The End of Technology History?

We very nearly ‘got caught up’ this week with all the recent event reports, with the report on the Technology Exposed event in the UK and covering A/V and the coverage by Ken Werner of the SID automotive event in Detroit last week.

One of the stories we have in both publications this week is the forecast for ‘smart devices’ by Gartner which basically says that sales will be flat over the next few years. It’s almost as though we have got to the ‘end of history’. Remember the book by Francis Fukuyama that suggested in 1992 that the end of the cold war was effectively a victory for western liberal democracy? That looks slightly strange from today’s perspective and turns out to have not been quite accurate.

I was more influenced by the book by Samuel P Huntington in 1998 that was called “The Clash of Civilisations” and that predicted, if I remember correctly and it’s close to 20 years since I read it, that the key schisms in society would simply switch from being based on politics to being based on religion. The book really helped me to get a sense of, for example, the dynamics driving the chaos in the Balkans. The Serbeans were backed by the Russians, as both countries were Orthodox Christians, while other countries were Catholic or Muslim (a gross simplification, of course). Huntington’s view looks prescient with the huge tensions between the Christian and Muslim worlds at the moment.

Anyway, getting back to technology, it could be argued that we are at the ‘end of technology’. In a keynote I gave at the SID event in Rio in 2014, and extended at a later keynote at Electronic Display in Germany in early 2015, I pointed out that it could be argued that what Apple had done with the iPhone and iPad (and even the Apple Watch) is to extend the scope of smart displays from very small to very big. These days, whatever size of display you think is appropriate, you can get a smart display from watches to big TVs. From watches, to smartphones, to phablets, tablets, notebooks, monitors with PCs to smart TVs, all the bases are now covered.

Arguably, then, the buzz technology du jour, VR, could be viewed as being important because it breaks this paradigm, where the device is effectively defined by the physical size of the display. Once you get a virtual headset, the potential resolution is no longer dictated by the physical screen and we have reported in Mobile Display Monitor on a number of initiatives to create virtual PC display in virtual space. It seems to me that, eventually, that will probably be the way we all interact with systems. However, to make that work, a huge amount of technology has to be developed to create headsets that work properly with the human visual system. That will, almost certainly, mean light field displays that make the optics match the real world.

Today’s VR is, relatively, as crude as the early CGA CRT monitors that we saw in the early ’80s. 640 x 200 resolution with 16 colours would be laughable now (and already looked historic when, in 1997, I helped organise a display of PC monitor developments to celebrate 100 years of the CRT) and in a lot fewer years, today’s headsets will look very, very crude.

Anyway, it seems to me that what currently feels like the end of progress in client devices will be just a breathing space before we hit the next big S curve.