Futuristic Betting at VisWeek 2009.

So I went to IEEE VisWeek 2009, and it was far more awesome and enjoyable than even my most optimistic expectations. Besides contributing to the tweetstorm (see #visweek) but not being able to liveblog due to higher priority activities, attending paper presentations and chatting with as many cool people as possible (much higher priority activities), this year I’ve also made a number of elaborate bets with a subset of said cool people concerning the future of our technology. If all goes according to plan, the bets’ll end up being visionary, if not, they might be slightly embarrassing and we’ll have a good laugh at VisWeek 2019.

Because these bets only realise in 10 or 20 years, I’ve told my betting partners that I would write it up on my blog so that we could check in that much time, and that they would then owe me copious amounts of beer. This also gives them the opportunity to check my wording for suitability, as we might have to cleave hairs when the time comes.

Bet #1: At VisWeek 2019, I and at least one other person will be wearing a HUD pretty much all the time, OR I will have at least one bionic eye.

Courtesy of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.
Courtesy of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.

I made this bet with the infamous Dr. Bob Laramee, proprietor of the 5-star webpage.  This came up in a conversation about having some form of non-intrusive display device always available with which things could be looked up, relatively unobtrusively, during for example a conversation.

I do expect that sometime within the next 10 years, HUDs (heads-up display) will be offered as an option with every new set of spectacles.  This is definitely not a push-over bet, but that makes it all the more exciting.

I’m not sure how the bionic eye clause slipped in there, honestly!

Bet #2: 19.5 years from now, there will be more cars with alternative propulsion systems than there are cars with fossil-fuel based internal combustion engines.

This one was made with Dr Helmut Doleisch, linked view data analysis guru and now CEO of SimVis (hey man, BUY THEIR SOFTWARE!).  He is concerned with all the vested interests in fossil-fuel combustion, whereas I think that 19.5 years is more than enough time to introduce non-fossil fuel based propulsion systems on the road, so much so that less than 50% of cars on the road will have need of fossil fuel.

Brazil with its 190 million inhabitants is an interesting example in this regard: A large number of their cars already run on either gasoline or sugarcane ethanol – clearly a great step in the direction of non-fossil fuel options.

Bet #3: In 2029, distributed conferences with tele-presence will be common.

In this case, the beer-donor is Dr Stefan Bruckner, master of all things volume visualisation and father of the VolumeShop software system.  My contention is that in 20 years, conferences where attendees take part via tele-presence systems, whatever they may be, will be common-place.

I’ve called one of the models I envision of this “clustered telepresence”, which would entail that groups of attendees would indeed gather physically, but that these remote clusters would be connected by advanced tele-presence systems, involving advanced displays (think very large, or perhaps even some form of mobile volumetric displays) and distributed and mobile sound.

During the discussion preceding the making of this bet, valid concerns were raised with regard to the efficacy of remote socialising, especially beer-drinking.  I agree that this is an issue of utmost importance, but still contend that technology and efficiency concerns will conspire to address this problem in a way that is at least good enough to fool, to a sufficient extent, all parties involved.

Bill Buxton at CARS 2009

Courtesy of an invitation by Prof. Bernhard Preim and the CARS (Computer Assisted Radiology and Surgery) organization to give the Visualization and Virtual Reality in Medicine tutorial together with the good professor, I got to go to CARS 2009 in (you guessed it) Berlin.  It was an honour and a pleasure to present this tutorial together with the author of The Book currently defining my research field.

What was completely unexpected though, was being completely blown away by Bill Buxton’s keynote.


I have to admit that I was not aware of this distinguished gentleman or his credentials (amongst other things, xerox parc in its absolute heyday, later chief scientist of alias wavefront and of SGI, now principal scientist at Microsoft, and much more) before yesterday.  This dude shows up on stage, and in a totally relaxed and understated way, manages to blow my mind a number of times.

He started by casually telling us that he’d already been playing around with multi-touch displays (now all the rage in the UI world) in 1985, using it to design digital percussion instruments.  Then he demonstrated, with a number of examples, a significant number of which he had personally been involved with (the multi-touch just mentioned among others), his “20 year long nose” observation.  Innovations that eventually make it, take on average 20 years to get from the lab to main-stream, where main-stream is defined as being a billion dollar industry.  The mouse took even longer: 30 years.

Before getting to the next important and extremely provocative point, he showed us this video (I’ve made you a nice crappy mobile phone cam version):

(Peter Krekel managed to find the original Microsoft demo-reel on youtube and shared:)

His provocative statement was that screen real estate will essentially be free in 5 years, based on the rapid evolution of manufacturing technology, customer demand, and the trends in analogous examples, such as bandwidth.  If somebody had told you 10 years ago that internet bandwidth today, in 2009, would be essentially free and available in copious amounts, you would have spat out your morning coffee.  I know I would have… in ’99 we were still dealing with dial-up.  Coming from Bill Buxton, and also based on all his examples, this made me sit up straight and think.  We’re going to have really big screens.  Think metres by metres at a resolution of at least 100 DPI.  Think walls covered with screens, because it’s cheaper than putting up a whiteboard.  We have to rethink everything that we know about interfacing with the digital world…

Another tantalising prediction (and I’ve heard this from more people than Buxton) is that soon mobile phones will have as standard equipment a micro laser projector.  This will allow us to project on arbitrary curved surfaces (it’s coherent light, so always in focus!) when we want to show something to anyone else and, even cooler, it will allow us to perform 3D colour scans of anything we see.  At this stage I had the distinct feeling of my hair being blown back.  I’m going to be living inside Star Trek!

There was much more (including personal devices that are more aware of their context: think cell phone automatically speaking to television and computer as you enter a room), but I’d like to conclude this post with one of his more profound lessons: Innovation is hardly ever about coming up with something completely new.  That sometimes does happen, but is a fluke.  Real innovation is about taking one of the dimensions defining an existing technology (size, speed, price, resolution, simplicity, intelligence, and many more subtle dimensions) and expanding that dimension by at least an order of magnitude.  Doing this in fact yields a completely new technology.  The really clever people have learned how to identify the more subtle dimensions and expand them.

I’m going to think about that for a while. :)