In the beginning, there were mainframe computers and punch cards. Since then, we've seen three transformations. The latest, augmented reality plus artificial intelligence, will change more than the previous three combined.
At least, that's what tech evangelist Robert Scoble and author Shel Israel say in their new book: The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality & Artificial Intelligence Will Change Everything.
The first three transformations
First was text and MS-DOS. That may not seem revolutionary today, but in a pre-1970s era of punchcards, it was.
Then the graphical user interface opened up computing to a wider group of people in the 1980s by providing greater usability.
Then, in the early 2000s, Scoble and Israel argue, we began the transition to touch on small devices.
Each transformation opened up new opportunities, new capabilities, and created new companies and sources of wealth. Each transformation also killed technologies, deprecated old ways of doing things, and destroyed companies.
The next transformation will do exactly the same thing.
The fourth transformation: from handsets to headsets
The fourth transformation, Scoble and Israel say, will "will move technology from what we carry to what we wear." The user interface will change from a "screen you tap to computer-generated images that you actually touch and feel."
This is, of course, virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality.
Some of the technologies driving these change are currently complex and expensive, costing the better part of a thousand dollars and requiring expensive hardware to run and control them. The Oculus Rift, Playstation VR, and HTC Vive are examples of head-mounted display virtual reality products that are expensive, wired, and dependent on external processing from PCs or gaming machines.
There are also cheaper technologies using ubiquitous smartphones as their screens and sensors, such as Samsung's Gear and Google's DayDream.
All of them, however, require bulky head-mounted hardware that impedes your view of the non-virtual world.
The future is something we see hints of with Snapchat's Spectacles.
Instead of bulk and separation, Israel and Scoble say, we'll have miniaturized technologies that will fit in ordinary-looking eyeglasses that will embed all the power of a Rift or a Microsoft Hololens, but none of the heft. And that will make all the difference.
"Mixed-reality glasses will control self-driving cars, drones, robots, and the Internet of things (IoT), but they will do a lot more than just that: they will blur the lines between that which is real and that which is a computer-generated illusion," say Scoble and Israel. "Now, instead of sitting and passively watching stu on screens, we will become immersed and surrounded, wandering freely in and around it."
By the year 2025, there will be billions of people with products like this, the authors say. Not shockingly, that will change many things.
What the fourth transformation will change
Shopping will change, Scoble and Israel say. We'll see metadata about products, selfie avatars showing us in that new shirt or shoes, instant mixed-reality constructions teasing us with a view of that new sofa in our living room.
The enterprise will change too, as businesses shift from screens and keyboards to virtual screens. Mixed reality already helps engineers build planes faster and better for Boeing, helps workers process orders faster in warehouses, helps developers code for virtual reality startups in Seattle, and helps NBA teams show players they're recruiting what life will be like in their new city.
Social interaction will change as well, as Facebook becomes less of something that we check on a screen than something we live in a virtual space. Medical applications are obvious, as surgeons have more visual real-time data on what they're doing and where to cut. And there are mental health applications already in use.
Ultimately, the coming transformation will change virtually everything, just as previous transformations to the graphical user interface and then to mobile devices has affected most of modern life.
The role of artificial intelligence
Smart glasses might be the eye of the fourth wave. The internet of things is its nervous system, the authors argue. But its soul is artificial intelligence.
"AI allows hardware and software platforms to perform tasks as if they were human," Scoble and Israel say. "These include visual-perception-enabled photo recognition of your favorite pet, natural language recognition such as we use when talking with Siri, and autonomous decision-making such as could be used in killer drones."
Smart glasses are great for mixing real and virtual reality, but AI will tell it what you want, where you want it, and maybe even when you've had enough.
Ultimately, as well, AI will increase the pace of change.
And that too will require adaptation from people and from business:
"In fact, everything, everything will be different and overwhelmingly so," the authors say. "Despite the potential for significant downsides, things will be better."
I sincerely hope so.
And I actually agree, as I think does my 81-year-old mother, who shrieked in fear and delight on seeing a virtual shark experience in Playstation VR.