The Future Just Ain’t What It Used To Be

I’ve spent the last couple weeks rolling through the conference scene, and I’m always talking with startups and their advisors around town. The topic of the ‘future’ is usually just below the surface, but it’s been utterly pervasive since mid-September. The most obvious example is the Future Media Fest 2010 going on now at the Georgia Tech Hotel & Conference Center. My time there so far has been more future looking than the average event, but it feels like many ideas and companies these days are more incremental than truly disruptive (which I would contend is a cornerstone of being ‘of the future’).

The same was true of the TechCrunch Disrupt conference last week in San Francisco. It seemed the majority of startups there were some derivation of a location-based system, including the latest golden child Foursquare. As a Sarah Lacy piece over at TechCrunch accurately points out:

“…we had the group of startups in the middle of Monday’s afternoon of competitions that were all basically iterations on Foursquare. It’s one thing for companies to build off of the success of Facebook or the iPhone, but Foursquare hasn’t even proved it can go mainstream.”

I can honestly say the smartest thing I’ve heard recently about ‘the future’ was from Georgia Tech professor Dr. Ian Bogost today while leading a panel on the ‘Future of Gaming in 25 Years’:

“In 25 years, the prospect of us sitting on stage talking about the future of gaming will be absurd.”

His point was we’d be immersed in it. And isn’t that really how we want it anyway?

I also had the conversation today about how my favorite conference moments of the 90s were when the Intel Labs or PARC guys showed up at DEMO and wowed the crowd with amazing projects – that had absolutely no immediate commercialization aspects. And I clearly remember sitting at IBM Wildwood seeing a very early demo of Dragon speech recognition in 1991, and guess what? It was about as accurate as the Dragon Naturally Speaking app I have on my iPhone today. So much for the theory everything would be voice controlled in the not-so-distant future.

You can even look at two very high-profile apps as proof points: the TechCrunch Disrupt-winning Qwiki and the iPad’s reference news app Flipboard. Both are beautifully designed apps that focus on visualization of existing data, but let’s be fair: they’re not really indicative of the future of apps. Flipboard is – in many ways – RSS reader #2,935 to come to market. It just so happens they created an amazingly beautiful design in conjunction with our generation’s #1 content consumption device, the iPad. And while Qwiki feels very futuristic, questions remain around how much of the ‘magic’ can be created from an automated script. If it requires a ton of hand curation, then it really just becomes another authoring platform like Adobe’s Flash.

And I finished my day at a Nintendo press event, and found an even lower quotient of futureness (is that even a word?). I saw demos and walkthroughs of many upcoming Holiday 2010 titles, and they’re almost all part of long-loved franchises like Donkey Kong, Mickey Mouse or Metroid. I absolutely understand the hits-based methodology of video game marketing (and music, for that matter), but I’d still love to see the next level of innovation ala the Wii Remote of 2006. Now that Sony and Microsoft have caught up with Move and Kinect respectively, I can’t wait to see who sets the tone for the next five years. Most would agree the Wii pretty clearly won the last round on innovation plus price.

So while I’m not going to complain I didn’t get my Jetson’s car, I do wonder where the next big innovation will come from. Who will define the ‘future’ of gaming or the ‘future’ of location-based services? Does this future hang on the inventions of big brands like Nintendo, or will it rise from the minds of small startups like Square? I’d almost surely wager on the startups to grab the future by the throat. Big players like Nintendo and Intel will always improve successive generations of technology and devices, but will rarely break the mold altogether. That rare air is reserved for the best and brightest startups. And I’d love to see more of them!


0 # pfreet 2010-10-06 12:40
Species evolution, discovered by Darwin, has always fascinated me. And one of the more remarkable aspects of evolution is that it doesn't happen all the time, it happens in short bursts. Always as the result of some environmental change.

So too is startup innovation. We go through spurts. We spend years where nothing much happens, and then bam!, we get facebook, 4square, twitter. These new startups emerge because of an underlying change in the technology environment, ubiquitous fast internet and mobile smartphones.

To see the future, look at the underlying technology changes. And think about what that will enable.
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-10-06 21:37
Couldn't agree more it's about the building blocks. If I slam together the theories of John Doerr and Eric Schmidt, it points to four key things: mobile; social; ubiquitous web connectivity; and alternate forms of e-commerce. I truly can't wait to see the next generation of startups that leverage these in stunning new ways. Another reason to believe there's a Golden Age of Startups developing...
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0 # Josh 2010-10-06 12:55
If you look at the history of technological or biological change, you'll see periods of relative stability interrupted by sudden changes. Progress in both systems isn't linear, it's fractal.

As William Gibson said, "The future is already here – it's just not very evenly distributed."
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