IN THE NEAR future, everyday objects will think on their own, characters will leap from the page, and machines will create buildings to perfectly match their landscapes — all with the simple swipe of a touchscreen. “Technology will change the way we create,” says Thomas Meyerhoffer, a Swedish-American designer, innovator and entrepreneur. “As the screen becomes the canvas, we will move more and more into our actual environments becoming part of the design process.”
Today’s technological boom is rooted in the 1960s, when government researchers began creating the most revolutionary invention of our time — the Internet. During the Cold War, US military scientists built a communications network for computers in case nuclear war destroyed telephone lines. In 1983, the Internet became standardized, soon leading a British software consultant to create the World Wide Web, sparking grad students, scientists and entrepreneurs across the globe to further refine it, transforming how we communicate. Harnessing the web, computers became smaller and more powerful, able to transport and connect anywhere. In 1996, the Apple eMate — a translucent laptop designed by Meyerhoffer — debuted, its sleek form pushing mobile boundaries even further. Finally, in 2007, the smartphone arrived, a handheld device making the Internet accessible from anywhere in the world with a tap of the finger.
For years, the touchscreen has been a bridge between the physical and digital worlds — and is now taking us to new realms with augmented reality. Cutting-edge technology that uses our devices to overlay digital images and video onto physical environments, AR is changing the way we live, communicate and may soon save our lives. It allows us to view hologram-like furniture in our apartments before buying, try on virtual outfits before ordering and view hotel rooms before booking. At MIT, researchers are using AR to solve problems like pollution and global warming, moving AR-enhanced toy-block buildings around to see how planning effects virtual traffic patterns and urban growth in real time, letting them quantify the impact of design on wellness. An example? Researchers created the HoloAnatomy app, allowing medical students to don specialized AR glasses and study virtual bodies as they float before them, speeding their training. And AR will soon even allow doctors to collaborate on procedures remotely — using sensors to effectively capture and overlay one surgeon’s hands on another’s to help guide surgery from thousands of miles away.
Augmented reality will soon make almost any surface a touchscreen. Cars will have windshields that flag obstacles, project routes, and use cameras to make physical parts of the vehicle seemingly disappear for better viewing. Projector-based technology will use infrared sensors to turn flat surfaces into virtual touchscreens, letting people transform real-world objects into AR versions of themselves, dragging characters off the page or running hands along plain surfaces that become keyboards of light.
But nothing will compare with the next frontier of the Internet — Artificial Intelligence. AI uses algorithms to tell a computer what functions to perform, essentially giving machines the tools to learn on their own. While still in its infancy, AI will ultimately be more transformative for mankind than any technology to date. It is being used to schedule flights, assist doctors in diagnoses and allow people to seamlessly talk with each other in different languages with translation tools. Most incredibly, MIT recently unveiled Gelsight technology, sensors that give robots the sense of touch, and robots at Berkeley’s Robot Learning Lab are even watching machine simulators teach themselves how to stand up and run on their own — breakthroughs that researchers believe will open new worlds of communication between man and machine like never before.
Soon, AI will be everywhere. The Internet of Things will connect millions of ordinary devices, from coffeemakers to cars to smartphones, allowing them to be in constant communication while helping us through the day. Socially-focused AI will monitor cloud software information, allowing machines to determine when populations in certain neighborhoods need new schools and then initiate building processes. And AI will even transform the look of our cities, robots absorbing massive amounts of environmental data to then produce blueprints of buildings and bridges perfectly suited to their organic environments, creations that will seamlessly blend with the surrounding world.
Today, technology is at a turning point, rising to become an increasingly natural part of our physical world while redefining the relationship between man and environment. “The future?” Meyerhoffer asks, smiling. “All of this technology will disappear — being both everywhere and nowhere.”
This content was produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Land Rover.