An alarming amount of the storage space in my brain is occupied by movie quotes and song lyrics. A line from one of the songs of my youth has been kicking around in my mind lately: “Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping, into the future.” In tech, we build and implement the future. So, we all have some fun prognosticating a little bit every now and then.
I’m a generalist, so I take a wide view of things. From my perspective, some intriguing trends and convergence points are poised to shake up the way we do things on the tech side of the house. So let me dust off my crystal ball and let’s take a look at a few potential game-changers.
A Virtual Certainty
We’ve been hearing about the virtual reality/augmented reality revolution for several years now. Several people wrote it off as just another idea that was always going to be five to 10 years away and never arrive. Frankly, I was one of them.
Despite my skepticism about its implementation, I’ve always been intrigued by VR’s potential ever since I saw The Lawnmower Man (don’t judge me). And playing a couple of VR games at Dave & Buster’s several years ago was a very cool experience. But other than novelties, all went quiet about VR. Except for the occasional story here and there, the field seemed fallow.
In 2016, though, things started cranking up again. Virtual reality headsets were being marketed for consumer purchase, and concepts like augmented reality and mixed reality entered public discourse. In just a few years, the VR landscape has changed.
Much of that has to do with barriers to entry. Consumers no longer need to dedicate a room in their homes to hardware set-ups and motion sensors. Numerous companies produce several models of VR headsets to choose from, and they use no more than a couple of standard PC cable connections. You have your pick of the litter if your computer has the muscle for it. VR hardware prices are also coming down as their ease of use increases.
One lingering issue some people may have is that there isn’t all that much to do with a VR headset if you have one. Sure, there are a few cool games and interactive experiences to be had. But that’s largely it. And even though the cost is no longer exorbitant, it’s still not chump change for most folks, and the current dearth of must-have software doesn’t make the purchase compelling. That looks to be changing soon, however.
In addition to the increased number of choices when it comes to VR headsets, related consumer tech is currently seeing a boom. Several smart glasses products are in development. Here’s hoping they fare better than Google Glass. All of these devices (and ones we haven’t heard much about yet) will provide new ways to get information to people in real-time as they live their lives. Imagine seeing something in a window at the mall or on a shelf in a store. Your smart glasses scan the UPC or QR code, and within seconds you’re presented with a list of prices and availability from other outlets. You know right away if you can get a better deal.
Smartwatches will likewise continue to provide biometrics to help us maximize our health, and there are currently versions in development that will provide real-time monitoring of blood sugar levels without the need to draw blood. And it’s a small step from the apps we already use for real-time traffic updates to seeing this information on display overlays on the windshields of our cars. VR is already making inroads into movie theaters and innovating the way we experience immersive entertainment, and the increasing ubiquity of wearable and mobile tech using augmented/mixed reality is innovating the way we experience life.
There’s a wonderful dualism to hardware and software development. A company develops a new piece of tech, and the code wizards go to work developing software that pushes the limits of what the hardware can do. Then the next-gen tech comes out with better performance, and the innovation dance continues. The increased pace of hardware iterations and the increased power of software development tools are converging with other technological shifts like increased broadband speeds, expanding the number and functionality of smart devices, and a surge in the development of wearable tech, just to name a few.
Ultimately, this process is all about getting as much information to people as quickly as possible and presenting it in easily usable interfaces. Just like VR headsets, hardware costs will be coming down while the capabilities go up. Given the continuing development of higher-speed wireless data protocols, it’s not hard at all to envision someone getting real-time information in a clean, sharp UI on a reasonably priced piece of wearable tech. We have the pieces to the puzzle already, and it’s not long until they come together.
Just Do It
Killer apps for virtual reality and augmented/mixed reality are on the way, and where they come from may prove disruptive. Traditionally, developers have completed a course of study at the college level and acquired some years of professional experience, developing their skills while working on real-world projects. This approach offers numerous benefits, not the least of which is that focused training and skill development happen in a productive learning environment.
But another very important consideration was the software that students needed. Most of these software suites were very expensive, and most of the quality training resources also cost a pretty penny. The most cost-effective way to get the training you needed on the software you wanted to learn was to enroll in a degree or certificate program. Recent changes are challenging that system, however.
Open-source software has been around for ages as a free alternative to commercial packages, which can be quite expensive. As a result, the open-source development community has been a major driving force for innovation. Some developments and advances in open-source software have even made their way into commercial suites as updates and added features.
Open-source developers have long been open to and enthusiastic about expanding their numbers, and they’ve continued to produce software tools that have more powerful capabilities while also becoming increasingly user-friendly. The open-source software scene has played a crucial role in democratizing content creation. Coupled with recent increases in the availability of reasonably priced training resources, the stage is set for just about anyone to acquire and learn the tools they need to create whatever they imagine.
Being a lover and student of 3D art, Blender stands out as a shining example of the ways open-source software is changing the game. Blender developers are constantly working to create and implement features that put them on par with industry-standard commercial applications. Independent individuals can create content and add-ons that they can sell in online marketplaces, creating cottage industries and additional income streams for motivated folks. Additionally, the Blender Foundation has received several mega grants from major corporate players in the entertainment space. Additional funding has enabled major releases and feature implementations, which are putting Blender on the map in new ways. It’s not just for hobbyists anymore.
This trend isn’t limited to open-source software tools either. Some commercial software suites are changing their licensing models to encourage more widespread adoption into the workflows of creative individuals and teams. For example, Epic Games is one of the companies at the forefront of this movement. They’re constantly developing new, improved and more powerful features for their Unreal Engine product. As long as you finalize and publish your creation in Unreal Engine, you have full use of its features and access to their extensive Quixel Megascans library of 3D assets and textures at no initial cost. You just kick them a modest percentage after you’ve made a million bucks. That’s the kind of deal any creative person can get behind.
Other game studios are finding that the lifespan of the games they spend years developing can be extended significantly by being open and supportive of people who like to modify them. Modding communities are filled with talented and creative folks who are constantly injecting new content into games that have been out for several years, and more studios are seeing the value in allowing people to use their games not only as interactive experiences but also as development platforms.
The potential for disruption is clear when considering that there are far more numerous and varied avenues for learning various technological and coding skills than could possibly be covered in a university course of study. Interested individuals can experience a wide variety of platforms and applications with little more than an internet connection and a reasonably beefy computer. They’re able to cover more ground in introductions and overviews and dive deeper into project production much more quickly, shortening their learning curve and giving themselves immediate experience.
As these trends continue to grow, and as other social and economic factors continue to shape the way business is done, we may very well see significantly increased importance placed on what someone can do regardless of the path they took to gain those skills. That’s not to minimize the importance of education at all. But if someone can acquire that education while developing projects and creating finished content, businesses may soon lean much more heavily on portfolios than transcripts.
Code to Node
Those portfolios may be getting built-in new ways soon too. Computers are everywhere, and programming them is a vital, marketable skill. Or at least it will be until we develop SkyNet and its AI destroys everything, or some other similarly cheerful doomsday scenario happens (if you’re into that kind of thing).
Right now, dozens of different programming languages exist, each with its own syntax. Some languages are fairly fluid and readable, while others more closely resemble hieroglyphs and read as though someone is shouting acronyms. Getting to grips with the syntax of a language can take a fair amount of time and may require a bookshelf filled with reference material. Development trends in software suites may be taking things in a different direction, however.
Writing programs that tell machines what to do is a tricky business on a good day, so any programming language developments that make it easier for people to effectively communicate with machines is cause for celebration. Communication is at times enjoyable as well as frustrating, effortless as well as challenging. A lot of clarification is sometimes necessary in order for the parties to understand one another clearly.
Communication with computers is similar. It has its own challenges and pitfalls, but an upside is that computers aren’t emotionally affected by the strings of profanity users unleash on them when they don’t do what the user expects. It’s one thing to develop a project; it’s another thing to tell a machine how to implement the project without breaking things. A misspelled variable name or a semicolon out of place can bring things to a screeching halt. Syntax debugging tools have come a long way, but these still require familiarity with the syntax in the first place. All of that might be on the cusp of a major revolution, however, thanks to the increased use of nodes.
Various software suites are trending toward the use of nodes as a method of constructing complex functions. Data structures and program logic are increasingly built with nodes from within the software suite itself, and the node structures can be tested there as well. The nodes are compiled into programming code using the software suite’s compiler. What we have here is the logic and structure of the project being built visually using node networks without a single line of code being written.
If a person understands how to construct a flowchart, then they can learn how to construct a node network. There is no additional external programming platform license to pay for, and those who understand logic structures can contribute significantly to the development of projects without needing a high level of familiarity with programming language syntax.
Programmers need not worry too much though. There will always be certain nuanced changes and functions that can only be accomplished at the coding syntax level. And even with the advent of node networks as design and implementation tools, knowledge of the language syntax used by the software suite’s compiler is a significant plus. But as more development opens up to being node-based and not just code-based, the number of people able to work on a project will expand, bringing more unique perspectives and skill sets to project development. This range and plurality can be a great asset to the organization. Every business can benefit from having both broad-view developers build the larger system and code-level experts putting those masterful finishing touches on it.
Prepare for Change
“Change is the only constant.” I’ve heard this many times, and I find myself saying it more often nowadays. The more technology develops and the more frequently these developments become easily accessible, the more they’ll impact how we do what we do. Exciting days are ahead, and it’s vital that we stay flexible and adaptable. I’ve never quoted Steve Winwood before in my life, so this will be a first. But as you see these and other changes coming your way, be ready to “Roll with it, baby.”