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The hyper vision of almost every disruptive technology

This year’s Vegas Consumer Electronics Show dished up Aibo, a robot dog; Luka, a robot owl who babysits; Aeolus, a roaming nanny who mops floors and puts away dishes; and Forpheus, a 10-foot-tall giant spider that hovers over a ping-pong table, built to be the perfect ping-pong companion

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 February, 2018, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 February, 2018, 9:31pm

Among a certain strand of tech enthusiasts, there exists a peculiar form of amnesia. It’s a sort of collective memory loss inescapable because of the many technology conferences happening each year: The Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC); Game Developers Conference (GDC); The Next Web (TNW); South by Southwest (SXSW); TechCrunch Disrupt; and, the biggest, flashiest, and oldest – Las Vegas’ The Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

The CES in 1977 in Chicago was where the world’s first personal computer – the Commodore PET – made its debut. The same year, Steve Jobs incorporated Apple Computer in Cupertino, California.

Four decades on, CES remains the biggest and the flashiest tech conference, with some 3,900 exhibiting companies covering 2.6 million square feet touting their wares to around 170,000 gawking visitors last January.

“What will the gadget fest look like in ‘the Year of A.I.’?” asked The New York Times drily.

With AI (artificial intelligence) in full rage, the ubiquitous presence of robots at CES shouldn’t surprise anyone. There was Aibo, a robot dog; Luka, a robot owl who babysits; Aeolus, a roaming nanny who mops floors and puts away dishes; Sophia, a full-blown humanoid who recently acquired citizenship in Saudi Arabia; and my favourite: Forpheus, a 10-foot-tall giant spider that hovers over a ping-pong table, built to be the perfect ping-pong companion.

But as my curiosity piqued, my mind waded through the previous year’s darlings. They’re still around, only with much-diminished glamour, the excitement around them dimmed and, oddly, normal.

I’m thinking about virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), which were in full rage in 2017. It was in 2017 that Microsoft launched the Windows reality headsets with Acer, HP, Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, and Asus, boasting more than 20,000 apps available in the Microsoft Store.

2017 was also when the US$6.5 billion Magic Leap – the world’s most secretive start-up base in Plantation, Florida – unveiled its first reality goggles, called Lightwear.

The ‘Tummy Television’ was tiny: It perched on one’s belly, the antithesis of RCA’s centrepiece, which graced middle-class living rooms

Investment bank Goldman Sachs estimated that AR and VR would grow into a US$95 billion market by 2025. McKinsey Consulting declared that we are “at the cusp of a major revolution from mobile to immersive computing.”

We are, of course, at the cusp of any revolution – robotics, VR, transport, energy – until we are not.

Coasting on the edge of VR and AR was Nintendo, who has sold, in a mere nine months, 10 million Switch console, which promise nothing more than a single tiny screen with Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda.

The tens of millions of those tiny consoles bought amount to 10 times that which Sony, HTC, and Oculus combined sold of their VR headsets during the third quarter of 2017.

Why would consumers prefer a tiny screen over an immersive gaming experience? Or for that matter, how do we know all the CES robots we saw in January won’t be just another round of hype?

The theory of disruptive innovation, introduced by Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen in 1995, has proved itself a powerful way of thinking about industry dynamics and changing technologies.

The core principles of the theory are that successful disruptive technologies target unserved or underserved segments, initially perform relatively less well against existing customer needs, and underprice the existing offerings. A classic example is the transistor television.

When RCA invented transistors in the 1950s, the company was already the market leader in colour televisions produced with vacuum tubes.

RCA saw little use for transistors and decided to license the technology to a little-known firm called Sony.

The Japanese firm could not build a TV out of these transistors, but it did manage to produce the first transistor radio. The sound quality was awful, but the pocket radio was just affordable enough for teenagers, who were overjoyed to listen to rock music. Sales took off.

Sony then launched a portable, black and white TVs at rock-bottom prices, targeting low-income individuals.

The “Tummy Television” was tiny: It perched on one’s belly, the antithesis of RCA’s centrepiece, which graced middle-class living rooms. The real trouble began only when Sony improved the transistors’ performance to the point of producing colour TVs that competed with RCA’s vacuum tubes.

Overnight, RCA found itself trying to catch up to a technology that it had ignored for the past three decades but that it had, ironically, pioneered and licensed out.

Christensen called this type of technology – inferior at first but immensely useful later – disruptive, a term that has since been immortalised in the business lexicon of executives, consultants, and academics.

But disruption takes time. It took Sony three decades. And transistor technology wasn’t pitted directly against the vacuum tube technology: The two technologies served two independent markets until the transistors had finally matured.

When I tried on a pair of HoloLens goggles at the Microsoft flagship store in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue, I noticed the demonstration was surrounded by the Xbox and other non-VR gaming devices.

VR is, in fact, positioned to compete with, not against, existing technologies for the same disposable income from the same set of consumers. And while the immersive computing experience might feel novel, the image resolution inside a VR headset, to my surprise, was not as high.

The headset is hooked up to a gaming PC, and the entire area needs to be clear so that your swinging controllers don’t hurt anyone.

In other words, this is a gaming platform that is expensive, of low resolution, has zero portability, and occasionally gives you vertigo in exchange for the vague perception of a 360-degree screen.

Maybe we aren’t “at the cusp of a major revolution from mobile to immersive computing” after all?

The concept of disruption is as apocalyptic as it is line-grabbing. It’s tempting to call any new technology “disruptive.”

But whether a technology is disruptive or not depends in large part on how the application is deployed, and many groundbreaking technologies are, in fact, incremental. This understanding may take a lot of excitement away from the world, but a clear vision is clearly better than a hyper vision.

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