2010, Year One: Decade of Ubiquity

I’ve blogged in the past about Future Vision and the coming Decade of Ubiquity and my predictions for what might occur between now and 2012, which is a bit beyond the current crop of 2010 predictions by some really smart people as aggregated by Games Alfresco. I’ve always had a knack for thinking ahead, and more often than not, I’ve been too early. I started a company in 1995 to build the first real-time 3D MMORPG (during the days of VGA and 2D sprite “3D” graphics) with a strong emphasis on social gameplay, and in 1999 I was evangelizing the digital nation as a virtual world community platform, and in 2000 I shifted to 3D interfaces to the Internet along with virtual goods and microtransactions, and I made a scathing indictment of online worlds and MMORPGs back in 2006 about the decline of that industry’s craft and lore which many people are finally beginning to see and agree with. Of course, back then many people attacked my point of view (notice the low rating of the book and comments on Amazon.com).

2005-2006 was around the time I was designing Immortal Destiny, which was meant to be a true next-generation virtual world and MMORPG. The whole world was designed to be AI-driven and a fully adaptive and evolving ecology that would change based on what players did (or did not) do. We even found some really interesting genetic computation algorithms that we were going to leverage as sort of an artificial life intelligence to control many of the game systems and mechanics. The full scope of the world was to give players the chance to finally be important, and the drivers of the story, on both micro and macro levels, instead of just churning through static canned content. There are a lot of other problems with MMORPGs and Virtual Worlds right now (which I addressed in my book, and are still relevant). Sure, some games like World of Warcraft are successful financially, but they could be so much MORE successful, the market could be bigger, and games could be more engaging and interesting.

Anyway, I tried finding funding for Immortal Destiny, but at the time, I just couldn’t do it. Much of the interest in the industry had moved on to casual and social games and worlds, large MMO projects were getting shut down left and right (remember Sigil and Perpetual Studios?), and it seemed that the only way to find funding was if you were a baseball star or a former employee of blizzard (regardless of what you actually did there). So, I made the call and suspended development. Sometimes, if you aren’t getting any traction, it is best to stop and move on. I still plan on creating Immortal Destiny and shaking up the game industry, but unless one of my blog readers has $20M to drop (and no, you do not need a $500M budget to blow the industry out of the water), I’ll be self funding this in the future.

So, back to the topic. In mid 2006, probably around August when I was at the beachhouse on our annual trip to Topsail Island, and was making the decision to close the doors on the MMO, I started thinking about technology. What the obvious trends were, what trends were developing in the underlying currents of various industries, what was happening on the internet, in virtual worlds, in games, in social media, in mobile, in hardware, software, telecom, etc. etc. This is about the time where I discovered QR codes, Datamatrix, and found a handful of videos about augmented reality on youtube.

I admit that this was a huge surprise to me. The beginning of my career in interactive media was in the very early 90s at the first virtual reality arcade game company in the US (Alternate Worlds Technology), so I was quite familiar with all things virtual reality, which is not a huge leap from augmented reality. I didn’t think that the state of things was as far advanced as it seemed to be, and certainly not accessible. After a bit more research, I discovered ARTag, ARToolkit, DART, and a few other things. I immediately saw the potential here, and a lot of old ideas came flooding back.

To me, the full potential of augmented reality can only be realized when we can break away from the desktop, making it mobile and ubiquitous, while moving beyond the handheld “lens” (i.e. hold up your iPhone and look through it) with wearable displays. Even then though, the wearables must be in an eyeglass form factor, and the lenses must be transparent. This combination is still a few years off (sooner if I had my way), and is the absolute basic requirement for the impending media evolution.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe that the state-of-the-art of augmented reality has an insane amount of potential on its own, but to be honest, most of what came out in 2009 was desktop marker based (stable, looks great, lots of uses, but ultimately deployed in ways that were pure gimmick and schlock) or directory services that are pseudo AR. Almost all of the so-called AR Browsers out there fall into this category (and some don’t qualify as AR to begin with). I think what we are seeing right now, and definitely through 2010 is more like the emergence of location based content and mobile experiences, wrapped and marketed as augmented reality. This is ok though. The industry is still barely born, and we have a long way to go. A few more years of technology advancement and industry maturity is required before we start seeing real things that will have a lasting effect on our daily lives.

The point though, is that all of these things calling themselves augmented reality now are just the start. Everyone is getting their feet wet, experimenting, exploring, and beginning to innovate. We can argue about what is or isn’t augmented reality, but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the continual push for advancing the technology, the industry, and getting people to start using it. My own company, Neogence Enterprises, has been working quietly in the background on our own stuff with an eye to the future, but I think our goals have been too ambitious for the short term. I’m not satisfied with the current state-of-the-art, and I want more. However, the longer we take in development, the less ability we have to build our own brand and compete for marketshare and eyeballs. So, we are shifting gears a bit and will be releasing our own AR Browser and a few other nifty things in the near future to stake our claim, while we continue developing the other stuff, and solving the really hard problems that others haven’t even begun to consider yet. Remember, I like to think very far ahead, and work backwards…developing a roadmap that lays out a plan to execute. That is what we are doing.

But what does all of this have to do with the title of this post? Yes, I agree that augmented reality effectively exploded on the blogosphere in 2009 (even though its been around for years) and it will really start taking off in 2010 (expect AR startups coming out of the woodwork, venture capital starting to flow, a couple of failures and closings, some mergers and acquisitions, and some really interesting applications (but not until later in the year at the earlist)). But what is really going on here? If you set aside all of the glitz of augmented reality and consider what is happening on a very subtle level, you begin to see the beginnings of some other trends. Augmented reality just happens to be the umbrella that all of this is getting lumped under and is the easy buzzword to throw around.

* Mobile Paradigm Shift

I’m not going to go into much detail here about this beyond saying that mobile devices aren’t just for making phone calls anymore. The mobile device is becoming the replacement for laptops, and for most casual computing. Even as dramatic as this shift is here in North America, we are still half a decade or so behind what is going on in Asia or some third world countries where they skipped the whole “copper wires in the ground” phase that we are still dealing with as legacy. You might not believe it, but some countries are moving towards a cashless system and the mobile device is replacing the wallet. Think about that for a minute.

The rapid development of smart mobiles (the explosion starting with the iPhone) is nearing fever pitch. The new devices we are going to see over the next year or two are going to be amazing. The things we will be taking for granted by the time 2012 rolls around would stun us today to even consider, yet it is coming.

* Location, Location, Location

I mentioned directory AR earlier as very early implementations of location based content. If the buzz in 2009 was around AR (at least in some circles), I’m fairly confident it will be location based content and services in 2010. As I have said dozens and dozens of times in the past year, who you are, where you are, and what is around you will be important. In the past we have gone to places on the internet to get information, now we will start seeing information served to us on a silver platter that is relevant to where we are. This too will take a couple of years to really get cooking, and we have already started seeing early efforts here (have you heard the rumors of Google considering an acquisition of Yelp for $500m? (Update: More rumors report that Yelp has spurned this offer)). My favorite app for location based anything right now is probably Foursquare. I checked into a local pizza place yesterday (Sauced Pizza) and Foursquare gave me a $5 off coupon on a large pizza. Holy cow. How awesome is that?

* Ubiquitous and Pervasive

Ubiquitous: existing or being everywhere at the same time : constantly encountered

Pervasive: to become diffused throughout every part of

When I talk about the decade of ubiquity, I mean to say that during the next ten years (sooner, really, but it is such a great line, I’m sticking with it), what I define as augmented reality (in broad terms) or “the blend between the real and the virtual” will definitely, absolutely, and unavoidably occur. Computing will become smaller and almost unnoticable, and be part of nearly every aspect of our lives. The various implementations and modes of this will change and evolve to be sure. For now, we are holding up our mobile devices and peering at the tiny screens. In the future, you will simply walk into a room and it will know you are there. You will buy things by swiping your phone over a sensor. Your car will start when you get close to it. You will never have to punch a time clock at the office. You will always have directions to get where you need to be, without having to look it up. Intelligent agents (running on a mobile device) will recognize your voice and order pizza for you, make calls, book appointments, and arrange airfare. Interactive 3D virtual goods and characters (appearing like holograms) will be all over the place along with dynamic data overlays…all designed to your tastes, preferences, and habits.

Every industry and way of life will feel the effects of mobile, ubiquitous computing, augmented reality, smart devices, embedded sensors, and automation. It used to be fun talking about this, reading science fiction, and watching movies, but we are finally at the point where we can see light at the end of the tunnel, and the future we (well at least the older folks) have been dreaming of is rushing towards, gaining speed every year.

Of course, there are obstacles along the way…the economy, world politics, the strangulation of commerce and innovation funding, apathy, bad business models, greedy people, and misdirection of talent and resources, but we will overcome. The golden technology utopia of the future that we all desire is too bright and the siren call is too strong. Yes, it might take longer than we would like, and it might not turn out like we hope (try reading 1984 and Brave New World over the same weekend), but as long as we strive, and refuse to capitulate to failure or weak minded individuals who swear the sky is falling and every ambition is a waste of time, we will get there.

At least, that is what I aim for. As Tesla once said “The present is theirs ; the future, for which I really worked, is mine.” Don’t be satisfied with the status quo, and don’t be discouraged when you see someone else building (and profiting) from things you have imagined or had the idea for on your own. Do it anyway, do it better, and always strive to reach higher and farther than anyone else. Success will find you sooner or later.

So, here is an early welcome to you to year one of the decade of ubiquity. How will it change your life? What are you going to do? Are you going to jump in and make it happen? Are you going to sit back and watch? Are you going to slow down the visionaries and workers making it happen by complaining about things and marginalizing their efforts? Are you content? Or are you driven? The future is yours to create and invent, or you can fade into the past.

As for me, I’m going for gold. I’m never going to quit, I’m never going to be satisfied, and I will never settle. I may have to walk in smaller steps at times, but every one of those steps is leading to a leap.

I can’t wait.

Robert