No one really knows how the next ten years are going to play out

A few years ago I was interviewing Alvin Wang Graylin, the HTC Executive (or “Mister President” as I like to call him), and we were talking about the book Our Next Reality he’s written together with Louis Rosenberg. In the book they talk about XR and AI, and how they could impact our future, for the good and the bad. Alvin is a very smart man, he reads a lot, and he has worked for many years in one of the most important XR hardware manufacturers, so hearing his insights about how our future may play out was very interesting (by the way, the integral interview I had with him will be out in the upcoming days, register to my newsletter to get an alert when it will be out). He gave me some predictions about how our future will be surely disrupted by artificial intelligence and some of its possible outcomes, also warning me about the risks and some measures we could take to counteract them. But while I was in awe listening to his words, there was a sentence that started to resonate in my mind, something I heard in another interview with another wise man about another book.

It was 2019 and I had a very brief written interview with Charlie Fink about his new book Convergence. When I asked him what was the biggest lesson he learned while writing the book and collaborating with all the people who took part in it, he answered with

No one really knows how the next ten years are going to play out

Charlie Fink

This very simple sentence, which probably he said without even thinking much about it, has been obsessing with me for the last 5 years (and in fact, I mentioned it already in various other articles). Because it’s fucking true. You can speak with the brightest mind in the field, you can talk with people carrying on research in many important companies, and what you can obtain is only some smart insights about what it can be. You can get some projections, you can get some mental tools through which to analyze the future, and you can learn some good attitude with which to tackle whatever future evolution may happen. But at the end of the day, no one knows what the hell is going to happen.

I started working in VR in 2014, and if you asked me what the XR landscape could have been in 2024, I would have totally missed the predictions. Remember that in those old days, every year was either “the year of VR” or “the year VR died”, and I, as a believer, was more of the first kind, so in 2024, I was already expecting lightweight AR glasses worn by people in the streets. The reality turned out to be pretty different, with Meta forecasting its first AR glasses in 2027, and they will be for sure a product for enthusiasts, so mainstream adoption will still need various years to happen. But it’s not only about VR predictions… even if you asked me how I would have seen myself in 2024, I would have not guessed many things, if not that I am still working in the XR field because I have a big passion for it. And if I can not predict my life, where I have a lot of knowledge and total control, imagine how difficult it is for me to imagine how things will be in a whole technological field where I am just a little drop in the sea.

This reasoning works for everyone. Michael Abrash was used to making amazing predictions we all loved listening to, but a good part of them turned out to be wrong, so in the end, he stopped making them. In the end, he said that the only way to predict the future is by building it, which basically means creating a product roadmap instead of making guesses. All the elusive XR analysts have almost guessed nothing, and they were not even able to predict the launch of the Apple Vision Pro until the date got pretty close. I noticed that what analysts do is basically take some technological trends, apply some simple curve (usually linear or exponential do the trick), and predict the future this way. But the reality is very different because innovation is much more chaotic than that.

oc6 abrash predictions
Abrash was right in this prediction: everything is taking always longer than we hope for

First of all, I’ve never seen a new technology have an initial linear or exponential path. The curve starts to fit a bit later, but in the beginning, is messier, and the Gartner hype cycle shows it well: usually, there is hype, then a slowdown, then growth again. I would say that in the beginning there are more hype cycles combined: in VR we saw the hype for Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, for the Meta Quest release, and now for the Apple Vision Pro launch. In the middle, we had various winters where the technology and the market slowed down. Basically, these years have been an emotional rollercoaster.

Then, there are the disruptive events that arrive unpredicted and scramble all the cards on the table, having enormous ripple effects. These are almost impossible to predict unless you are among the ones building them (and even in that case, it can sometimes be difficult to have an exact forecast of the dates). We had a lot of futurists in the past imagining how the world would have turned out to be today and they made amazing predictions that are more or less coherent with what happened: in the XR field, we are all praising Neal Stephenson for his vision of the “metaverse”, for instance. But almost everyone totally missed the importance of the Internet. We can’t almost live now without a connected smartphone, which is something that is now an integral part of our society. But no one could envision it: it was hard to imagine TikTok influencers eating Tide Pods in 1960. If we talk specifically about our field and the last 10 years I’ve been in, no one was thinking about the earthquake that AI could have been. Yes, we knew about Google’s Deepmind, yes we all got the news about the OpenAI foundation, but when ChatGPT came out, the tech world was shaken by surprise. And our field, too. Now there is not an event about XR where people do not mention AI, which is seen as the tool through which people will create experiences in the metaverse. It’s the same with Apple ARKit, which took everyone by surprise and led to the democratization of AR on smartphones.

There are also sometimes events that have unexpected consequences. When Apple released its privacy features for iOS, preventing apps from tracking your behavior, I was happy that users had more privacy. But since our tech economy is sadly based a lot on advertisement and data collection (see Google and Meta, for instance), this led to a crisis in the tech companies of the Valley, including many layoffs. Recently there has been the drama about Unity changing its licensing, and I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons for this happening is that the revenues from Unity Ads decreased a lot because of the iOS privacy features, so the company had to increase the ones from other sources (i.e. licensing). This means that a decision related to smartphones had ripple effects on our XR ecosystem, leading to layoffs, closed projects, people switching game engines, and so on.

Talking about ripple effects, we also are not very good at imagining what disruptive technology may turn out to do in the long term. Think about artificial intelligence: one of the possible future scenarios is that all our work will be made by AI, going to break one fundamental assumption of societies, that is that you have to work to have food. I can not even think about what a world without work may mean, may it be in 10, 50, or 200 years. No one can predict how such a society will turn out to be, and especially how painful the transition could be.

New technology may in fact break many assumptions: I was discussing a few days ago with a colleague of mine about a short movie about XR I reviewed many years ago and that had a moment that fascinated me. In this movie, all the people wore AR contact lenses, so you could choose every day how people could see you without having to change your real body. For instance, the main character wakes up and decides that that day she has red hair, and everyone sees her with red hair. In the new language of MR and AI maybe the relationship between how we are and how people perceive us can be broken. So also our sense of identity may change, which is another thing that will have unexpected consequences, first of all psychological, for us all.

There are also external factors that contribute to this mess. One is for instance the social factor, which is totally unpredictable. No one knows what will be the reception of people of the idea of wearing AR glasses all day. When Google Glass came out, I was super excited (it even led to the creation of my first startup), but then people in the Valley were called glassholes for wearing them, and probably this helped the death of the product (for which analysts had already made fancy exponential curves). When Snap released the first Spectacles a few years ago, I imagined something similar to happen, but actually, no one complained. Now we have Ray-Ban and Meta releasing glasses with embedded recording functionalities and no one cares (maybe because these products do not end in “ass”, so it’s more difficult to create an insult out of them). Society has changed, and so now wearing technology on the face and recording videos of others is considered more acceptable. But when will it be living with glasses on all the day?

google glass forecasts 2013
The caption was “The source predicts that Google’s product will sell well and that by 2018 will sell more than 21 million units” Please don’t laugh too loud (Image by Statista)

Geopolitics and economics have also great influence. The conflict in Ukraine has created new economic problems in Europe, and inflation has skyrocketed at a certain point. This has led to more problems in finding funds for startups, for instance, and XR startups died because of that. And the mix of the bad economic problems and the Apple policies have made companies more conservative in their spending, killing many XR projects, and laying off many people. The pandemic instead had the opposite effect on the tech world, accelerating the development of many digital technologies, and giving thrust to many XR companies. My work in virtual concerts and events increased because of the Covid. And all of these events, like the wars, were almost impossible to predict, at least for us average people. And have scrambled many predictions about the “next 5 to 10 years”.

I could go on for a long, but I guess you got the concept. Innovation and tech adoption can not easily fit into a simple mathematical curve because they are often affected by unexpected disruptive moments. And even for the things we can predict to happen, we often are not good at understanding what can be the long-term consequences: we did not imagine that smartphones would have led us all to be connected to other people via social media. This is what invalidates many medium and long-term predictions. And this is why no one knows what is going to happen in 10 years.

Then is it totally useless to think about the future? Absolutely not, I still think it’s a good exercise to make and that’s why I myself wrote some predictions for XR in 2024. First of all, some predictions, the most linear ones, turn out to be correct. In a previous interview always with Alvin Graylin, he predicted standalone headsets to be the key for XR to enter the mainstream, and tethered headsets to become premium devices. This is exactly where we are today, so the prediction was correct. Then analyzing the current trends to predict the future forces us to stop a moment and analyze the current situation in all the details, which gives us more awareness of the present. And reading different predictions of different people gives us different points of view about the present and the future, which may enrich us. It also helps us in forecasting the possible harms of a new technology (e.g. privacy and manipulation risks for XR) and think about the strategies to prevent them. Plus it’s fun: I love to play the speculation game. So it’s good to make predictions, it still prepares us for the future, or at least a part of it.

But I reiterate my suggestion to live by embracing the chaos that is our field. On one side, you should be aware of the current situation and the current trends (we are at the start of a new cycle of XR), on the other, you should be ready that the situation may change a lot from the expected one. Be rational, understand the power of new technologies, stay informed and do not fall for the hype (and especially: don’t buy JPEG of Monkeys for more than $1). Surf on the new technology trends, adapt yourself, and don’t go blindly forward following always the same path. Always ask yourself how you can adapt to the new technology landscape. Ask yourself what is the language of that new technology and try to embrace it.

This is another thing that Alvin said during the interview: when a new technology starts, the language is always of the technology that was before. The TV shows in the beginning were not much different than radio or theater, while now TV programs are a genre on their own. The same is for mixed reality: most of the “1000 native apps” for the Vision Pro are just fucking 2D screens that you put in your room. The question you should ask yourself is: what does this new technology enable and how to unlock it? This is what Zuck understood when he created Facebook: for the good and the bad, he understood that the internet could have been about connecting people in a way that was impossible before.

mojo vision contact lenses eye test
AR Contact lenses worn in the eyes in 2022 was not in my list of predictions at all (Image by Mojo Vision)

And also try to think a bit out of the box. We are talking about AR glasses and even AR contact lenses… but are these the right form factors? I mean, we are again applying a previous technology point of view: usually, we have corrected our vision with these two tools… but are we sure there is not another form factor, that is more suitable with XR? Maybe someone should think about it.

In all of this, of course, try to stick with your values. From great powers come great responsibilities, so use new technologies for the good and not for the bad, even if more profitable.

Our future is hard to predict, both on a personal and global level. I’m a believer that one day XR will be widespread, but I have no idea when, with what form factor, and with what functionalities. What I’ll keep doing is operating in the field and trying to adapt to the new trends that are happening, trying to surf them. It will be a long but fun ride, and the fact that we don’t know what is going to happen makes it even more fascinating.

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