Make no mistake. President Ramaphosa’s holographic keynote at the recent Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) Summit wasn’t just a cool tech trick. It was a statement of purpose.
Too often, 4IR discussions focus on the tech or assume a high level of digital literacy. This summit was different, open to people from all walks of life and focused on pragmatic execution over theory.
It’s not about the technology. Just look at the way virtual reality has struggled to gain mainstream traction among consumers. The technology itself has captured our imaginations in books, movies and games for decades, and has made great advances over the last few years. And using a device like Google Glass or PlayStation VR makes for an impressive experience.
Yet it’s augmented reality (AR) that’s having more of an impact on society. Most people would rather use their phone to catch Pokémon or use AR to see how different paint colours will look on their wall than step into a VR environment.
While VR is still looking for that killer app, AR is everywhere. Everyone from car manufacturers and clothing retailers to home improvement brands have their own augmented showrooms and apps, including widespread use in the medical and industrial fields. Major players like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram are all investing in AR-based advertising. Google has started to embed AR into its search results, so you can play with a leopard in the safety of your own home.
And we can’t forget the first holographic address delivered by a head of state.
Why is it that AR is so much further along than VR in our day-to-day lives? The answer lies in the purpose rather than the technologies themselves. AR is about augmentation —enabling us to do more in our everyday lives and enhancing the world that already exists around us. And that makes all the difference.
If you were hanging around the Internet in the early 2000s, you might remember Second Life. Billing itself as the first 3D virtual world, Second Life allowed users to live a fully realised digital life, complete with jobs, home ownership and romantic relationships.
One of the aspects that made Second Life stand out was its very active virtual goods economy. By exchanging real money for an in-world virtual currency, the community traded in custom content that encompassed everything from custom avatars and animations to yachts and private islands. In the decade after it first launched, Second Life users spent $3.2 billion of real money on in-world transactions.
What does Second Life have to do with the 4IR? The world is essentially a preview of what a fully realised, on-demand digital society might look like. The ability to access nearly any kind of service or product at will was far-fetched when Second Life came out. Now, it’s an inevitable part of our future. Just look at Facebook’s plans to create an integrated marketplace centred around its own currency.
AR, like all of the other 4IR technologies, takes the promise of Second Life and makes it real. It brings what was once strictly digital to life and makes it physical. You can customise your car. You can mix and match home decor until you’ve created your perfect space, all without moving a single piece of furniture. You can try on shoes and clothing without needing to find a fitting room. You can design your dream home in real time and take a walk through it before construction begins. And all you need is your smartphone or tablet. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take a real dream house I can live in over a virtual island any day.
As the Internet of Things (IoT) and just-in-time manufacturing become more of a presence in our lives, the ability to reshape our realities are just going to keep expanding. Major companies are heavily investing in the AR Cloud, which would allow for the mapping of augmented experiences onto any object. Soon, you might not even need a phone to enjoy the benefits of AR.
The thing about virtual worlds is that there always comes a point where you have to leave your virtual life and go back to your real one. VR may look better than it ever has, but it can’t replace your regular job, your regular house or your regular car.
The world meanwhile has moved on. Digital’s not something that’s separate from the real world anymore. It’s embedded into our everyday lives, from smartphones to wearables to interactive screens. AR is far more suited for this kind of world than the current state of VR; it’s another layer that can go on top of your everyday life.
That’s the secret to transforming South Africa into a digital society: thinking about technology as a layer that can be applied where it can make the most difference. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether it’s AR, VR, IoT or a smartphone at the right time in the right place. So let’s be bold and reshape our physical world the way we would like it to work.
Many would prefer we don’t call it 4IR - I agree! Call it what you will. The question remains —how will we leverage the benefits of a highly digital world to drive social and economic value for South Africa and its citizens?