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Augmented Reality Will Take Off As Soon As It Doesn't Look Silly

But we're not quite there yet.

At its F8 developer conference yesterday Facebook announced "Spaces," a new virtual reality replacement for Facebook Rooms. I'll make a not-very-bold prediction right now: It isn't going to take off. It's just too early.

Last year at the F8 conference, Facebook was talking about bots. As it happens, around the same time, so were a whole lot of other companies including Google and Apple. Bots were, it seems, going to be the next big thing. But I never bought into the bots narrative that everyone—not just Facebook—was selling. Sure enough, a year on, most of the bots that are still around are painfully simple bits of procedural software that are the conversational equivalent of pushing a button. Bits of software that are actually harder to use than the button would have been, which not coincidentally is the same problem suffered by a lot of the Internet of Things products targeting consumers.

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At the tail end of last year I was in an email conversation with a colleague who handed me off to their PA to arrange a meeting. I found dealing with this person so frustrating that I eventually redirected the whole conversation thread to my junk mail folder and never had the meeting.

There isn't really a social convention for accusing a person of being a bit of software.

A few weeks ago I ran across the colleague at a conference and they asked why I hadn't met up when we were originally talking about it. I explained that their PA couldn't seem to understand the constraints I had around the meeting and that I'd eventually given up. They then ruefully admitted that their PA wasn't real, it was a bot. I'd been conversing, badly, over email, with one of the new "virtual assistants" that are starting to spring up. I'd actually had my suspicions at the time, but there isn't really a social convention for accusing a person of being a bit of software, at least not yet, and it was possible that English just wasn't the first language of the person I was emailing—I've had some really rather odd email conversations with people that aren't bots—so it wasn't something I could bring up.

Bots are not ready, and Facebook seems to have realised this because this year's F8 conference is about virtual reality and augmented reality. Unfortunately neither of those are ready either, and I say that as someone that thinks AR really will—eventually—be the next big thing. The problem is that the hardware to do either in a way that most consumers will accept isn't ready, and making VR and AR acceptable to most consumers is almost entirely a hardware problem.

A few years back now—this was around 2011 or so—AR was predicted to be the next big thing for the smartphone, which was the hot new technology back then, and I built two different AR platforms using the then fairly new iOS SDK. I was even writing a book on it. But AR on the smartphone never took off, and in hindsight it's obvious why: pulling your phone out of your pocket and looking through it at the world looks silly when you're on the street. Nobody likes to look silly, except when you're playing a game; then it's almost mandatory. A clue perhaps as to why Pokemon Go took off last year, and augmented reality walking directions didn't.

AR will be a mainstream product, and the next big thing, as soon as AR glasses look like normal glasses.

The idea of computer-mediated reality is groundbreaking. Like the smartphone before it, it has the potential to change the way we look at the world. But the hardware isn't here yet. To prove that you only have to look at the Microsoft HoloLens, which is an amazing product but it's still clunky, heavy, and awkward, and you wouldn't wear it in the street. This is the Google Glass problem, and we all know how that ended.

AR will be a mainstream product, and the next big thing, as soon as AR glasses look like normal glasses and still can be powered to last a working day. In the interim Google giving access to its speech recognition software, enabling things like real time translation of speech in video chats, is actually a far more realistic step. It's something we're ready for, but widespread adoption of either AR or VR beyond certain niche markets isn't. Computer moderated video is something we can do now, full blown AR or VR interaction isn't.

I entirely agree that the smartphone, and for that matter the idea of a screen at all, is going to go away— it's just another stage in our technological progress after all. But we're currently talking about AR as the next big thing for the third time—there was at least one doomed attempt in the late 90's—and despite Facebook, this won't be its time either. Maybe next time, if the hardware is ready. Remember the bots.