Monday, June 25, 2012

The Future Soon

I work in technology, so part of my job is to be aware of the almost constant new developments in computer software and hardware. It also tends to affect my hobbies as well since I'm a big fan of TV, movies, video games, and comics, which all are being affected by advancements with technology.

The real question, though, is where things will end up in the long run. Where will we be in a few years? Where will we be next decade? This sort of thing is fun to imagine, but it also raises serious questions about the current state of the industry and whether or not the changes we face will be better or worse.


If you haven't seen it yet, go watch the Spectrum Crunch episode of "Extra Credits". If you aren't watching "Extra Credits" and you like video games, you ought to start.

To sum up for those of you who don't want to (or can't) watch the video, basically there's a not-widely-publicized problem facing wireless technologies, which is simply that we're running out of wireless bandwidth and there's currently no way to create more. In other words, if we keep going at the rate we're going, eventually wireless networks will just stop expanding due to an inevitable physical limit.

This problem will most likely hit highly-populated areas first. Big cities with lots of wireless towers that require tons of bandwidth to support all of their users. Eventually they'll hit a wall and won't be able to expand anymore and if they don't find a way to keep up, connection speeds will get slower and slower as more and more people are added.

In the short-term, our best option is to buy spectrum from other areas that don't need them as much anymore, but that'll only get us through a few more years at best. In the long-term, someone somewhere is going to have to figure out a new method of wireless communication that doesn't use radio waves. It's also theoretically possible that someone could just find a new, more efficient way to use radio waves, but that's still only a temporary solution and would require expensive infrastructure overhauls. Radio waves have a set limit in terms of spectrum that's defined by the laws of physics and if it's our only option for wireless communication, we'll always eventually run out. So the most logical option is to create something entirely new.

People have experimented with photons and lasers and things, but that often requires line-of-sight from point to point. To be honest, I don't know what we've got next. I'm particularly fond of the Quantum Entanglement method described in "Mass Effect", but obviously that's science fiction. Still, the idea of wireless 1-to-1 instantaneous communication is basically the ultimate ideal.

I personally optimistically believe that a solution will be invented, and probably within our lifetimes. Wireless communication has never been more important and whoever figures out a solution to this problem first is liable to be a billionaire.

On top of that, whatever new wireless communication is invented, it's possible that it could also lead to a new form of wireless power, Tesla's greatest dream. Just imagine a world without wires.

But that's where we're moving. A world where we're connected everywhere we go. We just have to figure out a new way to get us there.


Video games have a very unclear future, but here's my speculation.

Everyone seems to think that the iPad and the iPhone are the future of gaming. I think that's ridiculous. Convenience has never been a complete substitute for atmosphere. This is why we still go see movies in the theaters even though we have Netflix and other home media. There will always be a market for home consoles and PC gaming simply because mobile devices just aren't good for all kinds of gaming. It's like when I played the demo of the PS Vita at GameStop. It had a demo of the new Uncharted game, and I gave it a spin, and the entire time I was just wishing I could be playing it on a TV instead. And let's not even get into the fact that the button-less interfaces of tablets severely limit what a game designer can do.

I believe that consoles will be around for a long while.

HOWEVER, I DO believe that handheld consoles will eventually cease to be relevant as soon as tablets devise seamless interfaces with programmable tactile feedback. This probably won't happen for years and years, but as soon as your iPad screen can make a certain part of the screen FEEL like a button when and only when it needs to be a button, that's the end of the GameBoy era. Right now the only good reason you'd develop for a Nintendo 3DS or a PS Vita over an iPad is because the iPad has severe limits in terms of control schemes. As soon as that changes, it's all over.

The other big thing, though, is that I think we're almost done with physical media as the only way to enjoy video games. The service OnLive has shown us a glimpse of the future where we play video games in the same way we enjoy Netflix or Hulu. It will save video game companies from having to create new consumer-level hardware, they will no longer have to worry as much about software distribution. It's a better system, and while the transitional period may be difficult, eventually all of our gaming will be on the cloud.

But to make this future viable, we need to solve the spectrum crunch problem I talked about before. Once we do that, we can feasibly provide everyone in the US with reliable, affordable, high-speed wireless Internet. Without it, there's no way gaming in the cloud can be a viable option, just like how no one would use Netflix if movies had to buffer every 10 minutes. No one will game in the cloud if their Internet connection cannot handle it.

Also, when this future does happen, the video game industry as we know it will likely collapse. Like for this example, let's say OnLive becomes popular and successful and everyone uses it. In order to stay relevant, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft would have to convince OnLive to use their proprietary hardware. The only way they could do that would be if that was the only way OnLive could get certain games and developers. However, its just as likely that the developers will be keen to leave Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft in the dust and simply develop on a sort of PC architecture, which has fewer limitations. Then Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft will either have to be like Sega and focus entirely on software development, or they will simply perish entirely.

But it will all be for the better. The technical capabilities of the game can be updated without forcing the consumer base to purchase any new hardware. Game developers will only need to worry about developing for one system. The only question is whether or not OnLive or whoever hosts the gaming service will face any sort of competition.

None of this will happen for quite a long time, obviously, but I think we'll see a push into cloud gaming during the end of this next console generation. I really do think that this next generation could potentially be the last.


In the past year, DC and Marvel have started publishing most of their current titles on the online service ComiXology on the same day as the comics are published in stores. They have also been pushing some of their back catalogs on there as well, but they've still got a way to go.

It's a start, and obviously it doesn't bode well for comic book stores.

I like comic book stores. They're geeky, the people who run them are usually geeky, and they are nice places to hang out, browse, and chat with people.

But I also liked arcades. And with rare exception, those are mostly gone forever.

As much as I like having comic book stores, unless they can find a way to really compete with digital services, it's only a matter of time before they're a rarity.

Comic book stores CAN compete with digital services as they exist now. They can offer a personal touch, make themselves more of a place to hang out, find other ways to supplement their income.

But digital services will eventually change when they eventually go full-on subscription service. The theory is that you can pay DC and Marvel a certain amount of money a month and you can go through their entire digital back catalog and any new releases at no additional cost, not unlike Netflix. This is inevitable. It will happen. And as soon as it does, comic book stores will be hit just as hard as Blockbuster was once Netflix became popular.

There will still be physical copies of comic books sold, but the income for that would probably not be nearly enough to support a store designed exclusively to sell them.

On the plus side, this will significantly lower the barrier of entry for new comic book fans and also make cross-over events less blatant in their attempts to get people to read the other books.


Since I'm not much of a reader, I'll keep this section short, but I think most people already know where this format is going. We're already seeing it.

Right now e-readers are insanely popular because they are easy on the eyes, their battery life is practically eternal, and it's easy to get a new book wherever you are. Eventually all-purpose tablets will make e-readers irrelevant, but it won't change the bottom line.

The sale of physical books will not provide enough income to support a store dedicated to providing them.

Additionally, public libraries will change significantly, but according to a friend of mine who studies such things, they're already fully aware of that, so I'm eager to see what they look like in a decade or two.

I don't think we'll see a subscription-based service for books simply because books take a long time to read.


Cable TV is going to die, and thank God for that. It will likely be a slow and painful death, but eventually we'll get all of our TV through stuff like Hulu. The benefit of this is that advertisers will have much more useful and accurate data regarding their demographics. Right now, ratings are based on a small sampling of specific key demographics and advertisers and television producers make decisions on which shows get funding based solely on that. However, if everyone primarily used Hulu (or something like it) as the way they watch TV, ratings information will be completely accurate and not based on assumptions. Every single person watching a show will know that they are directly supporting the show by tuning in. Shows that might otherwise get canceled might find a surprisingly strong and profitable demographic that might have otherwise slipped under the radar. Additionally, with the eventual proliferation of wireless high-speed Internet, we will no longer be forced to select from a very limited range of ISPs and we won't have to buy Internet AND Cable TV any longer. We will just be paying (hopefully less) for just our Internet connection, which will hopefully be much faster than what we currently have. TV, like everything else, will happen primarily through the cloud. We also might see wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon competing to try and get customers to use their mobile wireless accounts as their primary internet service rather than just what they use for their mobile devices. This won't happen until after they solve the spectrum crunch, but it will happen.


I think Blu-ray is the last physical media format we'll ever see until they start making holographic movies. Everyone uses Netflix now. People still buy physical media, but eventually there will be no real reason to. I think Netflix might start offering customers the option to rent or purchase digital versions of movies that aren't available in their free streaming library, kind of like what Amazon does. Like you pay $7.99 for the standard streaming service, but if you want to watch "Avengers" when it comes out on DVD, you have to pay $10 to watch it through the streaming service, or $2 if you want to rent it. They might also start including extras and featurettes that you normally would only get on the DVD or Blu-ray copy.

Movie theaters aren't going anywhere and despite their marketing campaign suggesting otherwise, piracy doesn't threaten them in the slightest. People go to movie theaters for the same reason they go to restaurants. Sure they could get the same food for cheaper at home, but the experience is better and it feels more like a fun outing or a special occasion, making the price worth it.


So tablets are going to take over the world, right? Well, not for a while. First they have to fix the input issues. So long as people still prefer typing with a physical keyboard, tablets will never completely replace the PC. With Windows 8 and the Surface, we're getting closer to that universe, but we're not quite there.

Yeah, it will happen one day, but probably not until we fix the spectrum crunch and its easier to have high powered mobile devices that can last more than a full day without needing to recharge. Wireless power will do a lot to help with that.

Improving tactile feedback for tablets will also do a lot of good, but that also requires technological advancements.


3D is cool, but unfortunately it has a lot of growing up to do before it leaves the movie theater. Simply put, we need to have glasses-less 3D that can be seen from any viewing angle without causing eye-strain or seizures.

My bet is on holograms.

Sure, that's a long, long way off, but holograms are the only viable option for bringing 3D into any environment without resorting on effectively hacking the human brain with optical trickery. We probably won't see it in our lifetime, but I can dream.

If we don't have holograms, I don't think 3D will ever take off in a significant way in terms of home media.

Holograms will also potentially change everything else listed above, but since it's such a long way off, there's not sense in bringing it up now. Maybe one day.