Nov 03 2016

Two Emerging Digital Technologies

virtual-realityI have long maintained that it is extremely difficult to predict how new technologies will be used, more difficult than predicting the technologies themselves. New technologies tend to be used differently than they are initially conceived. The human element is the hardest to predict – how will people interact with the technology?

It’s still fun to imagine how new technologies will be used, and that is part of the process of developing applications for those technologies.

There are two emerging digital technologies about which I am willing to make predictions, partly because we are already getting some early indications of consumer acceptance and use: virtual/augmented reality and unstructured data management.

Virtual and Augmented Reality

Virtual Reality refers to systems that provide full sensory input (at least full visual input) to create a virtual world in which the user can operate. Augmented reality overlays digital information onto the real world. These two related technologies complement each other.

Early applications tend to be the most obvious, in both cases video games. VR video games can have an immersive experience, and allow the user to look around their environment, giving them more control over their experience. The main limiting factor is motion sickness, but that problem is rapidly being minimized. That is still a variable that may limit adoption.

AR does not have the same motion sickness issue because users are still mostly viewing reality. The first big AR game is Pokémon Go, which is already waning a bit after an initial surge, which was entirely predictable. Many people wanted to try it out and then did not stick with it. It is still a wildly popular game. It also just barely scratches the surface of the potential for AR games.

Video games are often on the vanguard of new computer tech, with more practical applications to follow. This is where it becomes difficult to predict except in broad brushstrokes. An application related to gaming is entertainment. There is already a virtual reality theater in Paris, although they are also experimenting with something called Hyve-3D. This is a large curved screen that is immersive and therefore simulates VR, but still allows for the community experience of going to the theater. So far it seems to be more popular than VR for the movie-going experience.

The real applications, however, will come in education and industry (for AR also). Specific applications will depend on the availability of killer apps, and then ultimately on user experience, but there are many plausible applications.

AR can essentially function as a data interface, a way for users to access and interact with data. In that way it may be as transformational as the graphical user interface was to desktop computing. Imagine your work environment, or the world, overlaid with specific information. This could be a bit like the Terminator, whenever we saw through its eyes we could see that its internal database was feeding it information about whatever it was viewing.

Imagine if you could virtually tap on any object or person and information about that target of your tap would appear in your vision. What is that? Where can I buy it?  AR would be perfect for GPS directions. Virtual arrows overlaying the path could easily guide you to your destination.

A mechanic could have an AR schematic of whatever they were working on, showing them each piece, and even guiding them through certain procedures. A surgeon could have an AR scan of their patient’s anatomy as well.

What I don’t know is the limits to the penetration of AR to our everyday interactions with the world. That will require the millions of experiments of actual use to figure out. I could imagine, for example, that you could virtually decorate your house with that information broadcast on your Wifi for anyone wearing AR glasses to receive. Will there ultimately be two worlds, physical reality and augmented reality with the latter eventually becoming dominant? Will people bother putting up physical Halloween decorations when they can virtually turn their house into a haunted house?

Unstructured Data Management

The second technology sounds much more boring than VR and AR, but I think this is going to be even more transformational. Unstructured data is data that is not already itemized in a database or spreadsheet with formatted data in identified locations.

In other words, this is most of the digital data that exists in the world, especially most of the data owned and used by individuals. This includes all of your text documents, all of your photographs and videos, and most of the data on the internet.

We already have applications that help us navigated this massive and increasing amount of data, but they are clunky compared to what’s rapidly coming. Google, for example, is a UDM application, it helps you search the vast unstructured data of the world wide web.

We are on the verge, however, of applications that will allow the user to manage unstructured data with natural language commands. Right now when you search on Google you have to craft your search with the correct keywords in order to get the results you are looking for. Make no mistake, Google is an extremely powerful engine and works very well. But it is still up to the user to have some skill in using search terms, narrowing their search, and finding their way into the deep web when necessary.

Imagine if instead you could just ask, “find me any information related to Muse’s upcoming album.” “Are there any studies looking at the net economic effects of recycling plastics.” “What is the weirdest thing posted to the internet in the last 24 hours?”

Imagine if you could ask your computer to show you any of your photos that contain pictures of your cousin but not with his wife, from whom he is now divorced. Find any e-mails in the last year in which this specific thing is mentioned.

These kinds of tasks require some level of artificial intelligence (AI). This is a level of AI that we already have. These applications exist and are being refined. Siri is an early attempt at this kind of virtual assistant.

These applications will change the way we interact with our data. They will also make us willing to archive vast amounts of unstructured data, and we won’t waste our time trying to organize that data at all. I can just put all my photos into one folder and then sort through them as needed.

My prediction is that within 10 years we will have applications to help us manage unstructured data that we won’t know how we lived without, in the same way we can’t imagine now how we lived without our smart phones.


It is difficult to predict new technology, but it is a lot easier the closer you get to the full realization of that technology. There will still be some surprises in how the technology is used (and not used) and what specific applications people dream up.

I do think it is safe to say that 2017 is probably going to be for virtual and augmented reality and perhaps unstructured data management what 2007 was to the smart phone. We are about at the same level – so close to the verge of widespread applications that we can peer over the edge.

It will be fun to look back in 5 and 10 years to see how these current perceptions pan out.

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