Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Facebook leaps into future ...

... as smartphones prepare to get smarter

Technology firms are on the brink of innovations that will transform our personal and professional lives

by Jemima Kiss

The Observer (January 16 2011)

Alvin Toffler, the prophet of the digital revolution, wrote in his seminal book Future Shock in 1970: "Dealing with the future, it is more important to be imaginative and insightful than to be 100% right".

Toffler compared the futurologist's role to that of the ancient mapmakers, approximating the danger and promise of an unknown world.

As technology redefines and remaps our world virtually, the consumer firms driving its development are the new mapmakers. Companies like Facebook are feverishly searching the potential of interaction on the web. So far, that has primarily meant entering text into a search box - dipping into a pool for the fish we know we want. Google, which has a ninety per cent share of the UK search market, has already built a $197 billion business on the back of advertising {1} related to those text searches.

So far, so profitable. But the next generation of the web, so Facebook wants us to believe, will be navigated through our social graph, our network of contacts and friends; it will be their recommendations that will prompt us to dip into the water. Though the social web is well established, the business model around it is not. This is the new horizon. And the volume and reach of data produced by Facebook's users - and the promise of the future of the social web - has investors so excited that they have just valued the company at $50 billion. Toffler was on to something.

Where is Facebook taking us? For now its priority is to keep growing its nascent advertising revenues ($2 billion last year, by one estimate) and its user numbers, put at 633 million monthly users globally for October, according to comScore. But it is also laying the foundations for some powerful ways of extending the site. Last August it introduced Places, which allows users to share their location with friends, and in December announced that photo uploads would soon be scanned with facial recognition technology.

Already, one-third of Facebook's traffic is generated by mobile, and as these devices become ubiquitous we will become less reliant on a fixed screen. Often described as the next generation of the web, mobile's real breakthrough has been the success of apps {2} in the past two-and-a-half-years. Not only are these devices always on and always with us, but they offer more forms of interaction than desktop computers, including movement sensitivity, camera and a web connection.

These location features provide the platform and possibility of a world that, not so long ago would have belonged in an ambitious work of science fiction. Augmented reality ("AR") is a technique of overlaying information on an image of the real world, usually through our phone's camera. Despite the current clunky incarnations, augmented reality may well become the principal way that the digital world is presented to us. Freed from screens, information will float, contextually, accompanying the user and imparting - probably via a pair of augmented reality glasses - the time of the next bus, messages from a friend in a nearby pub, or a local match from your dating site. Everything you do now at your desktop will be superimposed in real time in the world around you.

Claire Boonstra, co-founder of the Netherlands-based augmented reality mobile app Layar{1}, believes this type of interaction between the real world and the world of information will become a mass medium. "Augmented reality is in a similar position to the earliest years of television, where shows were just radio with an image attached", she said. "By 2015 augmented reality glasses will be mass market, so you won't walk around holding your phone up to things. With one gesture, you could show that you like a pair of shoes you see someone wearing and could buy them online. And you could switch on the sun on a rainy day. It's totally immersive."

Layar's general manager, Maarten Lens-FitzGerald, says that ultimately this technology will become invisible, and suggests our own vision could be augmented. "The computer at Bletchley Park [Tommy Flowers's Colossus computer] was the size of a room, yet now there are computers in every hotel room door. It shows how far we have to explore. Brainwaves are interpretable, but that is far off. Instead, next year there could be an iPad with a binary interface; you don't have to touch to turn the page, you just have to think about it".

Lens-FitzGerald anticipates Facebook moving into the AR space, though Layar already enables this by integrating with Facebook Places. Where AR meets commerce, he says, "every moment could be turned into a buying moment", with everything we see potentially one gesture away from a purchase, every note of enthusiasm or disdain recorded by a marketing database and every street pre-loaded with a thousand opportunities to advertise something we've recently searched for, looked at or even thought about. Facebook already holds swaths of that information about us and serving discreet targeted ads at the side of our profiles is just the beginning.

Whether Facebook will be the company to fully exploit that future is up for debate. Lens-FitzGerald believes the company is at its peak and that its greatest period of innovation is over. "Like Google five years ago and Microsoft at the end of the 1990s, Facebook is coming close to the point where they have too much to protect to truly innovate. It's a natural progression for monolithic companies", he said. "The next thing will be more about location, context and time - a service that helps you navigate their information".

Spencer Hyman won't call time on Facebook yet. He spent three years wrangling with music recommendation as chief operating officer at music site, and left in 2009 for ArtFinder, a visual recognition tool for artworks that is to launch soon. Facebook's power, he says, lies in tips from friends and contacts. "We haven't seen the start of what recommendation can do. Searching Google tells you what you already know you want. And automated recommendation, like Amazon, is accurate but not that compelling, because you don't know who's recommended it. And then there's personal recommendation - the most powerful recommendation you can have. We're eight to ten times more likely to buy based on personal recommendation, yet Facebook has barely switched on those tools yet."

Hyman thinks gaming will play an important role in exploring the potential of technologies like augmented reality, building interest in the medium while mapping out what is possible and popular. The commercial applications come later, as needs emerge. Already, one app for the visually impaired in the US uses optical recognition to help people identify the value of different dollar bills, which are all the same size. Facial recognition, which is being rolled out by Facebook to identify the 8.1 million photographs uploaded every hour, will seem uncomfortable to many - especially, as Hyman points out, when border police can assess whether you spend time with anyone on a wanted list.

Late last year the FBI director, Robert Mueller, toured Silicon Valley's big name firms to ask them to install back doors in their software to aid intelligence gathering and law enforcement. As Stanford University visiting scholar Evgeny Morozov recently explained, that appears to vindicate the decision by Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin to require all public institutions to replace proprietary software with open-source alternatives by 2015.

The more mainstream the web becomes, the harder it will be to disguise anything, or hide anything. This has profound implications for a generation growing up online, where every youthful indiscretion will be catalogued and recalled on demand. But it is expected that we will become more sophisticated in how we prioritise and manage information and will also take advantage of powerful tools that help us filter and process everything from email to electronic bank statements and travel plans.

Conversely, as technology permeates every aspect of our lives, disconnecting will become a luxury. Boutique hotels already proudly advertise their lack of Wi-Fi; the brave new connected world could offer weeks in a technology dead zone, no hyper-targeted visualised advertising, no voice connection - not one glowing, hovering reminder of our dwindling bank balance as we slump over the hotel bar. If we are wise, those dead zones will extend to areas of our schools, homes and workplaces dedicated to focused thought and reflection, or long-form writing, free from digital detritus.

Ten years ago, many of us were uncomfortable being overheard on a mobile phone. In another ten years we will have overcome our sensitivity to video calling in public, or talking to an automated service. There are clear practical benefits in using voice instead of text entry - not least while walking - but voice recognition has wider implications.

Amit Singal, a Google fellow, has been following the development of the web for twenty years. He talks breathlessly about the potential for the developing world, where mobile is already well established as the primary means of accessing the web. Voice search and translate means an African could access information on malaria or an Indian could find information about agriculture - but by using their voice and their native language, and having the results translated back to them in near real time. "From a device they can pull out of their pocket, every citizen in the world can access the power of hundreds of thousands of computers in the cloud. That's incredibly exciting."

"Aided by tools like search and the mobile revolution that happened in parallel, the web has become an endlessly open channel where people share ideas and information", he said. "That has the power to enrich people's lives and I'm very excited about where this world is headed".




Bill Totten


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