On a television breakfast show two days ago I watched with fascination a segment on recommended Christmas presents, which included a small “selfie” drone, a programmable robot, and VR headsets – all priced for the consumer market.
More fascination today when another TV segment showed how virtual reality is being used to help children and adult patients in hospital and even their visitors in waiting rooms.
I imagine these items caught my attention because I had just finished reading a review copy of the latest book by tech visionaries and reporters of the new and not-quite-yet in the tech world, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel,
The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence Change Everything, is at once exhilarating and scary.
Exhilarating in that it tells a story of a world changed extraordinarily, with the promise of amazing advances in Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality (MR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), in the very near future – think a 10 year span at most – bringing radical changes in the way we do business, in how we manage our health or have it managed, in education, in leisure activities.
Scary because there is dark potential in this otherwise bright story of innovation and technological progress.
But who said progress had to be linear and always for the good?
The great futurist Alvin Toffler, he of Future Shock fame and a great influencer for me in my younger days, said “The future arrives too soon, and in the wrong order”, and “Our technological powers increase, but the side effects and potential hazards also escalate”.
The wisdom of both observations is borne out in this book.
Art that Conceals Art
The more I think about the subject matter of this book, and the book itself, the more impressed I am with the virtuoso performance of Scoble and Israel in pulling it off. Like the highwire circus performer who makes it all look so easy.
With the amount and detail of information included, this book in less skilled hands could easily have finished up as an unwieldy and not widely read catalog of amazing new technologies.
Fortunately from my point of view, and for others like me who may not have a technical background but are keen to keep up as best we can with technology developments and how they affect business, the authors are seasoned observers of and reporters about technology advances and great story tellers, with a gift for explaining and illustrating advanced technologies in an accessible way.
The authors have travelled widely, observed much, and spoken to many, delving deeply into the world of emerging technologies of Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality and Artificial Intelligence.
They define and explain lucidly what is actually happening, what is probably happening and what is likely to happen. And – refreshingly – when they don’t know, they say so.
The story they have to tell is thoroughly absorbing, starting with Mark Zuckerberg’s VR-lauding presentation earlier this year and moving on to provide a framework and something of a road map to help the business decision makers of today comprehend something of the complexity, scale and speed of the changes taking place and thus be better equipped to meet the key challenge “to stay ahead of customers in technology changes – but not too far ahead”.
Velocity of Change
There is a definite undercurrent of urgency in this book, an implicit and sometimes explicit message to any and every decision-maker in business, in government, in various sectors, that we need to catch up with what is happening and what is about to happen, and take appropriate action.
In their earlier (2014) book, Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data & The Future of Privacy, Scoble and Israel wrote, under the heading Introduction: Storm’s Coming:
All indications are that the changes ushered in by the Age of Context will be more significant and fundamental that what has occurred in the previous era, and they are likely to occur faster.
Then more recently In Lethal Generosity: Contextual Technology and the Competitive Edge, published only just over a year ago, Israel wrote:
Lethal Generosity explains why the interplay of technology and social changes is causing companies to lose control of their brands just as their customers gain control of them. It argues that this power shift will be good for the businesses that adapt to it faster than their competitors.
From this new book I am left in no doubt that the storm signalled in those earlier books is now upon us, the power shift has moved into a higher gear and the change process has increased dramatically in velocity.
So the need for strategic alertness and adaptation by every decision-maker is more pressing than it was even two years or a year ago.
If by any chance you are concerned that this book might have too much technical jargon to be an enjoyable and informative read, don’t be. The authors have made a conscious and highly effective effort to keep jargon to a minimum, and where necessary to explain it.
There is also a concise, helpful glossary at the end. You can read there the definitions-with-explanations of key terms, including especially Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality (MR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). With the help of that Glossary, how I now understand those key terms is:.
- Virtual Reality. Enclosed – you know the real world is “outside”.
- Augmented Reality. Mixture. You can probably tell what’s real (in the traditional sense) and what’s computer-generated sensory experience.
- Mixed Reality. Merging of real and virtual worlds, where “users cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is virtual”.
- Artificial Intelligence. The simulation of intelligence by digital machines or software.
There is not a separate section or chapter on Artificial Intelligence, but it underpins the whole story. It is “the secret sauce – the great enabler of the Fourth Transformation.”
The Introduction elucidates the “Fourth Transformation” theme of the book, with an evolutionary framework and opening with a biblically resonant “In the beginning, there were mainframes”.
The book’s short history of technological evolution since that time took me back to a time in the last century (1980s), when I was running a venture with twenty or so staff and a special, large, security-lockable room with its own air conditioning, all just to house the mainframe computer, and all at very significant capital, maintenance and staff costs.
Only a few years later I was running my own business from what was then called a micro computer, i.e. a desktop.
So back then I was beginning to benefit fairly simultaneously from the first transformation (1970s), when people started talking directly to computers via text, and from the second transformation (1980s) with the introduction of the Graphic User Interface (GUI) and soon the World Wide Web.
Later, with the iPhone and then the Android phone, there was the third, mobile transformation. As the authors say, “touch became the primary interface, and it transformed personal computing from everyone to everywhere.”
And there I was last week, doing a live video global broadcast from my Android phone, via Facebook. I’ve stalled too long on taking that plunge, but now that I have I am excited by the business possibilities, both for my clients and for my own business.
In the meantime, the technological evolutionary process is moving on.
We are now at the dawn of the fourth transformation, which “will move technology from what we carry to what we wear”.
And here’s an observation in the book that really got my attention:
Instead of inputting with our fingers, we will type much faster with our eyes on virtual keyboards.
“In previous transformations,” the authors say “it was all about the interface between technology and people; now it becomes all about the experience – and that changes everything.”
They expect this transformation to take a decade to unfold. But the story they tell is enough to convince me that it would be foolish for business decision-makers to hear that and switch off, in a “wake me when it’s happened” attitude. Because it is already happening.
The story is developed and maintained organically through the book’s three main sections: Game Changers, Business Changers, and World Changers.
The first section, Game Changers, covers changes in technology and people, with an interesting essay (actually a whole chapter) on the significance for this transformation of the next generation after the Millennials (about whom Israel wrote in Lethal Generosity), whom the authors have tagged the “Minecrafter Generation” or “Minecrafters”,
The second section, Business Changers, looks at changes already happening in four areas of business – retail, the enterprise, health and learning. It includes some fascinating examples of the impact of artificial intelligence in these sectors – fascinating both for positive reasons and some troubling ones.
The third section, World Changers, addresses the big picture, including a chapter (the longest in the book they say) on What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Answer, a lot!
Not that anyone can realistically expect what is happening to stop.
The Main Event – Mixed Reality
For me, and not just because of the title, “The Main Event”, this chapter is at the core of the book’s story. It is a tour de force of data gathering, story telling, prognostication and insight-sharing. It is almost overwhelming but thankfully not quite.
Millions of people have already adopted VR and AR technologies and are spending more and more time in them – and they are merely the opening acts.
As a glimpse of the emerging future, the book recounts Robert Scoble’s experience of visiting the design studio in Seattle of Loook.io who create mixed reality properties for headset makers, with HoloLens being their biggest client, Scoble reports:
You walk into their office, and there is no office. The only things that are real are the people who work there and a Bluetooth keyboard, with which they click here and there and weird and cool things happen.
If the story this book tells was only about “weird and cool things” happening – just to be clear, it’s not – then I could see it being of little or no interest to many business decision-makers. But there is serious investment going on here, with huge potential impact over a range of industries and that should be of interest.
For example, the Florida-based startup Magic Leap “has raised a record $1.3 billion from a group headed by Google and Alibaba”, even though at the time of the book’s writing Magic Leap had “no finished product, no customers and no announced ship date”, although it does have fans who have experienced the product, under non-disclosure.
Then there is Apple, with its huge cash reserves and an interesting pattern of acquisition of companies producing a range of hardware and software that “could be used to build a next-generation MR device…”
There is so much interesting information in this book, with so many examples and insights, that making a selection of a few highlights has proved a challenge for me. Three sections I found particularly interesting from a quite subjective, business point of view, are about the Minecraft generation, eye interaction software, and spatial computing,
The Minecraft Generation
In Lethal Generosity, Israel wrote about the Millennial generation and their ease with technology, compared to previous generations. In The Fourth Transformation, the generational spotlight is on the post-Millennials. “The Minecraft Generation” or “Minecrafters” as they are dubbed here, in preference to terms being used elsewhere, such as “post-Millennials” or “Gen Z”. I’m not sure this new dubbing will last, but it does help to focus attention on the relatively new level of aptitude and skill this generation appears to have with the new/emerging technological offerings. And why that should be important for decision-makers.
…Millennials are adept at talking to each other through technology, while Minecrafters are adept at speaking with the technology itself.
Eye Interaction Software
The chapter titled The Missing Link, is about eye interaction software and a company which specializes in this.
The company is Eyefluence, and it is the missing link that will let headset users walk upright in ways that will change work and life as much as the iPhone,Mac and DOS did.
A bold claim, but evidently Google are impressed because they have now acquired the company for an undisclosed sum.
There is a fascinating, extended description of Israel’s experience in using the technology, starting from tending to be skeptical about new technologies in relation to business strategies to being an enthusiast for this technology and its potential usefulness.
Paradigm-shifting moments are mentioned more often than they actually occur. But for Israel, this was one.
I’ll be watching this one – no pun intended!
Having had an intensely illuminating and thought-provoking “crash course” about the spatial information industry, back around the turn of the century while working on a consulting project for a key industry organization, I found the sections of this book on spatial computing particularly engaging.
The new era, spatial computing, will take ten years to arrive and will last for perhaps 50 more. Spatial computing is the concept that computers can learn the contextual implications of locations and the relationships of objects to each other through point clouds.
For business decision-makers there is a fund of information and examples in the Business Changers section, with chapters on retail, large industrial enterprises, health, and education, focusing on ways business can achieve “greater accuracy, productivity, efficiency and safety”.
Are there any areas of business where decision-makers can afford to be complacent about these changes, at least for the foreseeable future? As a sometime taxi driver, thinking about the very substantial business built by the man I used to drive for, and then thinking about Uber, my inclination is to believe that no business should consider itself exempt from disruption, including from something like MR, which some would no doubt think at best peripheral to their concerns.
As the authors say:
We have little doubt that whatever type of organization you belong to, your customers and competitors are growing increasingly interested in this new technology. The life of your business may depend upon it soon.
That said, I suspect that for one area in which I work as a coach and consultant, professional services, I should not be surprised to find a high degree of skepticism or even indifference. I might see if I can get such people to read Gary Vaynerchuk’s introduction to this book, his opening remarks about people saying “never”, who might now say “I’ll never use augmented reality glasses”, and his killer sentence “I’ve built my business and reputation on never listening to the “nevers”.
As I mull over the question a bit more, my supposition is that any professional service company I can think of will need to keep up on these developments, if for no other reason than – as the quote above suggests – to know what stage of engagement and interaction with the technology their customers and competitors are up to.
And as we all know, the best way to learn is to do. For some that will be a bridge too far. For others, it will be a way of re-energizing their business and their people.
I’ll be interested to know what our authors think about that. Fortunately, there is a way to test that, and for any other reader of the book to be part of an ongoing conversation on this and related topics. The invitation is there in the last few paragraphs of the book.
I know from the way Robert Scoble and Shel Israel communicate publicly, on a daily basis on social media, that they are not afraid of criticism. So I’m confident that if I had anything negative to say about this book and if I was commenting fairly, they would take it in good part.
But I don’t.
I didn’t set out to write an encomium, but if that’s what this review has become, it’s because the book is just so good.
It will make a great seasonal or birthday present for anyone seriously interested in what sort of a world we are in the process of creating through Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence.
You can order your copy or copies from Amazon.
Glimpsing the Future
American friends sometimes joke with me on social media conversations about my being, by virtue of timezones and in Australia, a day ahead, and ask me how the future is looking. I always tell them it’s looking good.
And that’s my overall impression about the Fourth Transformation, thanks to this masterful exposition by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel – the future is looking good.
As mentioned previously, the authors haven’t shied away from pointing to things that could go wrong, but their general view is that what is happening is for the better.
My early education was as an historian, and I can say confidently that transformations are often noticed more in hindsight and in the history books than when they are happening.
This book ensures that when we look back on what happens with the Fourth Transformation over the next ten or so years we’ll be able to say, I was there when it got going and thanks to a couple of authors I had a ringside seat.
Thanks Robert. Thanks Shel. As some of us used to say long ago, it was real, man.