What Comes After The Smartphone?

I am starting a new column discussing my opinions on the future of technology and innovation. My opinions will be based on research from VC firms, tech companies, universities, and interviews with eminent visionaries.

Ella Baker once said In order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been but we must understand where we have been. Smartphones started from humble beginnings in the form of a mobile phone. Mobile phones (1983 – 1990) had the ability to call, send text messages, and on some occasions had a camera. They usually have a physical keyboard, a small screen, and limited features outside of call and text.

Then, in 1992, IBM revealed a revolutionary device that had more capabilities than its preceding mobile phones. This prototype smartphone was known as the Simon Personal Communicator and wasn’t released until 1994. The device had touchscreen (Yes, way before apple’s iPhone), email, fax, notes, calendar, and apps as well as other widgets that became widespread decades later. Although it was ahead of its time, it wasn’t the smoothest mobile device, and so consumers didn’t jump on board right away. It only had a small monochrome LCD screen and a one-hour battery life. And at $1,100 retail MSRP it only sold 50,000 units in 6 months.

We’ve come a long long way from the first smartphone…

The first Blackberry device was the BlackBerry 5810. It had music, a full keyboard, calendar, internet access, and advanced security which attracted many business professionals. They continued releasing more advanced devices and became the market leader in smartphones until the release of the iPhone. Apple had already begun transforming how people use portable technology with the iPod, and the moment was set for them to reveal their latest device in 2007.

The iPhone was one of the most advanced consumer smartphones the market had ever seen. The iPhone improved the screen—making it perfect for video, extended the battery life, and had impressive hardware and software. The app store allowed for 3rd party apps which expanded the iPhone’s capabilities and created a revolution for the industry.

Since just 2007, every single aspect of the smartphone is now much more advanced. They’re smaller and thinner, have more memory, and are a lot faster and more powerful. They can use multiple applications simultaneously, the cameras are crystal clear, and the battery can last days on a single charge.

The early smartphones such as IBM’s Simon showed us a glimpse of what mobile devices could be. In 2007, their potential was fully realized by the iPhone. Now, they continue to become a staple of our everyday lives. In fact, it’s hard to imagine life without them. The advances of smartphones continue to grow. It’s hard to predict what will come next, but we can attempt to make predictions based on past and current trends.

One popular trend is that technologies are converging. What was once a mobile phone for communication has converged into a supercomputer. Today, the smartphone in the palm of your hand is by far more powerful than the world’s most powerful computer back in 1969 which was used to take Apollo 11 to the moon. Our hardware has improved so much that you wouldn’t be wrong in saying a single iPhone could be used to guide 120,000,000 Apollo-era spacecraft to the moon, all at the same time. Moreover, it would take hours to explain the full extent of the capabilities (apps & hardware features) of a smartphone of today’s caliber.

Nokia, Blackberry, iPhone

With the reality check of the growing power and convergence of our smartphones, let’s try to look into the future. In about half a century, we’ve improved the power while massively decreasing the size of a computer by millions of times over. If we go by Moore’s law, (technological advances do not progress linearly but exponentially) we should expect to continue to see new technological breakthroughs in this field.

Wearables

Based on trends and venture capital concentration, we should expect to see wearable technology as the next step in this evolution. Wearable tech is currently one of the fastest-advancing sectors of the wider technology industry, even outpacing the development of smartphones. Wearables range from basic fitness trackers and highly-advanced sports and smartwatches to virtual and augmented reality headsets.

The development of wearables has even spawned an entire subcategory of ‘hearables’ which encompasses wireless earbuds (Apple AirPods), smart assistants, and hearing aids. Inspired by smartphones, hearing aids have evolved from just making sounds louder to having integrated AI, Bluetooth streaming, fall detection, health tracker, and other functionality improvements.

Apple AirPods

The new age of wearables taps into the connected self. They’re loaded with smart sensors that track our biometrics and movements, and often have Bluetooth functionality to sync wirelessly to a smartphone. These sensors help connect you as a person by giving you real-time access to your your health vitals, and they help you to stay fit and active. Some wearables rely on Wi-Fi connectivity and 4G/5G LTE data connections.

The early generations of wearables were devices that clipped to our clothing, as the prime focus was tracking movement through motion sensors. Then advancements brought more powerful sensors which require direct contact with the skin as the tech gravitated towards other body parts such as the wrists, fingers, chest, forearms, ears, eyes, forehead, temple, and anywhere else you can think of (yes, anywhere).

First Gen wearable – Fitbit Zip released in 2012

As we previously covered, there are multiple categories of wearables. Some products fall under an existing group while others fall under exclusive categories all on their own. Smartwatches are worn on the wrist and connect to your mobile phone. The leader in this category, the Apple Watch, brings notifications and calls from the iPhone as well as tracks your physical activity & biometrics which makes it very useful—and sometimes lifesaving.

In addition to health features, the Apple Watch has many other cool features. It can answer calls and messages, lock and unlock your car, record a voice memo, has a calculator, compass, listen to podcasts, it can unlock passwords on your Mac computer, use Siri, share your location, use as a translator, check the news, and most importantly, you can order pizza!

Similar but not identical to the smartwatches are fitness trackers and sports watches that serve as a more niche product with enhanced features for their specific purpose. Sport watches are favored by some fitness fanatics over a smartwatch because they don’t include all the extra fancy distracting features and are lighter and more tailored for rugged fitness use.

Apple Watch

We hear about AR and VR all over the news, but what’s all the hype about? In summary, they’re providing a wealth of new entertainment and educational opportunities, and enhance the world around us. Virtual Reality (VR) headsets block out the rest of the world and are connected to a PC or a gaming console to present a computer-generated virtual reality to fool your brain into thinking it’s somewhere else entirely. Unlike a TV or monitor screen, VR allows you to be completely immersive, with both visual and auditorial stimulation.

Aside from gaming, VR has many benefits. The technology is used to train medical professionals to practice surgeries and procedures, allowing for a consequence-free learning environment at a greatly reduced training cost which is important because health services are always under pressure with tight budgets. VR can safely replicate dangerous training situations to prepare and train soldiers without putting them at risk.

VR isn’t limited to corporate training affairs but is also adopted in education for teaching and learning situations. Students can interact with each other within a three-dimensional environment and are able to take virtual field trips to museums or even to outer space. Research found that VR can be particularly beneficial for students with special needs, such as autism. It allows for a motivating platform to safely practice social skills and emotional recognition.

VR is also revolutionizing the sports and entertainment industry. In sports, VR can be used by players, coaches, and viewers. Players are able to watch and experience certain situations repeatedly, and injured athletes are now able to improve their cognitive abilities while they’re unable to partake in physical activity. Broadcasters are now streaming live games in VR to enhance the viewing experience and plan to eventually sell virtual tickets to live games. This could allow for those who cannot afford it or those whose health situation restrains them to attend live sports events to feel included.

VR is also helpful in mental health. Using VR exposure therapy, a person enters a re-enactment of a traumatic event in an attempt to come to terms with the event and heal. It is also used to treat anxiety, phobias, and depression with meditation, exposure, and calming environments.

VR has greatly increased our efficiency and lower costs in many different facets and industries. From architecture to retail to learning, we are starting to see VR being implemented and it’s only getting started.

Augmented reality (AR) comes in the form of headsets, smart glasses, and through our camera screen and is used to enhance the real world by placing virtual elements in our line of sight. For example, a large projector screen could appear to be on your living room wall, or if you’re walking around a city, you could see restaurant recommendations or turn-by-turn directions.

Map use ai algorithms to determine what individuals want to see. When GPS location service are turned on and the Maps app is opened, popups can direct the user to landmark

AR has many similar uses as VR listed above. The main difference between AR and VR is that AR can be used in more casual situations since it merges with your current reality rather than completely immersing yourself in a completely different reality experience.

The most common experiences of AR we see today are the digital speedometer projected on the windshield of your car, or Snapchat filters. But don’t downplay the potential of AR to just photo filters and entertainment. This is still an emerging category—a long way from reaching the mainstream. But when it does, it will greatly enhance our experience and efficiency in almost all activities.

Hearables are the fastest-emerging segment of the wearable market—the most popular example being Apple’s AirPods. These are true wireless earphones that offer quick access to the voice assistants like Siri and Google Assistant.

Consumer health wearables are already saving lives. The FDA-approved electrocardiogram (ECG) in the Apple Watch can detect signs of A-Fib, while it’ll also check for an irregular heartbeat at regular intervals. The fall detection tool can alert the emergency services/contacts if you take a tumble.

The Dreem 2 headset is taking on chronic insomnia with cognitive behavioral therapy. The company claims that 80% of its users experience relief after just six weeks. There are wearable blood sugar monitors, blood pressure monitors, and even sweat trackers that’ll tell you when you need to hydrate. The Flow headset is certified to treat depression, while L’Oreal is selling the My Skin Track UV patch, which indicates your exposure to damaging UV rays.

Although wearables have improved exponentially in the last few years, the journey is far from complete. Battery life requires most wearables to charge on a nightly basis, processing power needs to reduce lag, sensors need to be more accurate, and plenty of other improvements need to be made. I think we are still decades away from seeing the true potential of wearables and the immense benefits they can have on societal efficiency, safety, healthcare, and entertainment. If you’re invested in the wearable movement, here’s a list of all the wearable tech terms you need to know and a few you’ll wish you didn’t.

Computer-human Symbiosis

The Neuralink is a brain machine interface (BMI) which is implanted inside the skull. The device itself, which is 23 millimeters in diameter and 8 millimeters thick is roughly the size of a penny.

After traditional wearable tech has reached peak performance, it will eventually develop into a computer-human integrated symbiosis. Instead of wearing the tech on our body, it will be integrated—either inside of our skin or a flawless extension of our body. The synergy between the computer-human symbiosis will result in a super brain. Elon Musk best describes this tech at the Code Conference in 2016. He says we have in our brain the limbic system, the cortex. In order for us to keep up with AI, we will need a third digital layer (above the cortex) which will act symbiotically with our body, the same way the limbic system interacts symbiotically with the cortex.

While this might sounds crazy and impossible, Elon goes on to mention that “We are already a cyborg. You have a digital version of yourself online”. If you think about it, we have access to almost all information, we can complete complex calculations, and can video conference with anyone anywhere all on the smartphone we carry with us everywhere. The problem with smartphones, Elon mentions, is the time it takes to type a search query or find the correct application and the loading time between the device and our brain.

Imagine a flawless integration between a supercomputer and your brain. Today, if we want to obtain info we need to go through the process of conducting a Google search. In the future, the Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) tech will allow us to search for information so quickly that it’s identical to just thinking or recalling a memory. You will be able to make complex calculations instantly, hold and recall perfect eidetic memory, and play video games without a console.

I imagine some AR features eventually coming to fruition, similar to wearing a Google Glass, only it’s integrated into your body. Eventually, everything we are able to do digitally with our smartphones and wearables today will be able to do with just our body and the BCI symbiosis in the future. Everything we do will be faster, instantaneous, more efficient, accurate, powerful, and calculated. The effects this will have on the economy, on future innovations and breakthroughs are unfathomable.

As with everything, with great power comes great responsibility. If this tech ends up working as planned, it will make humans a multitude more powerful. This amplifies all intentions both good and bad. It will accelerate all the good we do in the world, but if/when it is used for malicious intent, then the destruction will also be amplified. We need to make sure we are proactive and place the proper precautions in the case of a disaster.

One of the very early cultivators in this field is Elon Musk’s Neuralink. The in-brain device could enable humans with neurological conditions to control technology, such as phones or computers with their thoughts. Musk claims it will be able to solve neurological disorders from memory, hearing loss, and blindness to paralysis, depression, and brain damage.

In the same year that Neuralink was announced, Bryan Johnson tossed $100 million behind Kernel, a startup he founded to enhance human intelligence by developing brain implants capable of linking people’s thoughts to computers.

Also, Mark Zuckerberg has officially hinted at Facebook’s interest in pursuing neurotech in a 2015 Q&A session by saying that one day “people will be able to share full sensory and emotional experiences, not just photos”. Facebook has since been hiring neuroscientists for an undisclosed project at Building 8, its secretive hardware division.

We are still in the rudimentary stages of this tech which consists of mainly research and development. The early devices will exclusively be therapeutic to solve neurological disorders, but as the tech advances, it could potentially transition to healthy individuals for cognitive-enhancement. Hopefully, with Elon Musk joining the BCI party, he can help accelerate the development of the tech, given his track record in revolutionizing electric cars and space travel.

It’s hard to imagine a world where we can communicate telepathically, and have a digital symbiotic computer integrated into our body. But the truth is, the line between that sci-fi and reality is thinning. Many of us downplay the technological innovations we have experienced with the computer and the internet over the past few decades which makes it hard to imagine the feasibility of future wearables and BCI’s. These devices will come, it’s just a matter of how efficient they will be, and how fast they will arrive.

What comes after BCI’s is a mystery. By the time BCI’s are mainstream I expect the world to be a completely different place. I am both excited and fearful for what’s to come.

Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.

Steve Jobs

For more on tech, check out my new Technology column where I discuss emerging tech, tech history, predictions, discoveries, and trends. And if you enjoy longer reads, I created the Long Reads page for more in-depth articles such as this one.