Everyone has seen the futuristic technology predictions in the movies filled with holograms and flying cars. In this book, The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence Change Everything, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel address the real possibilities of what the future of tech holds, specifically within augmented reality and AI.
To start, it is important to understand some specific vocabulary of this topic. They speak a lot about the difference between Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and Mixed Reality (MR). AR can be defined as “a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view”. VR can be defined as “the computer-generated simulation of a 3-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors”. MR can be defined as “the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time”. These are all very important and seemingly similar concepts that Scoble and Israel mention quite a bit. Another important term is the Internet of things (IoT) which is “the interconnection via the internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data”, for example using your Amazon Alexa and/or other household helper devices. Lastly, they speak about Spatial Computing which is the concept that computers can learn the contextual implications of location and the relationships of objects to each other through point clouds (a collection of data points that takes the data and converts them into visible virtual objects).
This book is titled The Fourth Transformation because there have been three transformations prior to this time and using the word transformation is descriptive of a paradigm shift in society. It all began with the first transformation being in the 1970’s when people started using text characters to talk directly with computers and bringing technology to the public world in more personal ways. The second transformation was when Graphical User Interface (GUI) came along when Apple introduced Macintosh in 1984, which was an important step to the Worldwide Web and featured graphical elements such as windows, icons, and buttons. The third transformation was in 2007 when the iPhone was introduced and touch became the primary interface as personal computing moved from not just available to everyone, but everywhere. As we now enter the fourth transformation, Scoble and Israel predict that we will move from carrying handsets to wearing headsets. This book is split into 3 parts, each detailing a specific aspect of how the fourth transformation is changing the world around us. Part 1 focuses on how AR and AI are changing the relationship between technology and people, Part 2 focuses on how these changes are already affecting the 4 areas of business: retail, the enterprise, health and learning, and part 3 focuses on the big picture of what these changes mean both in good and bad ways.
Part 1: Game Changers
This first part talks mostly about how VR is changing games and entertainment, how AR has already been being used, and how the newest generations feel about technology and how that affects them as they function in society. We all know about smart glasses and VR video games and how fun they can be since you become part of the game itself and don’t just have to watch from the outside. The idea of VR began with gaming and wanting to be in the game, which is why the newest generations of Millenials and Minecrafters (the current generation) are affected because this is the technology they are growing up with. The act of being a part of a VR experience has been proven to be almost addictive no matter how big of an adjustment it is. These generations are digital natives and it shows in how they function in society as customers, employers, and competitors. Scoble and Israel complement each idea in their book with an example of companies who are already doing it and how they are making it work.
It has been proven that 41% of Minecrafters spend more than 3 hours daily using computers for purposes other than schoolwork. With statistics like that, technology has become too big a part of our daily lives to be taken away and will only continue to further be a part of daily interactions. People are always looking for new ways to be entertained which is why VR grew in the gaming industry and has also become a part of the film industry as a form of virtual storytelling. It has been proven that people do not change their habits after they are 35 years old, meaning that those who are accepting of this new entertainment industry are younger and don’t want to just be on the sidelines, but be in the entertainment itself. This can also be seen at amusement parks such as Universal and their VR Harry Potter experience, although if the technology is not carefully crafted, it can have a latency effect and cause visitors to become sick. Another huge part of recent years was Pokemon Go, which was a big advancement in how VR entertainment would be used. While the game was played on a handset, it inspires the transition to “standing upright” which means wearing a headset to play such games instead of looking down at your phone.
Scoble and Israel do a great job of explaining how the magic of Mixed Reality actually works. Headsets using MR use optical componentry that blacks out the light in front of you and replaces it with computer generated images. There are sensors in the lenses that track where your eyes are moving so it watches what you’re watching and then uses AI to learn about you and reactions. People love this technology because it means that the world is your interface, you have the power to touch and move things that are mapped through haptic sensors, and it connects to the data being connected through the IoT. A player to watch in this sector is Magic Leap, a company that has technology far beyond what we’ve already seen from Hololens and Meta, so much so that many can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is virtual. Another big company of the time is Eyefluence, a company that has the most advanced eye-tracking technology to date and will likely transform the way headsets are progressed. While the first three transformations were defined by typing, clicking, and touching, the fourth transformation will most likely be defined by eye-tracking.
Part 2: Business Changers
Next Scoble and Israel talk about how AR is affecting the four sectors of business, retail, the enterprise, health, and learning. Within retail, the boundary between online and in store shopping will become blurred as mixed reality is woven into the field. Before people just start walking around wearing headsets all the time, it is slowly integrated by ways of using AR enabled apps to virtually try on clothing, see more details, order online, etc in order for the customer to have the most information and make the most informed purchase, along with being able to follow interior maps of stores so they spend less time browsing and more time being efficient. Looking at the enterprise of society, this is where augmenting cars and drivers comes into play. Most automotive companies have been using this technology for years in the process of building, repairing, and innovating their vehicles. Only recently has it moved into the idea of unmanned cars, I mean even NASA is trying to send unmanned space ships to deliver supplies to future planets we might eventually live on.
While retail and the enterprise are very important to society and the economy, I find the affects on health and learning the most interesting and influential. Within healthcare, the brain becomes the interface and AR technology is used to get better, more in-depth details to solve problems. Someday they are hoping to be able to digitally reproduce organs, but for now only bionic eyes exist as an option for those with damaged retinas to wear headsets that allow them to see and easily function by using text to speech technology as well. AR is being used for other disabilities as well, specifically for the deaf by providing headsets that translate what a person is saying into sign language that a person can see on their headset. The other disability they are aiming to tackle is kids with autism. It can be difficult to diagnose young children, but VR is being used to track the eyes and tell when a child is paying attention and when they are not, along with how they learn best. Moving into the educational sector, there is so much potential for AR/VR. Med students will be able to learn surgeries using headsets and haptic sensor technology so they no longer have to practice on cadavers. Scoble and Israel also predict that virtual field trips will become a great learning tool so that students can explore even the furthest destinations through headsets in order to learn more. Lastly, in places like China where they struggle to find enough people to be teachers to their students, there can be virtual teachers where students will receive lessons through their headsets and they can change the gender, teaching speed, and more of the virtual instructor so that everyone learns at their own pace.
Part 3: World Changers
Lastly, Scoble and Israel discuss the lurking beast of the fourth transformation: what could go wrong. While all of these advancements that are being made seem great from entertainment to retail to health and learning, there are always downsides. This is seen as disruptive technology, which is one that displaces an established technology and shakes up the industry or a ground breaking product that creates a completely new industry. As this technology is already out there and in development, there is a possibility that we’ll never reach the full fourth transformation that Scoble and Israel describe. To start, utilizing headsets most of the time, especially with children and in education, leads to avatars being seen as role models and people we should listen to. The government can control what is taught as we mindlessly stare into the digital abyss that is our headset… sounds scary right? We will also lose empathy as a society since if we don’t like how something looks in our headset we can just change it or reversely, if we don’t like how something is in the real world we can simply change it through the headset. If we kill the ugly parts of society, people will turn to electronics more than human interactions. There are worries about scammers too, where there could be pop ups and ads on our headsets whenever we enter a certain a geolocation or having the ability to steal personal information as everything is connected within the IoT.
We as readers, like Scoble and Israel, can think of hundreds of ways this fourth transformation and the technology it brings can harm and disrupt society. While each entry to the next transformation has been daunting and there are downsides, it always ends up effecting society for the better. Smart glasses will become more mainstream and affordable, just as self driving cars have also been in the works. I really enjoyed this book since I am someone who has only ever heard of these forms of technology from the sidelines, I didn’t even play Pokemon Go when it came out, but by reading this I have gained so much knowledge on the subject matter and where it can take society in the future. There is so much potential and Scoble and Israel put massive amounts of research into this book in order to provide a prediction for the future based on how the past has developed. As they said “we will go much farther in the next ten years than we did in the last” and, while daunting, it is exciting to imagine all of the possibilities (hopefully holographic phone calls and flying cars too) of a sector I previously knew nothing about.