I'm not going to bury the lead here. Yes, this is me riding a hoverboard* while wearing a virtual reality headset.** The future has arrived.
Last week Rob and I attended the American Water Works Association's Fall conference in Las Vegas. We were invited by our friends at the Metropolitan Water District to be a part of their "Innovation Pavilion," showcasing how cutting edge technologies can be put to use by large water utilities. (As an aside, I have a tremendous amount of respect for John, Peggy, and Wigs from MWD–they are championing innovation from inside a large government agency. That's not easy, nor is it common. My hat is off to them). We brought an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset with us, and spent most of the day giving conference attendees their very first taste of VR. It is so much fun watching people's faces light up when they strap the headset on for the first time, and we got to share with them our vision for virtual training and education.
Exhibiting at the Innovation Pavilion got me thinking about the future of technology. How can we predict what's coming next?
Three of the coolest technologies on display last week were flying drones, hoverboards, and virtual reality. What do they have in common? For one thing, each of them depends on tiny, accurate gyroscopes to function properly. The reason the drones don't crash, the hoverboards don't tip over, and the VR headset knows which way you're looking is that each of these has a minuscule computer chip onboard that can tell which way is up. Gyroscopes have been around for hundreds of years, but today, thanks to advances in micro-fabrication, they are small (1/2 cm square), cheap (<$5), and abundant.
The reason that micro-gyroscopes are small, cheap, and abundant? The smartphone. You know how when you turn your phone sideways the screen will rotate as well? Apple put a gyroscope into the iPhone 4 in 2010. Since then, nearly all of the bazillions of smartphones sold around the world have come with a similar chip, driving gyroscope prices lower and quality higher every year.
I find it interesting how the future comes at us in a sort of sideways crabwalk. Who could have predicted that a novelty feature in mobile phones would have such a tremendous impact on the technology ecosystem? I guess if there's any takeaway lesson from all this, it's that technology doesn't change the world when it becomes possible–it changes the world when it becomes cheap. Things that are cost-prohibitive today (like sequencing your own DNA) will first become cheap and then become ubiquitous.
But the bigger lesson for me is to just keep my eyes and ears open–innovation can come from the least likely places and the path it will follow is far from predestined. Big tech companies are hedging their bets by buying virtual reality companies, securing a seat at the table for the next generation of computing. But the future of VR is not set in stone. The environment is changing quickly, new opportunities are arising. It's a fun time to be in the game.
* There's been a fair amount of handwringing in the nerd community over the misleading "hoverboard" appellation (see here and here). To be clear, the "hoverboard" does not actually hover; it is more accurately called a "Two Wheeled Self-Balancing Scooter." But that's no fun.
** The VR display was not connected to the hoverboard in any way. I was, in effect, hoverboarding blind. Not recommended, but totally worth it for this picture.