For many of us, 2016 will be remembered as the year of Pokémon GO, and the year that Augmented Reality (AR) got real–even if we only turned on the AR feature in the app for those special occasion screen shots. Pokémon GO wasn’t just another game based on nostalgia run rampant; it was the biggest mobile game in U.S. history, became the foundation of a “science”, the basis of a course at several international universities, and for those who couldn’t master the game themselves, an opportunity for a whole new set of experts, tutors and trainers. For the first time, AR became truly tangible for the person on the street. However, while Pokémon GO was a break-out hit for Niantic Labs and great for Nintendo, it was a case of an individual tech companies having a “great story,” rather than a whole sector coming of age.
The Forest Vs. The Trees
Elevation Partners cofounder and legendary Silicon Valley investor, Roger McNamee joined CNBC’s last 2016 broadcast of “Squawk Alley” and had a few sobering thoughts regarding the bigger picture surrounding some of the world’s biggest and most anticipated tech. “The real problem was that it was the first year after smartphones,” reflects McNamee. “We didn’t have that big monster product cycle driving everybody.” McNamee added that, as far as he could tell, 2017 will be another year of waiting for virtual reality, artificial intelligence and self-driving cars to really take hold.
“You can invest in the dream, you can invest in the sales pitch, but the fundamentals aren’t there yet,” McNamee said as part of his concluding remarks. “What we’ve learned in Silicon Valley is, these things always take longer to start than you think. Then, once they start, they happen much faster than you think. I don’t think any of those big things kick-in in 2017, but I’d love to be proven wrong.”
In terms of how fast big things could kick-in, if they did kick-in in 2017, the lesson of Pokémon GO–per Gary Vaynerchuk in his foreword to Robert Scoble and Shel Israel’s new book, The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality & Artificial Intelligence Will Change Everything–was that mixing nostalgic brands with new tech causes radically rapid adoption, and that the tech industry now has platforms that will get people to buy and use new technologies in less than a week.
While the fundamentals might be on the flimsy side, and the sun not yet high in the sky of a new era, Virtual Reality (VR) is no longer something that consumers only read about or see on TV, or the lucky few get to see at CES, or discover in new experiential-format retail stores like b8ta. People are reported to have bought VR headsets by the thousands during this holiday season, and by 2020, Forrester predicts that there will be 52 million units in circulation. Worldwide revenues for augmented and virtual reality are forecast to balloon to $162 billion in 2020, per the International Data Corporation (IDC). Still, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to get everything we want as quickly as we want it.
What We’re Really Waiting For
“There’s going to be a lot of waiting going on in 2017,” says Shel Israel, the co-author with Robert Scoble of The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality & Artificial Intelligence Will Change Everything. “The technology we’re writing about is the stuff that makes geeks hot and wet and excited. You hang out with the SnapMunkers, I hang out with the Upload VR people where Robert is entrepreneur in residence. All these brilliant, excited young people who can’t get enough of this stuff and I keep seeing new, brilliant devices coming out which have staying power. But they’re not with major brands yet. There’s not enough money behind them yet. The mainstream isn’t there.”
While there might be a lot of waiting in the early part of 2017, the new iPhone 8, set to launch in September might provide the sector the inspiration needed to take AR into the mainstream. “It is going to be a phenomenal device that will be all clear, so you can see through it. Round on all edges,” Israel describes to me. “The entire device will be a screen. The battery will be a little black strip at the base of it. There’ll be no buttons on it whatsoever. We believe it will be connected to an augmented reality headset of some sort that we’re hoping will be not much bigger than eyeglasses. Considering that when they came up with the iPhone 6, they sold 13 million in the first weekend, I think Apple will sell about 20 million in September this year.”
Headsets Not Handsets
“We think that over the next five years, most younger people in the marketplace will want to get things done in headsets not handsets,” Israel said, contemplating the near future of interactive technology. “We think there will be a very significant migration in the enterprise space which is adapting augmented reality far faster than consumers are, especially when the devices cost $3,000 each. It is all just starting. 2017, if I were going to give you a soundbite, would be the year of acceleration of a transformation.”
When it comes to AR and VR, 2017 is likely going to get off to a slow start. But watch for September and the launch of the iPhone 8, which according to Israel may be called the iPhone 10 because it’s the 10th anniversary of the original. As he passionately told me, “I think it’s going to be a launch that once and for all vindicates all those who doubt Tim Cook.” With a phone that cool, and with rapid adoption down to a matter of days, if anything is going to float all this sexy tech into the mainstream, that could be it. There are probably a few people out there, aside from himself, who hope McNamee is proven wrong.
Gail is a Chicago-based food scientist who writes for leading US and European food and technology publications. A devotee of all things shiny, electronic and buzzing, with a passion for building on-line communities and conservation, she is an entrepreneur and founder of a sustainability and social media startup who moonlights on weekends as DJ Moongirl on Moonalice Radio. Clients range from rock bands and media companies to high-tech startups.