Will virtual reality headsets really replace our smartphones?

Will virtual reality headsets really replace our smartphones?

It has been talked about for as long as it is about the next technological revolution. And Apple and Facebook's plans hint that it could be very close

(Photo: Thyssenkrupp) So far, there has been only a long string of failures. Snapchat's Spectacles - on sale for € 370 and which only allow you to take photos and videos - have never found a large pool of users. The Magic Leap One, for years one of the most anticipated devices in the digital world, sold so few units that the company first had to announce a thousand layoffs and then let it be known that it would fall back on the professional market. As is known, even the pioneering Google Glass did not fare better, launched even in 2014 and became famous above all for being one of the most sensational flops of the Mountain View giant (these too were then relaunched in a professional version).

In a nutshell, the market has repeatedly shown that it does not crave these smartglasses that should project us towards a future in augmented reality (the technology that allows digital elements to be superimposed on the physical environment). Neither those wearable as normal glasses - but probably too expensive for the limited functionality they offer - nor those that provide users with a real experience in augmented reality, but they are too bulky for everyday life and have a prohibitive cost (the Magic Leap One, for example, starts at $ 2,300.)

To date, the only device that has not been inexorably branded as a flop are Microsoft's Hololens, born from the start for the corporate world and produced without major promotional campaigns. Is it time to definitively lower expectations towards augmented reality? The repeated failures show that the messianic expectation towards the next big thing that would replace smartphones, projecting us into a new digital world, was too high?

Top Secret Apple

In truth, the times were simply not yet ripe. This is demonstrated, on the one hand, by the very heavy compromises made by the various digital giants who have tried to enter this sector - sacrificing functionality for convenience or vice versa - and, on the other, by the fact that all the companies in Silicon Valley and surroundings continue to bet without any second thoughts on this technology. The names of the last two companies that have announced their entry into the world of augmented reality (AR) are further confirmation of this: Apple and Facebook, which have recently announced - or have seen unveiled - their plans to give life to a world where physical and digital are definitively merged into one another.

Apple's projects are still top secret, but a few weeks ago one of the most trusted sources on the world of Cupertino, blogger Ming Chi-Kuo, revealed Tim Cook's plans for augmented reality. A strategy that involves two fundamental steps: in 2022 the launch of a mixed reality viewer will take place - therefore usable for virtual reality, but also with augmented reality functionality - while for 2025 the launch of augmented reality glasses is expected, which in Apple's plans they should finally combine the most advanced features with an easily wearable design. Still according to Ming Chi-Kuo, in the long term (between 2030 and 2040) Apple is also focusing on the development of smart contact lenses: a sector on which Samsung was the first to focus and which has already seen Google raise the white flag. .

The augmented world according to Facebook

Facebook's plans for augmented reality are much more detailed. First of all, the design of the prototype is already known and the fact that the Italian Luxottica will produce the models. The first devices could also arrive on the market already towards the end of 2021, but they will not yet be equipped with the features related to augmented reality (and should therefore be a sort of more advanced version of the Spectacles).

The ultimate goal, even for Facebook, is however to launch a product on the market that can superimpose a digital layer on the physical world. This is demonstrated by the very recent announcement relating to a device, to be worn on the wrist and connected to augmented reality viewers, which will intercept the signals sent from the brain to the muscles of the hands to translate them into the digital world. It is the answer to one of the most obvious problems of augmented reality: when we use smartphones and computers we send commands to devices using fingers, keyboards, mice and touchscreens. But how do we send the commands if instead the display is incorporated in the glasses?

The most immediate solution, used for example in virtual reality, is to take advantage of very simple joypads that reproduce as much as possible the basic movements of the fingers (grasping, squeezing, pointing, etc.). Replicating this solution also in the field of augmented reality, however, would make little sense: should we go around in our daily life with joypads constantly in hand? And this is where the innovation - still in the experimental phase - comes into play, conceived by Ctrl-labs, a startup purchased by Mark Zuckerberg in September 2019. Their device, connected as mentioned to the wrist, intercepts the signals that go from the brain to the muscles of the hand, thus deciphering the movements we intend to make and making sure that the digital environment in which we are immersed behaves accordingly.

Reading thoughts?

For example, let's say that the command to delete an advertising offer that appeared before our eyes is a quick gesture of the hand from right to left: the device attached to the our wrist would understand that the brain is sending that signal to our hand and would react accordingly, making the announcement disappear the moment we perform the gesture (or even without the need to do it). If and when this device has become sufficiently accurate, it will also be possible to use a custom-made virtual keyboard, in which the movements of our fingers allow the device to understand which keys we are pressing.

The goal, in summary, is to make our physical interaction in the digital world frictionless, without intermediate steps that require, for example, to take a smartphone out of your pocket. However, as Facebook has repeatedly specified, its device does not "read thoughts", but acts on a completely different area of ​​the brain and limits itself to intercepting the electrical signals sent to the muscles of the hand.

In a certain sense, Facebook still aims to read our thoughts: "And if instead of clicking inside a menu to find what you would like to do, the system offered you directly what you are looking for and that was enough for you confirm it with a simple gesture? " , reads the Facebook blog post. However, the prediction of our behaviors does not occur by interacting with our brain, but more simply by collecting an ever-increasing number of data. Through augmented reality viewers, the digital giants will not just collect information about our online behavior, but will also be able to analyze which public transport we use to go to work, in front of which windows we stop and which objects we frame, in which places we take out. the dog and where we meet with friends to have an aperitif.

In a nutshell, Facebook's (and other Silicon Valley's) knowledge of everything that concerns us will become more and more in-depth and detailed, making all our behaviors potentially predictable. Our device in Ar, for example, could signal us the possibility of having a coffee if at the right time we are passing by one of the bars that we sometimes frequent. While if we are near a bookstore it could signal the release of a book of our interest.

A future in augmented reality

This is how our future could become if the goals of the Silicon Valley giants are achieved: we will wear our augmented reality viewers as soon as we wake up by displaying notifications, emails and reminders directly in front of our eyes. We will leave the house and head to the place where we have an appointment thanks to the indications that the GPS shows us projected directly onto the asphalt. If we meet someone we are in contact with on a social network, we could see a digital label that tells us the name of the person who has just passed us by. The advertising posters scattered around the city could be digitized and customized, thus showing only advertisements considered to be of interest to us. The shops to which we have given the appropriate consent will be able to send us new offers as soon as we are nearby.

It is a world in which the digital reality is now definitively merged into the physical one and is a further step towards the complete integration of technology in the human body. From this point of view, large projects for augmented reality risk entering into direct competition with realities of the caliber of Neuralink, which through their experimental neural interfaces aim to put the human brain in direct connection with computers. A technology created to allow you to communicate - and send commands to your body - to those with severe disabilities (for example, paraplegics), but which in perspective aims to be a mass device used by anyone who wants to "increase" their abilities .

Although this future is still far away, it is possible that in a decade or so augmented reality devices - which in the meantime have become more and more similar to normal glasses and have replaced the smartphone - will collide with competition made up of chip to implant in the brain? "We don't think people will want to have their heads pierced and their brains penetrated in order to use augmented or virtual reality," said Mark Zuckerberg recently of Neuralink. Difficult to blame him. Whether they'll be happy to let Facebook sneak even deeper into our private lives remains to be seen.

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Apple Big data Facebook Augmented reality Virtual reality Social media Social Networks Surveillance globalData .fldTopic = "Apple, Big data, Facebook, Augmented reality, Virtual reality, Social media, Social Network, Surveillance"

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