Is the next big platform starting to come into focus?

Is the next big platform starting to come into focus?

The road to game-changing innovation is littered with ideas which turned out to be half-baked, flawed, or simply not ambitious enough.  For every iPhone, there’s a garbage can full of Palm Pilot clones.  For every Windows, there’s a Microsoft Bob.  The runaway success of the few platforms which truly change our lives can sometimes distract us from the difficulty in sustaining the technology revolution.

Perhaps because of this, today’s technology cycle appears to be more iterative than revolutionary.  The last big new device to hit the market was the iPad in 2010 – and it could be argued that even this was just a larger iPhone, really.  Since then, no company has introduced a new platform which has truly taken the market by storm.  There have been improvements on the margins of computers, phones, and tablets, but nothing which disrupts them all.

That’s not to say that companies aren’t trying.  In early 2013, Google soft-launched Google Glass, causing a stir about the “next big thing” and its many ripple effects.  Yet soon afterwards, the project was essentially mothballed – sent back for a redesign which has not produced a tangible product line.  Recent stories suggest that Google Glass may return in a different form – one geared towards business and enterprise users rather than the general public.  Yet the company’s true intentions remain a mystery.

Virtual reality is often touted as the next big computing platform, and there are indications that a consensus around hardware and use cases may be emerging.  From the bargain basement Google Cardboard (which uses a phone) to more expensive systems which introduce their own technology base, all of the new virtual reality devices share common ideas about how the interface works and what it might do for consumers.

Can Google Glass and virtual reality be placed in the same category of consumer goods?  It’s hard to tell at this very moment. Google Glass was, in a sense, designed as the next generation of cell phones – one in which users could go about their daily business while still (theoretically) using apps.  In an eerie way, it anticipated the Äppärät of novelist Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” – a device which entrances users into their own hyper-connected bubble even as they remain physically present in their own lives.

Virtual reality is by necessity an immersive platform – one which cuts users off from, well, the actual reality around them.  This is the main promise of virtual reality, but also its main limitation as a platform.  Virtual reality cannot fully replace the smart phone and its many apps, since it requires a degree of focus which detracts from any other activity.  The ability of virtual reality to cross over and disrupt other forms of computing appears to be minimal.

Google Glass and virtual reality may end up as successful niche market players, but neither appears (at least at this early stage) to be the disruptive platform that Silicon Valley is always looking for.  At the same time, their concepts are similar enough to point in the direction of what might come next.  There is a process of iterative learning which may be in effect – from the process of creating Google Glass and virtual reality may come something which combines the best of both.