I t is easy to look back on technology changes
and see that we had plenty of warnings that we
clearly missed at the time. VCRs gave way to
DVD players, which in turn have given way to
streaming services. Brick cellphones evolved into
flip phones, which were swapped out for two-way
pager phones and then wiped out by the iPhone
model. Tape players gave way to the Walkman
CD player, which gave way to the iPod, which
also ended up in the iPhone model.
Sometimes, trends that seem obvious fail to
materialize. Laser disks never got to critical mass
before DVDs arrived on the scene, and 3D TV,
which seemed so obviously next, wasn’t.
I think we soon will see another big industry shift,
but some key elements are missing, so I don’t
want anyone to think that your smartphone will
be obsolete this year. The change I’m calling may
be closer to 2020 than 2017.
I’ll explain why smartphones are becoming
obsolescent and end with my product of the
week: the thing that I think is a big part of what
is to come.
A number of issues with how we use
smartphones need to be addressed. First, the
things literally can kill you. I’m not talking about
their catching fire, though clearly that has been a
big issue. I’m talking about the fact that people
want to use these things while walking and
driving. This practice often ends very badly.
One of the scariest things on the road right now
is looking in your rear-view mirror when you’ve
stopped at a light, and seeing the driver of the
car coming up behind you looking at a phone. You
just pray the driver looks up before a motor lands
in your back.
We’ve made using the phones illegal. We’ve
charged people whose phone use has caused
deadly traffic accidents with manslaughter, and
given them drunk driving-like jail terms and
financial penalties. It is pretty clear that for folks
who are attention span-challenged — or those
driving, walking or bike riding on the same roads
with them — that smartphones are still killers.
If we want to save lives, we need to rethink how
device can be used more safely.
Although smartphones have gotten bigger, display
resolution and costs have dropped, so we actually
could make displays smaller while still
showcasing the same or more information. This
is important, because it means that in theory, we
could place them closer to the line of sight,
allowing users to see both the display and what
Military pilots have expensive rigs like this so
they can see targeting and instrument data while
remaining focused on what their planes and
helicopters physically have in front of them.
These rigs give them additional viewing options in
low light, short of putting on night vision goggles
that typically have far more limited fields of view.
In other words, head-mounted technology has
massively advanced over the last decade.
Voice command certainly has come a long way.
Many of us now have Amazon or Google home
tech products that we can order around, and
some of us have them connected to other smart
home functions so we can order around other
things in our house.
Following on this tech are natural language
interfaces that can better understand us without
learning commands, tied to deep learning cloud
systems that let us interact with systems more
conversationally when we have the bandwidth.
We are getting very close to the point where we’ll
simply be able to talk to our devices and have
them not only follow our orders but converse with
us, providing ever richer services and information
without our having to type a single word.
This idea is tied to AI-based chatbots. We’ve
already seen products like IBM’s Watson begin to
cut a relatively impressive swath through the
initial opportunity for ever richer voice-enabled
Tied to deep learning systems, we could have the
equivalent of autocomplete for complex decisions
and tasks. For instance, you could simply ask for
a letter to be written to a sibling and then provide
an outline of the content, which could include
pictures, videos and even interactive elements,
mostly pulled from your cloud digital history and
A four-page letter could take you 30 seconds to
summarize, with the cloud system doing the rest.
Now apply this to business proposals,
correspondence, or even thank you notes. The
output, based on an analysis of your other
correspondence, would look like it came from you
— but likely would have better sentence structure
and punctuation, and no typos.
Putting It All Together
What I’m anticipating is a multilevel solution with
a head-mounted fully functional smartphone-like
device with a screen below one eye. It would
deploy when needed, kind of like a more
attractive version of what Boba Fett used in Star
Wars but without the helmet.
It would be a fully functional computer, likely
based on the smartphone hardware and OS to get
developers, size and connectivity right. It would
be connected to a set of services that would
provide the chatbot AI, deep learning and data
connectivity it would need, and it would have a
significant fashion element so folks wouldn’t have
a Google Glass moment when wearing it.
I expect it would have a camera, though, so it
could gain context and provide capabilities like
facial and object recognition, as well as warn you
if you’re too focused on the screen and about to
walk into danger. I expect an option here would
be a low light or infrared camera, so it also could
help you see in the dark.
Wrapping Up: All the Elements Exist
Virtually all of the core elements to create this
thing exist, but they don’t exist in any one
vendor. Those that have the client device
capability generally don’t have the back-end
services or hardware yet. However, nothing says
they couldn’t partner to get there. Companies like
Amazon, Microsoft, Lenovo and Alibaba have
showcased resources in line with this kind of an
offering, and people like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos
and Richard Branson have the vision and personal
For me, the question isn’t if, it is when — and
who will take the first risky step. Like every
technology that proceeded it, the smartphone
eventually will be replaced. I think it will be by a
follow-on to my product of the week, tied to a
service that slowly is being birthed in the cloud.
Early smartphones didn’t look like the iPhone, and
I’m not suggesting the RealWear HMT-1 is the
iPhone’s replacement. Still, even though its focus
is more on industrial use than the consumer
market, this product does have the core elements
to make it a viable proof of concept.
It is a full Android tablet you wear on your head.
It has noise cancellation microphones, and it can
operate by voice command (and it could connect
to systems that use a full natural voice
interface). It has a small, high-resolution display
that sits just out of your line of sight, and it has
a camera (with light source) that it could use to
identify and share with a service or person what
I’ve worn it, and it is acceptably light, though its
industrial focus does cause it to miss on being
attractive and unobtrusive. (It is designed to
attach to a helmet, making it far closer to what
Boba Fett actually would use than what you’d
It’s estimated to cost around US$1,000, and even
at low volume that is in line with high-end
smartphone pricing. It should be far safer and
cheaper than other head-mounted solutions
potentially targeting smartphone replacement.
While the HMT-1 actually is targeted at industrial
use, it could form the design basis for a product
that eventually could replace the iPhone wave of
smartphone offerings. It could be far safer — and
with the anticipated services, far more useful —
than what we have today. As a result, the
RealWear HMT-1 is my product of the week.
I t is easy to look back on technology changes