Turning inner space into outer space

April 30, 2016

Linking into the future — from robots to virtual reality

A virtual reality screenshot from Surviving Solitary. From the Globe and Mail.

Welcome to a sprinkling of links — all pointing toward what appears to be our inevitable future.

Geoff Watts, having reached a certain age, writes about life with robot companions. It won’t be long before mobile computers designed to look human are looking after the elderly and infirm.

Would we be able to get used to that? The answer may lie in research into our relations with animals. Our pets are not human, but we sure treat them as if they were.

Who hasn’t shouted at a failing machine? The first vehicle I owned was a decrepit van that struggled even on modest inclines. More than once when driving the wreck I found myself putting an arm out through the window and using the flat of my hand to beat the door panel – like a rider on a horse’s flank. “Come on, come on,” I shouted at the dashboard. Only later did I contemplate the absurdity of this action.

Speaking of people over 65, they’re more adaptable to technology than you might think. A survey in the United States shows that since 2011, people in this age group using social media has tripled from 11 per cent to 35 per cent. At this rate, it won’t be long before seniors have caught up with young adults (18-29), who are at 90 per cent.

One of the old-timers among social media, Twitter, has moved to a different category in Apple’s App Store. It’s gone from Social Networking to News. So what’s up with that?

Despite becoming a household name, Twitter is struggling to find a way of staying afloat — or at least make enough money to satisfy shareholders. Skeptics say the move is a way of highlighting the Twitter app as the top download in the News category.

But there might be more to it. Twitter is much loved by journalists and news junkies because it is a reverse time line. They’ve been fiddling with this formula lately, but basically you can count on the top item being the newest.

Regardless of whether the top tweet is from a friend or a major network, you can always count on getting the latest. For many of us, that’s the definition of news — so it makes sense to be in the News category.

Meanwhile, other social media are doing just fine. Among the 10 most valuable private companies in the world — as listed by the World Economic Forum — are Snapchat and Pinterest.

Number one, by the way, is Uber, the ride-sharing service that’s disrupting the taxi industry. Condolences from the news industry.

These start-ups get a lot of attention, but it’s good to see mainstream media investing in technology that keeps them relevant. A good example is the Globe and Mail’s virtual reality experiment called Surviving Solitary.

Using a virtual reality headset, you can experience what’s it’s like to be imprisoned in solitary confinement. The New York Times and the Guardian have similar projects.

I foresee a future where virtual reality enables us to experience the news first-hand — not just an artist’s rendering. We might, for example, be able to explore the aftermath of an earthquake half-way around the world.

Of course, by the time that becomes commonplace, I’ll need a robot companion to fetch my headset for me.