OPINION: The next big thing

What’s the next big thing? If I knew that I’d be rich. I don’t know, honestly. But I’ve been watching consumer electronics for a lot of years. Most of the time when I thought something was the next big thing, I was wrong. I was wrong because I didn’t take the whole picture into account. I’ve learned a lot, and while I haven’t learned what the next big thing is, I think I’ve learned how to know it when I see it.

It will fill a need you didn’t think you had.
Twenty years ago, did you think you needed a pocket-sized black slab that could answer any question, play any game, and talk to anyone on the planet for free? If I told you such a thing was coming, you might have thought it cool, but you would never have guessed how important it would be to your future self.

The next big thing will be like that. It will be the thing you pick up and almost instantly forget how you lived without it. It will be like television, like the cell phone, like streaming video.

It won’t just be “an adjective.”
For years, people looked to The Jetsons as a paradigm of what the future would be like. We would have flying cars, robot maids, instant food, and jobs with big computer screens. OK, the last one actually happened, but most of the stuff you saw in that TV show didn’t happen because it was all just a riff on stuff that already happened. Flying cars were just cars. They didn’t make life easier. Robot maids were just housekeepers; they weren’t better than humans. So the future doesn’t belong to big TVs or thin phones or anything like that. If it’s just an incremental improvement on what you have, that’s not going to rock your world.

It will be something that satisfies a basic need.
The internet took over the world in under a decade because it satisfied a basic need: the need to know. Still, it wasn’t as successful and didn’t pervade our lives as quickly as the smartphone, because that need to know wasn’t as important as an even more basic need — the need to connect. Whatever the next big thing is, it’s going to address a basic need, whether it’s food, shelter, connectedness, safety… I can’t tell you. The next big thing is going to probably be something that appeals to people in a very simple way, and scratches an itch that we didn’t even know we had.

It won’t be the thing that saves the planet.
It makes me sad to say this, but the next big thing won’t be the thing that stops the sea level temperature from rising or cleans up polluted landscapes, unless it also does something more basic. We would love to think that as a species, we’re invested in these big-picture solutions but when it comes down to it we’re all a bit more invested in cat videos than we are in the future of the planet. That’s a sad assessment but it’s hard to deny. If we put a small fraction of the money spent on sports into medicines for poor people, this would be a healthier nation… but that’s just not who we are.

So what will it be?

A lot of folks are betting on augmented reality. Basically, wearing special glasses or contacts, or using the camera in your phone, to show you things that aren’t there. Augmented reality could put a line down the center of the road to help you navigate, help you see through walls or instantly know if food is safe to eat. It could create a halo of facts around a person’s head when you look at them (if you’ve watched Black Mirror you’ve seen this) or show you whole new worlds right in front of you.

I’m not so sure about augmented reality; it seems kind of creepy and it seems like it would make you less connected, not more. I think it will be used by repair people, doctors, and anyone else who needs that sort of expanded view into life, and I think maybe it will stay in the gaming realm. Pokemon Go showed that it’s possible to use it well, for example. But it isn’t the next big thing.

But I do think, on some level, in some way, the basic premise of augmented reality is part of the next big thing. As I write this, my hands are on a keyboard and a mouse. I could dictate it too, but that wouldn’t be quite as helpful as you’d think. I think the next big thing will be a way we interact with our devices that we haven’t seen before. It will be a partnership between people and machines that takes away the distinction between the two. Perhaps it will be micromachines inside us that help our immune systems fight diseases, or computers that understand not only our words but our feelings. I’m a little scared of the biology of it all, but I think the technology is quite exciting.

Whatever it is, I’ll tell you two things: (1) I’ll know it when I see it and (2) I’ll probably think it’s something that it isn’t. At least if my personal history is any indication.