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Smartphones may be too good

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I’m going to ask a deliberately provocative question: what if smartphones were so efficient and useful that they stunt innovation?

Technologists are now imagining what could be the next big thing. But there may never be anything other than the smartphone, the first and perhaps the last mainstream and transformative computer on a global scale.

I might end up looking like a 19th century futurist who couldn’t imagine that horses would be replaced by cars. But let me make the point that the smartphone phenomenon may never happen again.

First, when tech scientists imagine the future, they implicitly bet that smartphones will be displaced as the center of our digital life by less obvious things – not slabs that take us away from our world but technologies that are almost indistinguishable from the air we breathe.

Virtual reality glasses are now a bulky nuisance, but the gamble is that technology like virtual reality or computers that can ‘learn’ like people will eventually blur the line between online and real life, and between. the human and the computer, to the point of erasing it. This is the vision behind the “metaverse,” a broad vision that virtual human interactions will be as complex as reality.

Maybe you think more immersive, human-like tech sounds intriguing, or maybe they look like crazy woo-woo dreams. (Or maybe a little of both.) Either way, technologists need to prove to us that the future they imagine is more compelling and useful than the digital life we ​​already have thanks to the magical supercomputers in our lives. pockets.

The challenge with any new technology is that smartphones have become so successful that it’s hard to imagine any alternatives. In a sales boom that lasted for about a decade, devices went from being new to wealthy nerds to being the only computer billions of people around the world have ever owned. Smartphones have succeeded to the point where we don’t need to pay much attention to them. (Yes, that includes Apple’s gradually updated iPhone models.)

The attraction of these devices in our lives and in the imaginations of technologists is so powerful that any new technology must now exist almost in opposition to the smartphone.

When my New York Times colleague Mike Isaac tried on Facebook’s new model of glasses that can take photos by tapping the temple, a company executive told him, “Isn’t that better than having to pull out your phone and hold it in front of your face every time you want to capture a moment? “

I understand the point of the executive. It’s true that devices like the Apple Watch, Facebook glasses, and Snap glasses are smart at making smartphone functionality less intrusive. Companies like Facebook, Snap, and Apple are also working on glasses that, like the failed Google Glass, aim to combine digital information like maps with what we see around us.

The comment also shows that any new consumer tech will have to answer the inevitable questions: why should I buy another gadget to take photos, ride the bike routes, or play music when I can do most of that with the smartphone. which is already in my pocket? Do I live in the Metaverse when I have a similar experience on my phone’s rectangular screen?

Smartphones are unlikely to be the apotheosis of technology, and I’m curious to see the development of technologies that want to move away from it. But at least for now, and maybe forever, most of the technology for our daily lives is additions to our phones rather than replacements. These little computers are perhaps so practical that there will never be a post-smartphone revolution.


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