Are We on the Verge of Re-defining Our Real & Physical World?

  • On February 26, 2019

From Fax Machines to Fortnite to Virtual Reality; a Brief History of How Technology is Affecting Our Idea of “places”

Digitalisation has been transforming our interactions from physical to digital for decades and new technologies like virtual reality will continue to foster such transformation. Recognising the true impact of digital in our past might give us the key to read and anticipate the future possibilities and opportunities, hence becoming influencers of it rather than mere spectators.

In the early days of my business career at Procter & Gamble, I remember the time-consuming task of using a fax machine to place orders, share documents and obtain signed contracts – such a means that now seems incomprehensibly laborious, as I’m sure many can relate to. Fax machines were then the hub of the office, apart from the daily post, the fax machine was the sole means of hard copy communication, it created a physical location in offices where people would meet daily, swap correspondence and chat over coffee.

Bain Chemical 1847
Bain’s Chemical Telegraph 1843
Source: http://distantwriting.co.uk

Fax machines could have played a much earlier part in our business world. In Britain, on 27th May 1843, Scottish inventor Alexander Bain received the first patent for a chemical telegraph, or what we now know as a mechanical fax machine, called the Electric Printing Telegraph. However, it took another 140 years before the fax machine became common place in American businesses, not until the late 1980s.

This lag in adoption might seem quite unfathomable given the speed at which technology wanes and waxes in today’s modern world. But, it gives thought to where technology may be today if Bain’s invention had been more quickly capitalised on. However, this was a similar story for the computer. Surprisingly, the first ever computer resembling today’s modern machines was the Analytical Engine, a device invented by British mathematician Charles Babbage as far back 1871. Of course, Babbage’s computer was a far cry from the image of computers we use today, but the basic parts of the Analytical Engine closely resemble the components of any computer sold on the market today with a central processing unit (CPU), memory and a way to record the results on paper with an output device he called a ‘printer’ – the precursor of the inkjet and laser printers so common today. Babbage’s technological breakthrough in the late 19th century heralded a battle of competitive research and inventions. But, it wasn’t until 1951 that the first commercially available computer was sold – Britain’s Ferranti Mark I.

Analytical Engine
Trial model of a part of the Analytical Engine, built by Babbage, as displayed at the Science Museum (London)
Source: wikipedia.org

Fast forward another 40 years or more, when I entered the workplace on the verge of the email and digital file sharing revolution, a change that has almost removed the physical form from business and personal communications. While the fax machine created the need for a physical location allowing human face-to-face communication and interaction, the email has removed this human element by eliminating the need for a physical location – so, remote working does literally mean ‘remote’.

Much like the first telegraph or phone call, the first email marked a historic moment in the evolution of communication. In Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1971, computer Engineer Ray Tomlinson sent an email test message to himself from one computer to another sitting side by side. The message travelled via ARPANET, a network of computers that was the forerunner to the Internet. Pipex developed the first dial up internet service in March 1992, with AOL and Hotmail entering the scene by 1996. And astonishingly, by 2001, email was celebrating its 30th anniversary with virtually every business in the developed world signed on.

Ray Tomlinson
Ray Tomlinson and his most enduring contribution to the internet, the ‘@’ symbol Source: phrasee.co

Unlike the 140 years it took for fax machines to be born, or the 80 years gap for the first commercial computer, email took only 20 years to erupt – now we are starting to see that technological advancements are closing the gap of time with each decade, but, with each advancement, we can see a reduction in the necessity for physical locations and the human form of communicating.

The digital revolution has to be one of the biggest revolutions of our time, starting in the 1950s with electronic computers. And, in the early 1990s, it was to herald another revolution that would forever change how children would spend their play time. During my childhood physical toys played an important role, but soon into my first few years at school, video games took over.

In October 1958, American Physicist William Higinbotham created what is thought to be the first ever video game, Tennis for Two. It was developed as a side attraction at the government laboratory where Higinbotham worked, displayed on a tiny oscilloscope only five inches in diameter. He didn’t think the game was particularly innovative and failed to secure a patent. Visual comparison can see that Higinbotham’s invention undoubtedly led the way for Atari in 1972 with their creation of Pong, the first video game to be officially invented and ready for sale into homes.

Higinbotham's Tennis for Two 1958
Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two 1958 Source: wikipedia.org

There are similarities both visually and conceptually between Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two 1958 (left) and Atari’s Pong 1972 (right)

Atari's Pong 1972
Atari’s Pong 1972 Photo: ALAMY

During the late 1970s, video game technology had become sophisticated enough to offer good quality graphics and sounds for inclusion into amusement arcades. The early 1980s was labelled as the golden age of arcade video games. Once again, as with fax machines, technology had created a physical location for people to meet. Amusement arcades provided young people with a place to go, somewhere they felt safe, where they could physically interact with old friends and enjoy meeting new ones, a place where they could be free to express themselves – experiencing important sociocultural skills essential for life.

But then, with the availability of home gaming consoles, like Atari’s, this physical location was taken into the front rooms of our homes, suppressing the demand for the arcade. The growth of home gaming boomed as the competitive market grew. The fifth generation of home consoles, already featuring handheld consoles, were introduced in the mid 1990s, such as Nintendo and Sega. For a time, although home gaming removed the physical social location that arcades provided, home gaming with friends on the sofa was a popular and socially interactive pastime. Then, another technological revolution changed the world of gaming, opening up endless possibilities – the online world took on a more recognisable form in 1990, when computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, invented the World Wide Web.

Video games remained for many years as a physical single or multiplayer game, but now they were online and, once again, slowly removing the physical social interaction of playing at home with friends. Only in recent years have virtual multiplayer games started to emerge with the advent of faster internet connection, which would replace latency and allow for real-time interactions – now, virtual spaces are taking the place of the physical locations once used for entertainment, as we saw with the introduction of email replacing fax machines in offices.

Video-games-and-internet

From my own personal experience, I can see how digitalisation affects not only what we do when we are in front of our computers, but also where we do it from (location) and with whom we do it. Take gaming today. With more than 125 million downloads since its launch in September 2017, Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode has become the world’s most popular online game. It’s ubiquity (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and mobile) has certainly contributed to this popularity, encouraging widespread cultural interaction.

However, what makes it so unique has nothing to do with incredible graphics or hyper sophisticated game dynamics – what makes Fortnite such a hit is what the audience does with it. Fortnite is an apocalyptic survival video game, a virtual space where multiplayers meet, play, watch each other, interact, chat and more – just like the arcades nearly 20 years before.

As Keith Stuart remarks in his article ‘Fortnite Is So Much More than A Game‘ (Aug, 2018), “Fortnite is not really a game about shooting people. It’s a game about escape”. He continues to explain that Fortnite is a “true digital Third Place, a hangout where players are given a huge amount of autonomy to seek out the experiences they want (…), it facilitates idle curiosity”. Stuart relates Fortnite to a skatepark (the equivalent of our arcade), a safe place to hang out, mess around and be free.

What makes Fortnite different? It’s not just the gaudy cartoon designed world or the lack of gore or corpses that makes Fortnite different from other more foreboding multiplayer shooting games, it’s that Fortnite allows players time to wander around at their leisure, explore the island, hang out and chat – it has become a social space just as much as the physical skatepark that Stuart relates it to.

fortnite

Fortnite plays with a lot of symbolisms of youth subcultures, as Stuart points out: clothing, slang, emotes, gestures and dances, which are slipping into mainstream and being used by celebrities and pop stars, and permeating social media.

Stuart’s article aptly summarises the “sociocultural Catch-22” facing teenagers today and how Fortnite goes some way to provide more options for young people, in a safe environment. People who don’t play video games worry that teenagers are not going to skateparks and beaches where they normally get these formative experiences, which in some ways is true. However, today’s society sees adults worried their kids are spending too much time on smartphones and consoles, but at the same time they’re constantly policing and restricting access to physical environments. Loitering laws, enforced curfews and privatisation of public areas are criminalising the concept of the physical world hangout. Stuart declares, “what’s really interesting about Fortnite is how it subtly synthesizes many of the things teens look for in urban spaces. In his seminal 1977 work, Growing Up in Cities, author and urban planner Kevin Lynch studied teens in four cities around the world to understand what attracted them to certain hangouts. Among the key features were a sense of safety and free movement, a cohesive and stable community, and nearby green areas for exploration, playfulness, and organized competition. These are all aspects of the Fortnite experience.”

Fortnite has re-defined what space is in terms of gaming and the role of physical space. We are witnessing a convergence of physical spaces (the skatepark or the arcade) into virtual spaces (Fortnite). And, although Fortnite is not yet in virtual reality (VR), well, it’s just a matter of time until virtual space is brought into a VR headset – or, should that be, when VR is taken into a virtual space. Once again re-defining the role of virtual and physical spaces for human to human interaction, entertainment and much more.

Let’s look at Warner Bros. 2018 box office triumph, Ready Player One. How far from reality is this fantasy (or vice versa)? How far is our world from this reality? Set in a devastated Ohio in 2045, the protagonist explains the story: “there’s nowhere left to go, nowhere except the Oasis, a whole virtual universe, people come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but stay for all the things they can be – the only place that feels like I mean anything”. How far is this from the concept and virtuality of Fortnite? Virtual reality will redefine our spaces, our interaction, our work, our education – our world.

Many startup businesses around the world today are researching how education can benefit from immersive virtual spaces. We’ve already come a long way from location-based classroom environments to online courses in front of 2-dimensional screens, and online Skype virtual classrooms with students from all over the world. Moving education into online virtual spaces will allow more people around the world to enjoy education with other like-minded people of varying cultures and environments. In a business world where training, re-training and upskilling is an ongoing necessity, surely virtual classrooms would prove to be a more time and cost effective solution which may yield better educational results.

Virtual spaces are destined to enter the office, or maybe the other way around. A company that is close to a fully virtual office space is Singularity Hub, a traditional real estate brokerage whose virtual office acts as their corporate office where employees hold meetings, training and have coffee together as you would in a real-world office. Such radical experimentation may, at the moment, be only in the minds of the bold and crazy ones. However, enhancing home working with the addition of high quality headsets and virtual meeting rooms may sustain, not only productivity hacks, but cost savings and a morale booster.

Virtual reality technology has started to revolutionise live music. Since the recent release of affordable VR hardware, consumers are now able to virtually access live streamed concerts from the comfort of their own home. Live Nation, Citi and NextVR have joined forces to broadcast dozens of concerts providing larger-than-life on stage, 360 degree immersive visual and audio music experiences to millions of people around the world who want to experience the energy of live music but can’t physically be there. It doesn’t stop at concerts, many sporting events are already broadcasting in VR including hockey, racing and baseball. Presently, audiences do still attend live concerts which allows VR to capture the true atmosphere and energy associated with the experience of live concerts, but this is just the tip of the iceberg…

virtual-reality-and-music

Virtual reality is advancing fast, developers are hard at work to apply it to meaningful parts of our life, from education to the workplace. VR technology and experiences are no doubt likely to evolve, introducing new opportunities for ‘places’ to be re-defined. If we can hold concerts where tens of millions can attend virtually and if we can re-create working places that we can access from anywhere in the world, what’s the future of location-based activities and what does it mean for us as individuals and businesses?

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At the eBusiness Institute, we study trends and technologies to understand the impact they can have on organisations and businesses. Get in touch to discuss how your company needs to go through the next phases of the digital transformation.

Sources:

https://www.faxswitch.com/fax_machine_history.html
https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/inventions/who-invented-the-computer1.htm
https://www.computerhistory.org/timeline/computers/
http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/det/6116/First-e-mail-sent-by-Ray-Tomlinson/
https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200810/physicshistory.cfm
https://medium.com/s/greatescape/fortnite-is-so-much-more-than-a-game-3ca829f389f4
https://www.wired.com/brandlab/2017/07/live-concerts-take-virtual-virtual-reality/

 

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