Tomorrow’s Internet

In the 14 years I’ve been doing web development, I’ve seen the internet become so ubiquitous that it’s found its way into every aspect of our lives. It’s humanity’s shiny toy. We fumbled with it for awhile before we figured out how to really use it, and we’re still dreaming up new ways to play with it.

We’re all familiar with the trends that drive the internet’s growth. Over time, computers are getting smaller and faster, more than ever thanks to the rise of mobile computing. New technologies are being produced to take advantage of these ever-expanding capabilities, spurred on by crowd-funding, which is a new idea in and of itself. Eventually, those technologies move from high-priced gadgets for professionals and enthusiasts into affordable products for consumers at large. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of technological advancement, innovation, and consumer adoption. It’s also the reason science fiction tends to become reality after a few decades.

If you accept these facts, then predicting the future is as simple as examining the emerging technologies of today, overlaying the data processing capabilities of tomorrow, and applying the polish of consumerism. With that logic in mind, here are my predictions for the internet of tomorrow:

  • Wearable technology (e.g., smart watches, Google Glass) will become the norm. A simple headset combined with voice commands, advanced graphical UX, and optionally gloves to provide gesture support will surpass many of the interface limitations of today’s mobile devices. Combined with deep personalization and integration, most consumers will abandon desktops and tablets in favor of these devices.
  • Ubiquitous, high-speed connectivity will become standard to the extent that it is considered a basic utility like water or electricity, or even a fundamental human right. Analog media and separate data delivery standards (e.g., newspapers, cable television, land-line telephones) will continue their slow, painful death until they finally go the way of 8-tracks and floppy disks. Everything will be connected all the time, rendering other methods of information delivery obsolete.
  • Virtual (and augmented) reality will enter the mainstream. Facebook’s $2-billion bet on Oculus Rift will spur other big name companies to develop in this arena. Combined with the rise of wearable tech and ubiquitous connectivity, standards will emerge that allow ordinary users to define elements of augmented reality that provide meta-experiences to VR-enabled headsets. You won’t have to go to a restaurant’s Facebook page to Like it any more; you’ll just press the virtual Like button on the table in front of you.
  • Like humanity’s favorite science fiction, time and distance will become less relevant. With the advent of augmented reality, you will be able to sit in a cafe and have a chat with the avatar of a friend half the world away. You may even begin to see businesses set up identical layouts so that users can enjoy similar experiences despite being in different physical locations. Public events and vacation destinations will become accessible for a price, allowing you to project virtually to live areas of the real world.
  • With the rise of affordable 3D printing, the line will blur even further. Artists will create items in virtual space that are then reproduced on demand by machines. Entire storefronts will exist that are empty of real products. People will browse items and make selections in virtual space, then have the item printed in real space when they buy it. The same storefront will serve virtual users, who can then pick up their printed selections at the store’s local chain.
  • Like the internet has always done, augmented reality will pose challenges for the legal system. Augmented space will feature some sort of overarching registry system similar to domain names, leading to conflicts with existing property laws when businesses start registering a virtual presence on top of competitor’s buildings or in people’s homes. Copyright infringement cases will take on a new substance (pun intended) when the items being copied can be manufactured into the real thing.
  • As virtual space gains ground against real space in terms of relevance, society will face new hurtles. Political debates will center around the virtualization of classrooms, marriages between people who’ve never met in real life, and tax breaks for small businesses to give them a chance against hyper-efficient, virtualized mega corporations. Popular contempt for wearable tech will get turned on its head, leading to bias against the disconnected who are blind to AR. Psychologists will have a host of new problems to deal with involving personal identity, reclusiveness, and social disorders.

What does it mean for us web developers? On the bright side, our jobs are safe. Demand for primitive internet presences (e.g., websites) are sure to remain high for backwards compatibility and for users who prefer simpler, 2D experiences. However, much like responsive design, we’ll need to become masters of new standards, such as 3D modeling, in order to meet the new demand for augmented reality elements. It won’t be enough to know HTML any more; we’ll need to become the architects of our clients’ entire virtual presence or risk being left in the wake of the new technology.

Make no mistake, though. These things aren’t just coming; they’re already here. Some of this may sound like Jetsons-esque “flying cars” talk, but the technology for everything I’ve mentioned already exists. It’s only a matter of time before it gets combined into something resembling augmented reality. When it does, it’ll be a brave new world, a lot like the old one but with a tantalizing virtual coating.