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This is a guest post by filmmaker, author, entrepreneur, and now Virtual Reality developer Hugh Hancock.

Virtual Reality's here. Woo. Yay. More tech toys.

The UK just voted to leave the EU. Trump's in line for the White House. Climate change is making its effects felt. Automation's really starting to bite. A lot of very smart people are starting to get very worried about AI.

So why exactly should you care about a bunch of nerds strapping really expensive phone housings to their face?

Well, I recently dropped a 20-year film career to go full-time into VR - specifically room-scale VR, the kind where you walk around and flail about. I've spent the last 2-3 months completely immersed in it, for full-on 80-hour-week crunch values of "fully immersed", developing Left-Hand Path, a Dark Souls-inspired room-scale VR RPG.

There's a reason for that. I've been doing the "futuristic tech" thing for a while and I've been involved in massive, super-exciting technology shifts before. I founded a rather successful dotcom during the first dotcom era, for example.

This feels as exciting. I'm pretty sure that ignoring VR right now looks a lot like ignoring that "Interweb" thing circa 1996. It's going to change the world.

And here's the important bit: it gives us a whole load of reasons to hope that it'll change it for the better.

This is a guest post by filmmaker and VR developer Hugh Hancock.

OK, at this point we can call it. VR is definitely here, it works, and it's not going away.

I was one of the first people in the UK to get the consumer version of the HTC Vive, the VR headset designed around standing up and walking around in a virtual space, not just sitting looking at it. I bought it for research rather than because I was sure it would be good - but when it arrived, it was absolutely amazing.

We're in full-on Holodeck territory here. Whether you're shooting ninjas with arrows or wandering around on the bottom of the ocean, it's incredibly immersive. And Valve's legendary "taking a dog for a walk" sim is... well, just spookily good.

So yeah. It arrived. I used it. I promptly put every project on my slate on hold and decided to focus on room-scale VR for the indefinite future.

It's that good.

Now, it's all but guaranteed that we're going to see a lot of scaremongering about VR in the near future. It's ripe for the next moral panic, and there are plenty of people looking for clicks on their articles about how VR must be banned now or it will cause the end of humanity.

So I thought I'd get in there first - with some unforseen side-effects of VR I've observed or learned about that will make the world better, not worse...

78% of new year's resolutions are doomed to failure, say psychologists who've conducted a large scale study of the matter; so you might think it's pretty useless to even bother with the things. And you'd be right. But that isn't going to stop me making a new year's resolution, even though I know it probably won't work.

I have a gadget habit, and it's a bit out of control. So, subject to five exceptions (below), my proposed New Year's Resolution for 2010 is: buy no computers. A computer, for the purposes of this resolution, is a general purpose computing device with a human user interface that I run apps on. (A wifi router or a car engine management system or a radio might contain a microprocessor, but I'm not classing it as a computer for purposes of this resolution.)

I'm allowing certain exceptions because (a) they're sensible, and (b) if I make no exceptions I'm much more likely to fail completely — this way, if I fall from grace I can climb back on the wagon (to mix a metaphor).

Here's the small print:

  1. I may still buy computers for other people (e.g. parents, spouse, siblings).
  2. I reserve the right to replace machines that are stolen, irreparably damaged, or need replacement due to unforseen emergencies.
  3. Peripherals and consumables are allowed: no limits, as long as they're not general purpose computing devices in their own right.
  4. I reserve the right to upgrade my mobile phone when I get to the end of my contract. (It's due up in May, after 18 months.)
  5. Special exception: I'd be an idiot to tie my hands so tightly that I can't acquire and mess with new platforms that may impact my ongoing/future business. So I am leaving a loophole for category-busting devices that don't resemble anything I already have, can't be emulated by a combination of things I already have, and have major business implications. (For example: rumours surrounding the Apple tablet device suggest that it's going to be announced on January 27th and that Apple are positioning it as a Kindle-killer. If this is the case, I probably can't afford to ignore it. If, on the other hand, it turns out to be a Macbook that's shrunk in the wash, well — I don't need another Macbook.)

What are your new year's resolutions?

(This isn't a product review, it's a big-picture overview brought to you from the universe of "Halting State".)

It shouldn't be news to anyone that smartphones — as a category — really took off in the second half of the noughties. Before 2005, few people bothered with PDAs, and fewer still with phones that had keyboards and could browse the web or send email. Current projections, however, show 25% of all phones sold in 2010 being smartphones — and today's smartphone is a somewhat more powerful computer than 2002's laptop.

At the same time, the winners in 2005's smartphone market (Palm, Windows Mobile, Symbian Series 60, 80, and UIQ) are losing ground rapidly (PalmOS is already dead, modulo the Hail Mary pass that is WebOS on the Pré) while strange new mutants slouch towards market dominance — Android, Mac OS X, and maybe Maemo.

What's happening?

Here's my hypothesis ...

Pre-2005, digital mobile phones typically ran on GSM, with GPRS data limited to 56kbssec, or Verizon's CDMA. This badly choked their ability to do anything useful and internet-worthy. By 2005, the first 3G networks based on WCDMA (aka UMTS) began to open up. By 2009, 3G HSDPA networks can carry up to 7.2mbps. The modem-grade data throughput of the mid-noughties smartphone experience has been replaced by late-noughties broadband grade thorughput, at least in the densely networked cities where most of us live. (I am not including the rural boondocks in this analysis. Different rules apply.)

To the mobile phone companies, 3G presented a headache. They typically offered each government billions for the right to run services over the frequencies freed up by the demise of old analog mobile phone services and early TV and other broadcast systems; how were they to monetise this investment?

They couldn't do it by charging extra for the handsets or access, because they'd trained their customers to think of mobile telephony as, well, telephony. But you can do voice or SMS perfectly well over a GSM/GPRS network. What can you do over 3G that justifies the extra cost?

Version 1 of their attempt to monetise 3G consisted of walled gardens of carefully cultivated multimedia content — downloadable movies and music, MMS photo-messaging, and so on. The cellcos set themselves up as gatekeepers; for a modest monthly fee, the customers could be admitted to their garden of multimedia delights. But Version 1 is in competition with the internet, and the roll-out of 3G services coincided (and competed) with the roll-out of wifi hotspots, both free and for-money. It turns out that what consumers want of a 3G connection is not what a mobile company sees fit to sell them, but one thing: bandwidth. Call it Version 2.

Becoming a pure bandwidth provider is every cellco's nightmare: it levels the playing field and puts them in direct competition with their peers, a competition that can only be won by throwing huge amounts of capital infrastructure at their backbone network. So for the past five years or more, they've been doing their best not to get dragged into a game of beggar-my-neighbour, by expedients such as exclusive handset deals (ever wondered why AT&T in America or O2 in the UK allowed Apple to tie their hands and retain control over the iPhone's look and feel?) and lengthening contractual lock-in periods for customers (why are 18-month contracts cheaper than 12-month contracts?). And the situation with international data roaming is dismal. It doesn't hit Americans so much, but here in the UK, if I travel over an hour by air, the odds are good that I'll be paying £6 per megabyte for bandwidth. It's as if my iPhone's IQ drops by 80 points whenever I leave home.

Enter: Apple and Google.

Apple are an experience company. They're a high-end marque; if they were in the automobile business, they'd be BMW, Mercedes, and Porsche rolled into one. They own about 12% of the PC market in the USA ... but 91% of the high end of the PC market (laptops over $999, desktops over $699). How they got into the mobile phone market is an odd and convoluted story, but it's best to view it as a vertical upwardly-mobile extension of the MP3 player market (from their point of view), which has taken on a lucrative life of its own. Apple's unique angle is the user experience. Without OS X to differentiate them from the rest of the market, their computers would just be overpriced PCs. So it should be no surprise that Apple's runaway hit iPhone business team have a single overriding goal: maintain control of the platform and keep it different (and aspirational).

Apple don't want to destroy the telcos; they just want to use them as a conduit to sell their user experience. Google, however, are another matter.

Google is an advertising corporation. Their whole business model is predicated on breaking down barriers to access — barriers which stop the public from accessing rich internet content plastered with Google's ads. Google want the mobile communications industry to switch to Version 2, pure bandwidth competition. In fact, they'd be happiest if the mobile networks would go away, get out of the users' faces and hand out free data terminals with unlimited free bandwidth. More bandwidth, more web browsing, more adverts served, more revenue for Google. Simple!

This is where the Nexus One announced last week may be significant. If the rumours are true — that they're pushing it at a low or subsidized price, and have strong-armed T-Mobile (the weakest of the US cellcos) into providing a cheap data-only mobile tariff for it, and more significantly access to VoIP and cheap international data roaming — then they've got a Trojan horse into the mobile telephony industry.

I think Google are pursuing a grand strategic vision of destroying the cellco's entire business model — of positioning themselves as value-added gatekeepers providing metered access to content — and their second-string model of locking users in by selling them premium handsets (such as the iPhone) on a rolling contract.

They intend to turn 3G data service (and subsequently, LTE) into a commodity, like wifi hotspot service only more widespread and cheaper to get at. They want to get consumers to buy unlocked SIM-free handsets and pick cheap data SIMs. They'd love to move everyone to cheap data SIMs rather than the hideously convoluted legacy voice stacks maintained by the telcos; then they could piggyback Google Voice on it, and ultimately do the Google thing to all your voice messages as well as your email and web access.

(This is, needless to say, going to bring them into conflict with Apple. Hitherto, Apple's iPhone has been good for Google: iPhone users do far more web surfing — and Google ad-eyeballing — than regular phone users. But Apple want to maintain the high quality Apple-centric user experience and sell stuff to their users through the walled garden of the App Store and the iTunes music/video store. Apple are an implicit threat to Google because Google can't slap their ads all over those media. So it's going to end in handbags at dawn ... eventually.)

The real message here is that if Google succeeds, the economic basis of your mobile telephony service in 2019 is going to be unrecognizably different from that of 2009. Some of the biggest names in phone service (T-mobile? Orange? Vodafone? AT&T? Verizon?) are going to go the way of Pan Am and Ma Bell by then; the ones left standing will be the ones with the best infrastructure (hint: that doesn't look like AT&T right now — by some analyses, AT&T mis-understand TCP/IP so badly that their network trouble is self-inflicted) and best interoperability (goodbye Verizon), selling bits at the lowest price to punters who buy their cheap-to-disposable (phones are part of the perpetually deflating consumer elecronics sector; today's $350 BoM should be down to under $100 by 2019, for something a good deal more powerful) unlocked in WalMart and take ditchwater-cheap international roaming service for granted.

Probably around the time VoIP takes over from the current model, we'll see something not unlike DNS emerge for mapping OpenID or other internet identities onto the phone number address space. (God, I hate phone numbers. Running a phone service that forces everyone to use seven to twelve digit numbers is like running an internet that forces everyone to use raw IP addresses.) Then the process will be complete, and things will have come full-circle, and the internet will have eaten the phone system.

What's good for the internet is good for Google. Right now, the phone companies are not good for the internet. If I'm right about the grand strategy, the Googlephone will change that.

As regular readers will be aware, I go through portable computing gizmos rapidly. In part, it's a nervous tic: I've been trying for years to find an adequate replacement for the Psion 5MX — the One True PDA — with no success ever since Psion left the field. I might as well make an intermittent feature of it on my blog, so from now on posts prefixed Gadget Patrol: will be about, well, Gadgets.

Here's my verdict on the Sharp PC-Z1 Netwalker, which is currently only available in Japan (and my office) but which is about the nearest thing to the Second Coming of the Psion Series 5 yet ...



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