NFTs, 5G, HUD: Colliding trends and the intermediate future
In 2022, Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) are just the latest speculative craze, but if you combine them with other trends and squint, then you can see a much different future.
By Brad Berens
I’m an NFT skeptic. They seem like digital litter—cybernetic landfill that will clutter the e-commons like plastic bags blowing across a public park. This skepticism is unusual for me. I’m usually an early adopter, as the elephants graveyard in my garage of once exciting/now vanished tech will attest.
Blockchain makes sense when it comes to smart contracts, although thinking about cryptocurrencies gives me migraines. But NFTs? Do we really need to keep more things forever? The internet is already written in indelible laundry pen. Even the name “Non-Fungible Token” seems like an idea that can’t quite lurch into focus.
The use case for NFTs today is weak, but some people felt that way about smartphones back around 2007. “I have a perfectly good feature phone. What do I need with all those app things?” Skeptics had to play around, live inside the tech in order to discover things like the endlessly useful flashlight app or built-in kitchen timer that make life easier, let alone having an entertainment center, telecommunications hub, and movie studio that all fit in a pocket.
So when it comes to NFTs I try to bear in mind one my favorite quotes about the future. It’s from Bill Gates and the 1996 edition of his book, The Road Ahead: “People often overestimate what will happen in the next two years and underestimate what will happen in ten.”
The two to ten year range is enlightening when it comes to thinking about how much NFTs will change and develop by 2032. If we look back, in 2012 the Apple Watch (2015) hadn’t launched, and now I never wear my other watches. The AirPods (2016) weren’t on my horizon, and those are a quietly transformative technology. (Thank you, Justin Choi, for changing my mind about this.) Today, my iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods are the foundation of my Personal Area Network (PAN).
It’s not just Apple products: we haven’t used our expensive stereo system to play music at a party since we bought the first Amazon Echo device in 2015. (Thank you, Jeff Minsky, for convincing me to buy it.)
NFTs will become more than just a 2022-style Tulip mania hoarding exercise when they have practical applications. For that to happen, NFTs will have to collide with at least two other big tech trends: 5G and Heads-Up Display (HUD).
5G is bigger than faster speed for your smartphone: it connects the Internet of Things (IoT) and brings exponentially more of those things into a Ubiquitous Computing Environment. In a similar way to how mobile computing set social media free and made it all-pervasive, 5G will free NFTs from your computer and let them roam around the world. Of course, you’ll have to be able to see them. That’s where HUD comes in.
Heads-Up Display means eyeglasses that have some sort of information onscreen. Yes, many of us remember the “glassholes” from Google Glass back in 2013, but HUD includes Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Extended Reality (XR), and Mixed Reality (MR). HUD puts information where you want it, which is on top of the thing you’re looking at. Driving with HUD on GPS means never having to toggle back and forth between the navigation screen and where you’re trying to go. Meeting a person at a conference, you won’t have to look at the awkwardly nipple-high hanging name tag because people’s names will float next to their faces.
The biggest challenge with HUD isn’t the computing power; it isn’t the need to squeeze the hardware into lightweight glasses frames: it’s the batteries. How can we have screens perched atop our noses and make them useful if we have to take them off to charge every hour? That’s a non-starter. Fortunately, as Scientific American recently reported, some new breakthrough technology may be able to pull charge from 5G itself. Battery life is a difficult but solvable problem, although the solution will arrive closer 2032 than 2024.
The combo-platter of NFTs, 5G, and HUD means that physical products can come alive digitally. I imagine adidas selling high-performance sneakers that are plain on the outside because the exterior of the physical sneaker, the In Real Life (IRL) shoe, will be a platform for virtual sneakers that will only be visible when seen through HUD.
When it comes to NFTs I try to bear in mind one my favorite quotes about the future. It’s from Bill Gates and the 1996 edition of his book, The Road Ahead: “People often overestimate what will happen in the next two years and underestimate what will happen in ten.”
The idea of collecting NFTs that sit in my computer or in a digital wallet somewhere is boring. Buying a pair of forever NFT sneakers that I can wear around, that will always fit, that can be projected onto any number of physical shoes, that are collectible, that have resale value, and that will never wear out? That’s cool. The same works for clothes, cars, buildings…
This take on NFTs might also become an unexpected investment in shared reality. If I buy an expensive NFT painting and hang it on my virtual wall, then I want my guests to see it.
So much of our modern technology isolates us, lets us filter out unwanted stimuli and live in our private bubbles. Years ago, I started work on a near-future science fiction story called Unfiltered where one night the internet goes down throughout an entire city. The folks living in that city have been filtering their environments for so long that they don’t recognize their surroundings or each other when the veils evaporate.The digital splendor of a fine apartment fades to a depressing reality in a crappy neighborhood. Spouses who have edited their partner’s voices hear the grating real things. Looking in the mirror—just a plain old mirror—reveals all the pock marks and imperfections that technology had been invisibly editing.
I never got the protagonist right, but I liked the world. Recently, Scott Snyder and Francis Manapul have launched a comic book series, Clear, a thriller along similar lines. It’s a great read!
NFTs aren’t much now, and they won’t be during the intermediate future of the next few years, but closer to 2032? Parts of our lives will be like The Matrix, only without having to plug wires into our skulls: it will be all around us. That’s scary.
Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).
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