Technology of the future…

I’ve been reading some of the coverage in the tech press about the Facebook acquisition of Oculus VR, including the always excellent insights from Michael Mace in his Mobile Opportunity blog. One thing that’s clear from the commentary and the acquisition itself is a shared belief that there’s a virtual reality “killer app” out there beyond gaming, the (so far) primary use case for the Oculus Rift headset and other similar VR gear. As Mace puts it:

Isn’t it interesting how companies impose their own mental paradigms on technologies? Google looks at glasses and sees a way to search and consume web services on the go. Facebook looks at goggles and sees a new means for social communication.

Investors, I imagine, see dollar signs, and hope that one of those big smart companies figures it all out. Meanwhile, as Mace notes, the fans of Oculus just want a great gaming experience, as the founder of Minecraft explains.

What if, though, there is no “killer app” for VR? I’m not convinced that there is another compelling use case for immersive virtual reality (as opposed to “augmented reality”, of which more below) beyond games and specialized engineering and simulation uses.

I write this based on some experience, having been very active in the last round of the VR “revolution” in the late 1990’s. True, the technology was far inferior to what we have now, and the resolution of the headsets was poor, but as we discovered at the time, there are many limitations to 3D immersive computing that are human, not technological.

VR demo, 1994

The last VR “revolution”, circa 1994

Mace disagrees, predicting a new age of “sensory computing” that includes 3D displays, 3D interfaces, 3D gestures, and 3D printing. This prediction is based on an assertion that humans are comfortable in a 3D environment:

In the real world, we remember things spatially. For example, I remember that I put my keys on my desk, next to the sunglasses. We can tap into that mental skill by creating 3D information spaces that we move through, with recognizable landmarks that help to orient us.

In fact, we humans are very much 2D creatures. Gravity keeps us constrained in the Z-axis, as it were, so we mostly move around in two dimensions (X and Y, to continue to metaphor), and so (I believe) relate better to two-dimensional concepts and interfaces. To Mace’s example, you put your keys on the desk (a 2D space) next to your glasses (and not above them). This “3D” model takes place on on a 2D plane.

In addition to the cognitive limitations, there are other limits to the immersive VR experience, at least today, starting with the odd experience of being able to look around you but not see your own body.

Of course, I may be completely wrong, and not able to see the true potential of immersive virtual reality. I am, though, much more excited about augmented reality (AR), where instead of removing yourself to a virtual world, you add information and interactivity to the real one. This is a case where better technology will make for a completely different experience. Current AR “browsers” like the Wikitude app are cool but cumbersome on a phone. A more seamless AR experience will require more seamless hardware. Google Glass (for better or worse) is one big step in that direction, supported by AR software like Wikitude, Metaio, and many others to come.

Mobile diary: Good luck Jolla!

The new smartphone from Jolla launches today in Finland. Jolla was founded by a bunch of ex-Nokians with a plan to execute on the MeeGo vision that Nokia abandoned in favor of Windows Phone. Their new device runs SailfishOS, the community-driven successor to MeeGo.

jolla_026_dOne thing I find particularly appealing about the Jolla proposition is their proud embrace of their Finnish roots and Finnish designs with the “Design from Finland” mark granted by the Suomalaisen Työn Liitto, the Association for Finnish Work. I always thought that Nokia could have made more noise about its Finnish (or generally Nordic) design when it was trying to compete with the other smartphone players.

Another extremely smart move was to add support for Android apps to the OS, and partner with the Russian Yandex app store to provide Jolla users with access to 85,000 apps from the Android ecosystem.

Good luck Jolla!

Mobile diary: US may soon be as advanced as Kenya

An article in GigaOM suggests that mobile payment systems may find their niche among the “underbanked” in the USA. Indeed, that seems to have been the case in Kenya, the poster child for mobile payment success. where M-PESA serves 14 million customers in 4 countries. Its success was due to a combination of factors, including a dominant, creative mobile operator and a cooperative regulatory environment.

It’s proven difficult to replicate the success of M-PESA in other countries (regulation seems to be a big factor), but who knows; perhaps we in the USA can duplicate the success of Kenya, Madagascar, and other similar advanced nations

Mobile diary: real mobile innovation

I love stories like this one, from the latest Technology Review.

An Anti-iPad for India

Suneet Singh Tuli, the man behind the ultracheap Aakash 2 tablet, says the West doesn’t understand mobile business in the developing world.

Key quote:

Nobody focuses on the problem of creating apps for somebody whose monthly income is $200. Those people are not part of the computer age or the Internet age; most of them are not literate. So we run app competitions in India to try to get people thinking from that perspective. The winner of our last competition was a group of students who designed a commerce app for “fruit walas,” the guys who run around with carts selling fruits and vegetables. These students created a graphically intuitive way of running a small vegetable business.

There are something like five million fruit walas in India, so if you had an app for them, there could be a lot of money to be made.

This is a refreshing alternative to so much of what we see in the tech world, so accurately described by George Packer in his recent New Yorker article about the life and times of Silicon Valley:

It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.

News from the other side of the mobile world

One more reminder of the size of the global market for non-smartphones: Wikipedia announced plans to offer SMS access to its articles, opening up that service to the 75% or so of handsets worldwide that have limited or no access to the web.


On that subject, I refuse to call non-smartphones “dumb” phones, just because they don’t have multitasking operating systems or big app stores. Businesses and consumers around the world are taking advantage of these “no-frills” devices to develop sophisticated financial services and innovative advertising models, in markets.

The financial service case is particularly interesting. As the Washington Post article mentioned above reports, one of the big news items at this year’s Mobile World Congress was the success of mobile payment and banking in developing countries with low smartphone penetration. The simplicity of the technology may even be an advantage, as service providers have focused on core services without being distracted by technical features like NFC. The French company Tagattitude rolled out a mobile payment solution that uses sound to communicate among devices. Their CEO noted (quote from the Post article):

All these phones have a microphone, and all those microphones are capable of capturing data from a financial transaction,” said Yves Eonnet, the voluble chief executive of Tagattitude, showing off the clunky Nokia and several other handsets. “At the end of the day, there is no business model that is sustainable for NFC,” or “near field communication,” an advanced technology used for payments.

Don’t get me wrong; I love my smartphone (Nokia Lumia 800) and find myself quite dependent on all of those fancy features. If you’re in the business of creating mobile solutions, however, it makes sense to not forget that 75%.

Mobile Moo

I love stories like this one from the New York Times, which starts: “When Christian Oesch was a boy on his family’s hog farm, cellphones were a thing of the future. Now, Mr. Oesch tends a herd of dairy cattle and carries a smartphone wherever he goes. Occasionally he gets an SMS from one of his cows.”

Yes, cows. Swiss engineers have developed a sensor for cows that detects when they go into heat, sending an appropriate SMS about the event to the cow’s owner. This makes it easier for farmers to plan when to (as the article describes) “bring on the bull or, in about 80 percent of the cases these days, the artificial inseminator.”

What I’ve always found exciting about mobile technology is its potential to change how we live and work. Much of the mobile-related news I read, however, seems to focus on mobile devices as just one more content, entertainment, and advertising platform, not much more than a portable TV (with GPS). Of course that’s important (and profitable), but mobile devices have the potential to be so much more than that. This is why I’m excited to read about innovations like this. Here’s a solution that that truly takes advantage of the unique features of mobile devices and mobile networks to solve existing problems in ways that were previously impossible.

I’d love to hear about other solutions that use mobile tech in creative and useful ways.

Photo by publicenergy from flickr