When reading about future, and specifically in this context, near-term future predictions, you often get a conservative impression. It seems people mostly see the future like a slightly enhanced version of the present. People tend to think that the big and significant societal transformation either has already taken place or will happen in a more distant future.

In my opinion things are quite a bit different. The world will be changing much faster than the majority of people imagine today. There is a high probability that technology will change the world and our immediate life conditions faster than ever before within the next ten years. There are some technologies on the agenda with the potential to render the world pretty much unrecognizable compared to today. 

When attempting to predict the near-term future there are three key factors to keep in mind

  1. The dominant and determining technology shaping our life in 10 years time will likely not be a totally new thing, but rather a faster, lighter, smaller, more convenient, more compact and cheaper version of the technologies that influence our lives already today.
  2. This technology or these technologies are about to advance exponentially and alongside that does the adoption rate of them.
  3. Network effects: they will boost relevant technologies and further support exponential growth. The value of a technology depends on the number of people using it; e.g. the first telephones did not make much impact since there where not enough counterparts for universally reaching friends and businesses. But with an increasing number of users possibilities and usage started to soar.

From my point of view, looking into what will impact our lives the most from a technological point of view in the next 10 years, there are two dominating ones: autonomous cars and virtual reality (VR). I will elaborate further on the latter. Autonomous cars will be covered in a dedicated blog post soon.

Why predicting the development of technologies is so difficult and proves wrong most of the time

There is a tendency that the future development path of certain technologies, products or services is very often totally underestimated. This has to do with a too narrow perception and imagination of what the evolution of a technology or product would look like and could be used for in future scenarios. Many of us remember e.g. poor predictions of general cell phone adoption and usage and probably everybody can recall the scepticism when it comes to internet/data usage on mobile devices. “Why would I use the internet on such a limited device when I have a PC at home that is much more convenient to use?” probably describes it best. We have all heard people say that in the past and maybe we have thought so ourselves. And now it’s everywhere and everyone loves it and cannot image to live without such technology and services.

But what went different in the actual equation? It’s about radical and rapid enhancements in the overall mix of technologies which deliver mobile services consumption: processors/chipsets, screens, sensors, input technologies, but also business models, etc. And those – today and in the near-term future – do not have much in common with the characteristics of those devices let’s say in the year 2000 (when telcos had just spent fortunes on mobile spectrum auctions). The back then state of the art form and function of respective devices would have made a prediction of the universal success that would come years later very difficult. Nevertheless, explosive growth has kicked in since. And that is all based on a mix of technologies that have rapidly advanced in conjunction with each other that was hard to predict back then. A linear extrapolation of the underlying metrics from the year 2000 and some years before would never have led to the levels we know about today. It’s a question of linear extrapolation vs. having the imagination of what exponential growth, availability, adoption can do.

Virtual reality is ready for center stage

Interesting enough, smart phones and the related technologies are bridging the way to the virtual reality topic. Technologies relevant for the rise of the smart phone like mobile chipsets, processors, screen and sensor technologies are helping virtual reality enter center stage. It’s most of all the advancements in performance and miniaturization. VR is strongly benefitting from that.

Another key aspect when judging virtual reality and its outlook in the near-term future is to take a closer look at what it is competing with. Some look at it from an angle where it is competing with an idealistic and perfect simulation of the real world. I think this is too far fetched right now. How about it is fighting for eyeballs right next to traditional media sources like TV, internet, radio, classic computer/video/console games, etc.? It makes a lot of sense to look at this for comparison.

With the Oculus Rift spearheading the current development, and some other players like Microsoft, Google, Samsung, even Nokia, etc. working on very promising technology, hardware andservices, virtual reality is no longer a speculative bubble but getting more and more substantial in the immediate future. Consumer versions of the Oculus Rift are to be released next year at a cost not higher than that of popular game consoles. For me, 2016 will be the year of virtual reality, or better: when it all starts to become very serious. Whoever has had the chance to take a closer look at the Rift will agree that the entertainment and fun factor of it is already many times better today then the aforementioned competitors for consumer eyeballs. A key differentiator of virtual reality vs. the others is that the emotional power and awe-inducing effect of it is something the public is not expecting (yet).

The fuel of the usage explosion that I foresee is an easy to outline principle. Consumption will substantially increase as user-experience and content become exponentially better with every iteration of the services and underlying hardware. As more people will adopt using VR services, more content and media will become available, which makes the ecosystem become more engaging, which will bring again more users and fuel another cycle after cycle of development and improvements. That is why very soon many people will spend the majority of their spare time immersed in virtual worlds. And those worlds can be made up of anything. There is virtually no limit. How about VR versions of popular movies and TV shows? VR versions of games? A new level of immersion with VR versions of music concerts and sports events? And last not least VR porn, which could – once again – play an important role in the development of the ecosystem like it did with home video in the 1980ies. Altogether, it becomes very obvious that VR is a culture shifting technology. It will reach into so many aspects of life and most of all it has huge potential to alter the way we interact socially. For Facebook this was very clear when they acquired Oculus: they see it as a communications and social interaction platform with the potential to lead Facebook into the future.

The VR-centric world

Virtual Reality is limitless in its possibilities, which lies in the very nature of the underlying principle: the liberation from physical boundaries. There are no limits for the imagination, since the human imagination is the driver of what is being created and everything that is being created is virtual, digital and independent from the classic rules of physics. Everything imaginable can be virtually created, crafted and brought into a virtual environment. There is a high likelihood that content creation for virtual worlds will be fuelled by collaborative efforts, much more than we are used to in traditional media and entertainment. We have seen first signs for this in other areas: MMORPGs, 2D virtual worlds or online video to name some. And in addition to that there will be no shortage of traditional content owners and producers taking their content into or adapting it for virtual reality use cases in the classic top-down production fashion. But for sure there will be a strong pillar founded in crowdsourced, user-generated efforts to reproduce real world places, situations, characters as well as imaginative ones.

A couple of thoughts on compelling mass market VR use cases and services

So what could be the use cases driving the development? This is a high-level and non-comprehensive list of use cases which I believe will likely attract lots of consumers to spend more time in VR and less in “real life”:

  • peer-to-peer sharing of VR experiences like watching a movie, TV show or sports event together with remote friends as if they were in the same room
  • first-person experiences of new fictional content like movies, TV shows, porn, with blurring boundaries between static pre-produced content and interactive elements
  • first-person experiences of live events “as if we were there” e.g. live sports, live music/concerts, etc.
  • (re-)enjoying environments that have been created out of actual footage (both professional content with classic 2D content transitioned into VR, like old movies, shows, sports events, concerts, etc. but also user-generated content of totally individual and private nature)
  • last not least, computer/video gaming experiences on VR “steroids” like fully immersive (online) gaming

But this only scratches on the surface. As the first really immersive content becomes available it will inspire content producers and users to come up with new use cases and interaction models and end up in a cycle of ever increasing and improving content.

From a consumer services centric point of view, who has obvious potential to win when transitioning into a VR experience?

  • content owners of classic entertainment formats like movies, TV shows, porn
  • professional sports leagues and pro sports rights owners
  • live event organizers and artists (music, theater, opera, etc.)
  • computer/video game providers
  • online social networks of any kind

I find it compelling how owners of existing content get a second chance to market enhanced versions of their content in VR. There is a load of content that consumers would appreciate to become available in a fully immersive VR version. There is the power and appeal of positive memories and sentimentality that is not to be underestimated. Imagine you can enjoy that 1980ies Live Aid concert over and over again almost as if you were there again. Or view the 1994 soccer world cup final penalty shootout as if you were sitting in the stadium. There is a massive potential for re-utilization of existing and already amortized content.

But the same applies to rights owners of live events. There are no more capacity limits for how many people can consume live music concerts or sports events whereas in the past there was a distinct cap on spectator numbers purely based on physical limitations.The potential for these players is massive. Compare prices for popular sports events or concerts available on per-per-view channels and imagine the potential for VR fully immersive consumption of these.

Which kind of players and businesses could strive from new use cases and consumer needs?

  • players which enable traditional content owners to transform classic 2D content into VR content (the “enablers”):
    • transform that 2D movie from 1980 or 3D movie from 2012 into a fully immersive VR experience
    • transform the Woodstock festival into a fully immersive VR experience
    • create a virtual environment based on user-generated footage (photos, 2D/3D video) and empower people to e.g. return to their childhood neighborhood, etc.
  • traditional health and wellness providers who have the chance to dramatically enrich existing health and workout experiences (i.e. make them more attractive, e.g. treadmills giving real-world Hawaii iron man triathlon experience, etc.)
  • new and specific health and wellness providers which settle their business on top of a growing base of people who spend a lot of time in virtual worlds and thus have negative physical impact by fatigued bodies (home-based workouts and well-being programs)
  • food and nutrition providers who benefit from people having less time for traditional nutrition and need more effective and/or artificial nutrition solutions (food replacements and alternatives, etc.); same goes for facilitation of food delivery and preparation
  • a new type of recreation and vacation providers (virtual recreation and travelling),
  • etc. (many, many more things we can’t even imagine today)

Generally, everyone who offers solutions that help bridge issues which arise out of people spending more time in immersive virtual worlds and less time in “real” life have huge business potential. This revolves around health & physical fitness, nutrition and classic food replacements, fight obesity and inactivity, pharmaceuticals to preserve muscle mass and bone density, etc. There is a whole new business space developing we can only imagine roughly right now.

And let’s not forget the business side of things. Marketplaces and business/enterprise applications have a huge potential for VR disruption. This will range from simple virtualisation of business meetings and interaction to medical use cases. It is not unlikely that a significant amount of business interactions and processes will be moving into virtual environments.

The outlook is that VR is opening up the door to turning our imagination and the unexplored domain of our minds into an accessible experience. Limitless and evolving worlds and experiences become available to a mainstream audience. You could think of it as a dedicated universe or better, myriads of new universes that will be completely created by us.

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