AR.
“I think AR can be huge,” Cook told Apple investors in 2016.
It was not. Augmented reality, virtual reality and similar technologies remain promising and occasionally useful, but they have not been huge yet.
Today, Cook and a zillion other people are betting that a combination of those two technologies will become the next major phase of the Internet. Apple, Meta, Microsoft and Snap are steering towards a future in which we will wear computers for our heads to interact with that fuse physical and digital life. (You and Mark Zuckerberg can call this the metaverse. I won’t.)
Given technologists’ spotty record of predicting digital revolutions, it’s worth examining why their pronouncements have come true yet – and if this time, they are right.
There are two ways of looking at predictions of wearable computers and immersive digital worlds over the past decade. The first is that all the past inventions were necessary steps on the path to something grand.
People mocked Google Glass after the company released a test version of the computer headset in 2013, but the glasses may have been a building block. Computer chips, software, cameras and microphones have since improved so much that digital headgear may soon become less obtrusive and more useful.
Likewise, Pokémon Go, virtual reality video games and apps that check out a new lipstick through an augmented reality may not have been for everyone, but they’ve helped refine techies and made some people excited about the possibilities of more engrossing digital experiences.
My colleagues have reported that next year Apple may ship a ski-goggle-like computer headset and offer virtual- and augmented-reality experiences. Apple has only given hints about that work during an event on Monday to unveil iPhone software tweaks, but the company has been laying the groundwork for such technologies to be its potential next big product category.
The second possibility is that technicians may be wrong again about the potential of the next iterations of Google Glass plus Pokémon Go. Maybe more refined features, longer battery life, less dorky eyewear and more interesting things to do on face computers are not the most important element for the next big thing in technology.
One issue that technicians have not yet given us for good reasons is why we want to live in the digital-plus-real world that they imagine for us.
I have written before that any new technology inevitably competes with the smartphone, which is at the center of our digital lives. Everything that comes next must answer the question: What does this thing that my phone can’t do?
That challenge does not mean that technology is frozen where it is today. I’ve been excited by workouts that make it seem as if a trainer is coaching along a virtual mountain lake, and I can imagine new ways of connecting people far away that feel more intimate than Zoom. Apple has a track record of taking existing technology concepts like smartphones and streaming music and making them appealing to the masses.
But the more rich our current digital lives become, the more difficult it will be for us to embrace something new. That ‘s something that is more immersive computing of past and present predictions of the future than really reckoned with.
Before we go…
Just one of the cruel and formulaic hoaxes after violent tragedies: After mass shootings or other deadly events, online posts often claim that Jordie Jordan was one of the victims. My colleague Tiffany Hsu explains what is behind this repeat false campaign and others like it.
Is this an excuse to get out of a bad deal? After a recent drop in stock prices of many tech companies, it now looks as if Elon Musk is paying too much to buy Twitter. That’s the useful context for the complaint from Musk’s lawyers on Monday that the company rejected him for giving him automated Twitter accounts and for threatening (again) to back out of the deal, my colleagues Lauren Hirsch and Mike Isaac reported. (DealBook has more about this.)
Our shopping habits are shifting to the US work force: Employment in transportation and warehousing – jobs like truckers, Amazon warehouse workers and delivery couriers – have reached its largest share of the work force since records have been kept, Axios reported. This is a decade-long employment change, turbocharged by our appetite to spend more on stuff than services during the pandemic.
Related: “The jobs that are hot right now – restaurants, warehousing – these are things that won’t last forever,” said Mary C. Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, my colleague Jeanna Smialek.
Hugs to this
David Scott creates Rube Goldberg-style creations with the help of computers, including this concert of marbles on xylophone-like bars. (My colleague Maya Salam recommended videos from Scott, who goes by the name Enbiggen on social media.)
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