Billionaire tech evangelists with bold visions of the future want to change the way we consume media. Raymond Snoddy examines some of the potentially disruptive technologies heading our way.
Is journalism as we know it today, and indeed much of television production as currently practiced, going to be changed forever by artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality?
You can scoff and trivialise the issue by conjuring up the march of the robots in a coming battle with humans but a lot of very serious people are starting to talk about new forms of media and video display.
The ideas come from the tech billionaires who have already changed the world and have the resources and the vision to cause new waves of disruption to traditional ways of doing things and therefore cannot be casually ignored.
Suddenly talk of AI, VR and AR seems to be around every corner.
Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame no less, has just claimed that we should all be more worried about World War III being caused by AI than anything now happening on the Korean peninsula.
Musk was responding to the views of Russian leader Vladimir Putin that whoever becomes the leader in AI would become ruler of the world.
On the less global scale of television, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is convinced that augmented reality (AR) is the future of television.
Zuckerberg is convinced that AR glasses, and eventually really smart contact lenses, will make televisions, smartphones and other communication devices obsolete.
Why will you need a physical object like a $500 TV set when a digital TV picture can be shown on a wall by a $1 app, although you can be sure that if such a thing is ever produced Zuckerberg will charge a lot more than $1 for it.
VR, after failing to excite mainstream television, was the talk of the MIPTV conference in Cannes earlier this year.
Can it really start to transform how television is made – outside of the gamers donning their goggles?
Certainly immersive VR, AR, AI and 360 degree video will all be well represented at next week’s IBC convention in Amsterdam – the 50th IBC. They are obviously the topical themes of the moment. The IBC Future zone will focus heavily on the latest VR experiences, the all-round video, 3D sound and even holographic experiences.
When the entire communications industry gets behind clever emerging technologies then surely something of significance is happening – isn’t it?
Many are reluctant to express scepticism remembering those who once predicted that cars would never be able to go faster than 15 miles an hour or that sending rockets to the moon was quite impossible.
The future, after all, has to start somewhere and these days everything that can be imagined appears possible.
Except technological determinism doesn’t always work.
Five years ago at IBC, Dreamworks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg was beamed in from Hollywood in a live 3D satellite transmission – allegedly the first.
Katzenberg insisted eloquently that as the world was in 3D it was inevitable that films and television programmes would be also be in 3D. It was only a matter of time before the average consumer went to their optician to get their 3D glasses for going to the cinema alongside reading glasses.
The only problem with the Katzenberg vision was the consumer. They stubbornly refused to wear special glasses either in the cinema or at home to watch television. Some even complained that 3D gave them headaches.
Does the 3D experience say anything important about the future of VR, which involves not just wearing the equivalent of spectacles but wrap-around ski masks to create new immersive worlds.
How many will be prepared to isolate themselves in this way?
For many, plain old reality will be quite splendid enough.
So VR may be a specialist pursuit but surely AR glasses that still allow you to see the rest of the world could change the world of communication.
Despite the fact that Google Glass didn’t set the world alight and had to be discontinued, there are persistent rumours that Apple is at work on an AR headset and where Apple goes…
Certainly Apple chief executive Tim Cook is a fan of AR and believes it is going to be a big deal, much more so than VR, as he told the Washington Post in an interview last year.
“How long will it take? AR is gonna take a little while, because there are some really hard technology challenges there. But it will happen. It will happen in a big way and we will wonder when it does how we lived without it,” Cook predicted.
Time to make a judgment when the Apple AR glasses finally appear.
As for AI and journalism the future is already here, at least in a modest form. Simple stories such as sports and company results are already being produced automatically and the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post has already carried a bot-generated political story.
There has even been speculation about whether a robot-generated story could – or should – be able to win a Pulitzer prize.
Chess fans will know only too well that computer chess programmes can show even the grandest of grandmasters a clean pair of heels.
Over the next six months there will be a lot of interest in the Google funded RADAR experiment – Reporters and Data and Robots – at the Press Association.
The £600,000 scheme will mine existing data – such as crime statistics – and combine it with sets of appropriate words to create as many as 30,000 hyper-local, simple stories a month.
The PA laughs off suggestions of robots replacing human journalists and argues that what we are talking about is the production of stories on a scale that would be economically impossible by any other means.
Real reporting will still be carried out by real reporters, although perhaps, just to be sure, robot-generated work should be tagged as such.
Certainly there is daily evidence of boundaries leaking into each other – such as, according to The Times, rules in a photographic portrait competition having to be reviewed after an image of an android named Erica was submitted.
So in ten years readers will be accessing robot-generated journalism on Apple AR glasses – or then again perhaps not.