Forecast | Virtual reality and the global hive mind: Future of the Internet P7

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By David Tal, Publisher, Futurist
@DavidTalWrites
Nov 19, 2015,  11:10 AM
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The endgame of the Internet—its final evolutionary form. Heady stuff, I know.  

We hinted at it when we spoke about Augmented Reality (AR). And now after we describe the future of Virtual Reality (VR) below, we’ll finally reveal what our future Internet will look like. Hint: It’s a combination of AR and VR and one other piece of tech that might sound like science fiction. 

And really, all of this is science fiction—for now. But know that everything you’re about to read is already in development, and the science behind it has already been proven. Once the abovementioned technologies are put together, the Internet’s final form will reveal itself.

And it will change the human condition forever.

Rise of virtual reality

At a basic level, virtual reality (VR) is the use of technology to digitally create an immersive and convincing audiovisual illusion of reality. It’s not to be confused with augmented reality (AR) that adds contextual digital information overtop the real world, as we discussed in the last part of this series. With VR, the goal is to replace the real world with a realistic virtual world.

And unlike AR, which will suffer from a large variety of technological and social hurdles before it gains mass market acceptance, VR has been around for decades in popular culture. We’ve seen it in a large variety of future-oriented movies and television shows. Many of us have even tried primitive versions of VR at old arcades and game-oriented conferences and trade shows.

What’s different this time around is that the VR technology that’s about to be released is the real deal. Before 2020, powerhouse companies like Facebook, Sony, and Google will release affordable VR headsets that will bring realistic and user-friendly virtual worlds to the masses. This represents the start of an entirely new mass-market medium, one that will attract thousands of software and hardware developers. In fact, by the late-2020s, VR apps and games could begin to generate more downloads than traditional mobile apps. 

Education, employment training, business meetings, virtual tourism, gaming, and entertainment—these are just a few of the applications that cheap, user-friendly, and realistic VR can and will disrupt. But unlike what you may have seen in movies or industry news, the path VR will take to go mainstream might surprise you. 

Virtual reality’s path to the mainstream

It’s important to clarify what going mainstream means in terms of VR. While those who experimented with the latest VR headsets (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony’s Project Morpheus) have enjoyed the experience, people still prefer the real world over the virtual world. For the masses, VR will eventually settle into a niche as a popular, at-home entertainment device, as well as gain limited use in education and industry/office training.

At Quantumrun, we still feel that AR will become the public’s reality-bending medium of choice in the long term, but VR’s rapid development as of late will see it become the public’s short-term reality-bending fix. (Actually, in the far future, the tech behind both AR and VR will become nearly identical.) One reason for this is that VR will get a big boost from two already mainstream technologies: smartphones and the Internet.

Smartphone VR. The VR headsets we mentioned earlier are expected to retail for around $1,000 when they're released between 2016 and 2017, and may require expensive, high-end, desktop computer hardware to operate. Realistically, this price tag is out of reach for most individuals, and could end the VR revolution before it even begins by limiting its exposure to early adopters and hardcore gamers.

Luckily, there are alternatives to these high-end headsets. One early example is Google Cardboard. For $20, you can buy an origami strip of cardboard that folds into a headset. This headset has a slot to drop in your smartphone, which then acts as the visual display and effectively turns your smartphone into a low-cost VR headset.

While Cardboard might not have the same resolution as the higher end headset models above, the fact that most people already have smartphones reduces the cost of experiencing VR from around $1,000 to $20. This also means that much of VR’s early independent developers will be incentivized to create VR mobile apps to download from traditional app stores, instead of apps for the higher end headsets. These two points indicate VR’s initial growth will piggyback off of smartphone ubiquity. (Update: In October 2016, Google released Google Daydream View, a higher end version of Cardboard.)

Internet VR. Building upon this smartphone growth hack, VR will also benefit from the open web.

Currently, VR leaders like Facebook, Sony, and Google are all hoping that future VR users will buy their pricier headsets and spend money on VR games and apps from their own networks. In the long term however, this isn't in the best interest of the casual VR user. Think about it—to access VR, you’ll need to download and install an app or game; then if you want to share that VR experience with someone else, you’ll have to make sure they use the same headset or VR network you use.

A much simpler solution is to simply wear your VR headset, connect to the Internet, type in a VR optimized URL, and immediately enter a VR world much in the same way you would access a website. This way, your VR experience will never be limited to a single app, headset brand, or VR provider.

Mozilla, the developer of Firefox, is already developing this vision of an open web VR experience. They released an early WebVR API, as well as a web-based VR world you can explore through your Google Cardboard headset at mozvr.com

Rise of the human mind meld: Brain-computer interface

For all our talk about VR and its many applications, there are a few qualities about the technology that might very well prepare humanity for the Internet’s ultimate state (the endgame we mentioned earlier).

To enter a VR world, you need to be comfortable:

  • Wearing a headset, especially one that wraps around your head, ears, and eyes;
  • Entering and existing in a virtual world;
  • And communicating and interacting with people and machines (soon Artificial Intelligence) in a virtual setting.

Between 2018 and 2040, a large percentage of the human population will have experienced entering a VR world. A sizeable percentage of that population (especially Generation Z and onwards) will have experienced VR enough times to feel perfectly comfortable navigating inside virtual worlds. This comfort, this virtual experience, will allow this population to feel confident engaging with a new form of communication, one that will be ready for mainstream adoption by the mid-2040s: Brain-Computer Interface (BCI).

Covered in our Future of Computers series, BCI involves using an implant or a brain-scanning device to monitor your brainwaves and associate them with language/commands to control anything that’s run on a computer. That’s right, BCI will let you control machines and computers simply through your thoughts.

In fact, you might not have realized it, but the early days of BCI have already begun. Amputees are now testing robotic limbs controlled directly by the mind, instead of through sensors attached to the wearer’s stump. Likewise, people with severe disabilities (such as quadriplegics) are now using BCI to steer their motorized wheelchairs and manipulate robotic arms. But helping amputees and persons with disabilities lead more independent lives isn’t the extent of what BCI will be capable of. Not by a long shot. Here’s a short list of the experiments now underway:

Controlling things. Researchers have successfully demonstrated how BCI can allow users to control household functions (lighting, curtains, temperature), as well as a range of other devices and vehicles. Watch a demonstration video.

Controlling animals. A lab successfully ran a BCI experiment where a human was able to make a lab rat move its tail using only his thoughts. This may one day allow you to communicate with your pet.

Brain-to-text. Teams in the US and Germany are developing a system that decodes brain waves (thoughts) into text. Initial experiments have proven successful, and they hope this technology will not only assist the average person, but also provide people with severe disabilities (like renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking) the ability to communicate with the world more easily.

Brain-to-brain. An international team of scientists were able to mimic telepathy. One person in India was instructed to think the word “hello.” BCI converted that word from brain waves to binary code, and then emailed it to France, where the binary code was converted back into brainwaves to be perceived by the receiving person. Brain-to-brain communication, people! 

Recording dreams and memories. Researchers at Berkeley, California, have made unbelievable progress converting brain waves into images. Test subjects were presented with a series of images while connected to BCI sensors. Those same images were then reconstructed onto a computer screen. The reconstructed images were very grainy, but given about a decade or two of development time, this proof of concept will one day allow us to ditch our GoPro camera or even record our dreams.

 

But how exactly does VR (and AR) fit together with BCI? Why lump them together into the same article?

Sharing thoughts, sharing dreams, sharing emotions

The growth of BCI will be slow at first, but will follow the same growth explosion social media enjoyed during the 2000s. Here’s an outline of what this might look like: 

  • At first, BCI headsets will only be affordable to the few, a novelty of the rich and well-connected who will actively promote it on their social media, acting as early adopters and influencers, spreading its value to the masses.
  • In time, the BCI headsets will become affordable enough for most of the public to try out, likely becoming a holiday season must-buy gadget.
  • The headset will feel very much like the VR headset that everyone’s grown accustomed to. Early models will allow wearers of BCI to communicate with each other telepathically, to connect with each other in a deeper way, regardless of any language barriers. These early models will also be able to record thoughts, memories, dreams, and eventually even complex emotions.
  • Web traffic will explode as people begin sharing their thoughts, memories, dreams, and emotions between family, friends, and lovers.
  • Over time, BCI will become a new communication medium that in some ways improves upon or replaces traditional speech (similar to the rise of emoticons and memes today). Avid BCI users (likely the youngest generation of the time) will begin replacing traditional speech by sharing memories, emotion-laden images, and thought constructed images and metaphors. (Basically, imagine instead of saying the words “I love you,” you can deliver that message by sharing your emotion, mixed with images that represent your love.) This represents a deeper, potentially more accurate, and far more authentic form of communication, when compared to the speech and words we’ve depended on for millennia.
  • Entrepreneurs will capitalize on this communication revolution. Software entrepreneurs will produce new social media and blogging platforms specializing in sharing thoughts, memories, dreams, and emotions to an endless variety of niches. They will create new broadcasting mediums where entertainment and news is shared directly into willing user’s minds, as well as advertising services that target ads based on your current thoughts and emotions. Thought powered authentication, file sharing, web interface, and more will blossom around the basic tech behind BCI.
  • Meanwhile, hardware entrepreneurs will produce BCI-enabled products and living spaces so the physical world will follow a BCI user’s commands. As you might have guessed, this will be an extension of the Internet of Things we discussed earlier in this series.
  • Bringing these two groups together will be the entrepreneurs who specialize in AR and VR. For example, integrating BCI tech into existing AR glasses and contact lenses will make AR far more intuitive, making your real life easier and more seamless—not to mention enhancing the magical realism enjoyed from entertainment AR apps.
  • Integrating BCI tech into VR may be even more profound, as it will allow any BCI user to construct their own virtual world at will—similar to the movie Inception, where you wake up in your dream and find that you can bend reality and do whatever you want. Combining BCI and VR will allow people to gain greater ownership over the virtual experiences they inhabit by creating realistic worlds generated from a combination of their memories, thoughts, and imagination. These worlds will be easy to share with others, of course, adding to VR’s future addictive nature.

The global hive mind

And now we come to the final state of the Internet—its endgame, as far as humans are concerned (remember those words for the next chapter in this series). As more and more people begin using BCI and VR to communicate more deeply and create elaborate virtual worlds, it won’t be long before new Internet protocols arise to merge the Internet with VR.

Since BCI works by translating thought into data, human thoughts and data will naturally become interchangeable. There will no longer need to be a separation between the human mind and the Internet. 

By this point (around 2060), people will no longer need elaborate headsets to use BCI or enter a VR world, many will opt to have that technology implanted into their brains. This will make telepathy seamless and allow individuals to enter their VR worlds simply by closing their eyes. (Such implants—likely an innovation based around nanotechnology—will also allow you to wirelessly access the full knowledge stored on the web instantly.)

Thanks to these implants, people will begin to spend as much time in what we’ll now call the metaverse, as they do sleeping. And why wouldn’t they? This virtual realm will be where you access most of your entertainment and interact with your friends and family, especially those who live far from you. If you work or go to school remotely, your time in the metaverse could grow to 10-12 hours a day.

By the end of the century, some people may go so far as to register at specialized hibernation centers, where they pay to live in a Matrix-style pod that cares for their body’s physical needs for extended periods—weeks, months, eventually years, whatever’s legal at the time—so they can reside in this metaverse 24/7. This may sound extreme, but for those who decide to delay or reject parenthood, extended stays in the metaverse could make economic sense.

By living, working, and sleeping in the metaverse, you can avoid the traditional living costs of rent, utilities, transportation, food, etc., instead paying only to rent time in a tiny hibernation pod. On a societal level, hibernation of large chunks of the population could reduce strains on the housing, energy, food, and transportation sectors—especially as the world population grows to nearly 10 billion by 2060.

While referencing the Matrix movie might make this future sound ominous, the reality is that humans, not Agent Smith, will rule collective metaverse. Moreover, it will be a digital world as rich and diverse as the collective imaginations of the billions of humans who interact with it. Essentially, it will be a digital heaven on Earth, a place where our wants, dreams, and hopes can be realized.

But like you might have inferred by the clues I hinted at above, humans won’t be the only ones who’ll share this metaverse, not by a long shot.

Future of the Internet series

Mobile Internet Reaches the Poorest Billion: Future of the Internet P1
The Next Social Web vs. Godlike Search Engines: Future of the Internet P2
Rise of the Big Data-Powered Virtual Assistants: Future of the Internet P3
Your Future Inside the Internet of Things: Future of the Internet P4
The Day Wearables Replace Smartphones: Future of the Internet P5
Your Addictive, Magical, Augmented Life: Future of the Internet P6
Humans not allowed. The AI-only Web: Future of the Internet P8
Geopolitics of the Unhinged Web: Future of the Internet P9

Likelihood of happening rating 
Moderate (3/5)
importance rating 
Massive (5/5)
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PREDICTION WILL IMPACT SOCIETY AT LARGE BY 2045 to 2050
Next scheduled update for this prediction
August 29, 2017. Last updated October 8, 2016.
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