Just when we were finally getting used to mobile, it feels like the next big thing in technology seeking to acquire and monopolize our attention is starting to arrive - virtual and augmented reality.
When we look at Facebook's Oculus VR, or Google's attempts with Glass and Magic Leap, or Microsoft's Minecraft Hololens demo, it's hard to ignore the future staring us in the face. Soon we won't be designing simple UX for flat, 5-inch displays, but the architecture of entire multiverses. We won't be checking in on Yelp or Foursquare - we'll be able to visit our favorite coffee shop without leaving the bedroom. Rich, immersive emotional experiences will be downloadable, transferrable, and pirateable. Physical space is being disrupted! Behold humanity's transcendence!
Or maybe not. Maybe social norms are not ready to accept computers strapped to our faces. Maybe the technology will be prohibitively expensive, or perhaps it will remain accessible but low-quality. Maybe it will make some of us sick. And maybe, despite my personal optimism, reports claiming $150B in AR/VR market value by 2020 are a bit ambitious.
But I am not here to praise AR/VR, nor am I here to bury mobile. No, I have come here on behalf of Music.
Despite the widely-reported death of the music industry, every time we dig it up we find it's still kicking. Adele sells 3 million records in less than a week. There are tens of millions of streaming audio subscribers worldwide, committed to paying every single month to access the world's music. It turns out killing an art that has existed for over 40,000 years - and perhaps far more - is difficult. How's that desktop computer industry doing?
It's natural for companies and consumers to get excited over emerging technologies like augmented reality. What if we had smart glasses constantly providing additional feedback and information on our surroundings? What if surprising creatures and characters popped into view behind everyday furniture, per Magic Leap's vision? How would this boost our productivity and our sense of wonder?
But this is what music already does. Augmenting our visual field is a new feat, but augmenting our sense of sound is one of the oldest human tricks. Listening to music helps surgeons perform better. Music surprises, inspires and thrills us through the release of powerful neurotransmitters. Music is what raises the hair on your neck in those horror movie scenes. Even the sound you can't hear can cause deep emotional reactions.
Music is there when we seek to control our moods or immerse ourselves in our emotions. We inflict music upon ourselves, tying it permanently to places and people, providing sonic signposts in our memories of our lives. It's our breakup songs, our road trip soundtracks, our first dance. Sometimes music is unconscious; other times it's our entire consciousness.
One of the great challenges of AR and VR will be in providing an immersive social experience that mirrors that of music. When music plays in the background, it provides an emotional undertone for everyone in its presence. When Google Glass rests on your face, it is quite literally a barrier between you and the other person, introducing uncertainty and distance where music provides closeness. Are they filming me? What social metadata is layered over my facial features? It is difficult to imagine a first dance improved through the use of visual augmented reality.
And yet it is commonplace - socially acceptable - to see humans wandering around in public, lost in thought, rocking out or self-medicating with music. If you ask Sony, the Walkman was one of the dominant cultural innovations in human history. If you ask Apple, it was the iPod. Either way, the emergence and acceptance of "personal stereos" was clearly a turning point for humanity's relationship with music.
Having music at our fingertips gives us something many of us lack but crave - control over our environment as well as control of our emotions. And thanks to mobile technology and music streaming platforms, we now have an entire universe of music available to us, instead of thirteen songs at a time.
Further augmenting its effect, the music we hear can now be responsive to our environments. Spotify allows users to discover popular tracks in their cities or even sync their music to their run. Technology also exists to sync music with gaming experiences or to soundtrack your surroundings.
Lean-back listeners don't have to know what they want to hear to enjoy themselves more than ever. Instead of a few radio stations available in each city, we have nearly unlimited personalized digital stations available to us at the touch of a button. Discovery has never been easier and reach never broader, giving hope to many thousands of aspiring musicians. For playlisters, soundtrackers, concert-goers and sharers, the availability and variety of music these days feels like painting with millions of colors instead of three stubby crayons.
Visual-based AR and VR are immersive and powerful, but they're fighting thousands of years of evolution to become our dominant emotional influencer. Music is already a deep, almost unconscious part of our lives. And how do you make the creation of powerful AR and VR experiences as democratic as the creation of music has become? When will infrastructure support the delivery of millions of high quality AR and VR experiences?
It's not as though AR and VR could exist in the absence of music. Filmmakers are becoming the dominant creators of VR media, and they have some of the strongest appreciations for music. Remember that in film, music was originally considered more important than spoken dialogue. Judging from recent blockbuster releases, it certainly still is.
I believe in the industrial potential of AR and VR, and I buy into much of the hype, but ignoring or undervaluing music is a mistake. Music is what's worth investing in. You want to talk Net Present Value? The value of music spans millennia; media platform technologies cycle in decades. Scale? Music is absolutely universal, crossing every border and touching every culture; the Internet itself hasn't reached half the globe. Even Google may have realized that augmented reality solutions don't need a screen. They just need sound.
Today, we already have music. And we always will.