The next unicorns: what billion dollar companies will look like in 2020

Originally published via Cauri Jaye (rhubarbstudios.co, 10/29/15)

Picture this scenario: your children no longer go to school and instead lie with their eyes closed learning and interacting in virtual worlds. When they get up to play, they go into a room and choose a quiet riverbed scene from a list of options; their friends appear and they play in the river. As this goes on, you place your smart-device on the kitchen counter and it unfolds into a laptop. The glare from the window bounces off the screen, so you walk over and tap the window frame, the wall morphs and the window disappears.

While these ideas may seem fantastical, like something out of a sci-fi movie, this new paradigm in tech will ease into our lives gradually, until we look back in five years and try to remember how life functioned before. Remember life before mobile phones? Nope. Neither do I.

Evolution not revolution

The evolution has already begun in a quiet, innocuous way. Take the recent example of Amazon’s new dash buttons.These small, physical devices sit quietly, attached to your kitchen walls, sending you common household items when you press them. Combined with Amazon’s one-hour delivery, this takes us very close to instant satisfaction; Pavlov’s human. It seems simple but could be the gateway to on-demand 3D-printed food, tools, devices and more, manufactured in your home. Think it, buy it, build it.

In previous decades, we saw a wedge between the virtual world and our physical one. Older generations lived only in the physical world and struggled with the digital one, using it mainly for email and browsing the news. The digital world evolved so the younger generations could immerse themselves in virtual worlds of social feeds, social gaming, micro-news, dating, digital art, picture memes and video, billions and billions of hours of video. We now have two personalities, two representations of ourselves, two reputations: our online persona built of multiple profiles and social interactions, and the one we present in the physical world. These two differ less and less. The compatibility of our online personas and our offline day to day lives started crudely; they have now begun to evolve into a unified being: two expressions of the same brain in different realms.

The next stage

As these personas combine, our ways of interacting will also unify. Brain-controlled devices, heralded by smart prosthetics currently only available to the disabled, will become the norm; home 3D printers will replace delivery; our connected devices will not only talk to us but also to each other, enriching our experience. Imagine cars talking to each other to avoid accidents and raise speed limits — the benefits range from convenient to life-saving.

Eventually our specific devices like smartphones will disappear altogether and their services will live in everything around us — even within our body. For example, our bionic lenses will not only improve our eyesight to 30/30 but will also layer real-time information onto our world. Our bodies will enjoy good health and longevity as connected nanotech in our blood, gut and bones optimise our chemical needs. We will connect these systems via the cloud, sharing real-time data about us with the virtual version of ourselves. We add a gym appointment in our calendar and 10 minutes before it starts our body starts to increase the right chemicals for the best workout. Our desires will express themselves physically in the world around us in an instant. These changes can be seen in the current trends.

The present trends

The world economic forum identifies six mega-trends in technology today:

  1. Wearable and embeddable technology connecting people
  2. Computer, communications and storage, abundant and everywhere
  3. Internet of things: sensors and communications built into everything and working together
  4. Machine intelligence and big data: using massive amounts of data to allow machines to acquire intelligence through learning like children
  5. Sharing economy and distributed trust: platform-based social and economic models
  6. The digitization of matter: 3D printing and on-the-spot creation of physical materials

All six of these trends relate to one bigger trend: the collision and combination of the physical and virtual worlds.

Where to focus to lead innovation

These technologies exist now in their infancy. They will increase exponentially in the next decade. Take the example of the phone expanding into a laptop, or the window disappearing into a wall. This sounds like Star Trek technology, but in reality we have already started down the road of claytronics: nanoparticles that can form into different materials and objects programmatically. Scientists at Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere have begun work on this and we can expect commercial applications in as few as five years.

The adoption of technology drives the speed of innovation. In a survey 10 years ago, people said they would not use autonomous cars because they did not trust computers and they loved driving too much. A similar survey now shows that people cannot wait for these vehicles. What changed? In a word, convenience. Broadband internet and smartphones came along and people prefer to watch videos and text their friends instead of driving the car. Convenience drives adoption. The technologies of the next decade will provide convenience in spades.

If you consider yourself an entrepreneur then get into this field. Mix AI with material science, find new physical ways to access the virtual, make it easier to transform thought into reality perhaps with digital design and 3D printing, or with thought or voice interfaces. Take cues from Google Now, Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana — services which have started to predict what you need before you need it. These are the areas of growth: the billion dollar companies of the early 2020s. Play in the spectrum between virtual and physical reality to discover true innovation. What can you imagine?

The mixed reality

No single one of these technologies will lead to a unified virtual-physical future, each of these will gradually take us there. The journey began some time ago; we will turn around one day soon and wonder how we did not see this world coming. A new economy, a new society. We have already discovered the science for these ideas and have begun to create the resultant technologies in universities, enterprises, labs and startups, around the world. On one side, virtual reality gives way to augmented virtuality, on the other hand, the physical world gives way to augmented reality. So next time you look at your smartphone, click on a remote, or check your Fitbit, think about how ancient you will find that interaction in just a few short years. Bring on the mixed reality.