GeekWire Radio: Robert Scoble on augmented reality, Amazon, and how technology is changing what it means to be human

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Robert Scoble. (GeekWire File Photo.)
Robert Scoble in the GeekWire offices this week.

In three years, everyone will be wearing virtual reality goggles and watching drone racing, wearing virtual makeup and commuting to work in a self-driving car. This was one of the many visions of the future vividly recounted to GeekWire by Robert Scoble, a former technology evangelist for Microsoft and a well-known tech blogger and author, who now spends his days researching new technologies and startups as a “Futurist” at Rackspace, a cloud computing company.

Scoble, who gave the keynote address at the BIA/Kelsey NOW conference in Seattle on Thursday, stopped by the GeekWire offices the day before to discuss the future of technology and how changes in technology will alter life as we know it today. From Amazon’s growth to virtual reality to why everyone will end up at Burning Man, listen to the podcast below, starting in the second segment of the show, to hear what Scoble had to say about the future.

Also read on for edited excerpts from his conversation with GeekWire co-founders Todd Bishop and John Cook.

Todd Bishop: You spent many years up here in the Seattle region. I feel like I have to askwhen you come up here to visit, how have things changed since you were here permanently?

Robert Scoble gives the keynote at the BIA/Kelsey NOW event in Seattle this week, wearing the swag he picked up at GeekWire offices the day before.

Robert Scoble: There’s a lot more Amazon now. Amazon was a pretty big company when I lived up here, and that was 9 years ago. They only had a hospital. Now it’s like the entire city is Amazon.

Todd Bishop: Yeah, they were up on Beacon Hill at the former PacMed hospital.

Robert Scoble: And now it’s just everywhere, right? That’s the most dramatic change that you notice coming back, but there’s a strong video game community, there’s a strong start up community here, which wasn’t true 9 years ago. I mean, there were start ups, but it just wasn’t the kind of community that you have now up here.

John Cook: What do you think of Amazon and their growth? I mean, I think they’re getting to a position where they’re getting a lot of comparisons to Apple, perhaps the most feared tech company on the planet. Is that a view that’s held outside of the Seattle area — in Silicon Valley, other places?

Robert Scoble: I don’t know that anybody fears them. At least not—

John Cook: They’re mysterious in the way that Apple is, to some degree.

Robert Scoble: Yeah, but they went after businesses that aren’t Silicon Valley businesses. They went after retail, so Silicon Valley hasn’t yet—

John Cook: Well, they also went after cloud computing.

Robert Scoble: That’s true, but Silicon Valley sort of followed them, it didn’t lead them with cloud computing. It’s sort of a weird technology. I think the next go-round, Amazon might be a much bigger deal against Silicon Valley than—

Todd Bishop: What do you mean by “the next go-round”?

Robert Scoble: We’re heading into a paradigm shift with augmented reality, and to a lesser extent, virtual reality. Amazon is rumored to be building 400 bookstores, right?

Todd Bishop: Yes.

Robert Scoble: I don’t believe they’re for books. I don’t believe they’re for books for a second.

John Cook: What do you think they’re for?

Robert Scoble: I think they’re going to go in and experience augmented reality in these stores, because you’re not going to buy an augmented reality glass until you try it in a physical place. It’s one of those products that you can’t get excited about just by reading about it. You have to put it on your face. The minute you put it on your face, you’re going to go, “I’m in. I want one.” It’s a dramatically cool product, but you have to try it out. I think they’re going to bring products into the store.

In fact there’s a store down in Silicon Valley called Beta, on University Avenue, which is selling all sorts of stuff for your home: Nest thermostats, Avegant Glyph glasses, specialized bikes, and all sorts of internet-thing stuff. It’s stuff that you have to see to understand the impact of it on your life. You can read about it on Kickstarter or on Amazon or on Product Hunt, but it’s hard to actually understand the impact of these products, and you certainly can’t see how sharp a screen is. Like the Avegant Glyph is almost a VR headset that you can watch movies in. You can’t really understand how good that product is by just buying it on Amazon.

Robert Scoble
Robert Scoble

Todd Bishop: But there’s no indication at this point that Amazon is going to be getting into augmented reality, or is there?

Robert Scoble: I think you look at what Jeff has built in terms of media, in terms of leadership in internet things like Amazon Echo. You look at other things that he’s been doing, in terms of supply chain. I think he’s ready to rumble in a new area. I would not be shocked if he’s not going to be a major player in augmented reality glasses.

A shift to augmented reality

John Cook: As for the hardware itself, do you see them going in that direction, to compete with an Oculus, or even a Microsoft or an Apple? If they want to sell more things, this is going to be a new potential way to buy and consume product, right?

Oculus RIft
Oculus RIft

Robert Scoble: Well, new way to live. You’re going to wear this while walking around, and you’re going to replace your cell phone with this. You’re going to look at something, like the sky out the window, and it’ll tell you stuff about what’s happening outside. Or you’ll look at a sporting stadium and it’ll augment the sport. You’ll see the stats of the players on the field in 3 dimensions. And you’ll say, “I’m tired of looking at this view, can I go and sit next to Bill Gates?” The field will flip around in your view, and you’ll be sitting right next to Bill Gates, right, and you’ll pay 10 bucks for that, or more, because it’s Bill Gates’ seats. You’ll be able to see stats on the players because all the players soon are going to be wearing sensors. They’re already starting. There’s companies that are making clothes that have sensors in them, the helmets have sensors for concussions? There’s all sorts of stuff that’s going to spray off of these players and into the cloud, which is run by Amazon, and you’re going to have a viewer to watch this stuff.

 Look at what’s happening with drone racing. Drone racing’s a great sport. To really watch that sport, you’ve got to buy some glasses from Fatshark, a new company, and they cost a few hundred dollars, and now you can switch from drone to drone to drone and see what it’s actually like for the drone pilot, what he or she is experiencing flying this little drone around an obstacle course at 80 miles an hour, and it’s really entertaining. So all of a sudden a new sport comes along, in the future you’re going to wear your Amazon glasses to drone racing. Right? Why not?

Todd Bishop: That was a fascinating glimpse in the future that you just painted. How far away is that, are we talking decades?

Robert Scoble: For some of us, 2 years. For me, probably 3. 

Todd Bishop: For us Luddites?

John Cook: Twenty.

Robert Scoble: You guys will have the same thing at the same time. If you look at the trend lines of the price of these glasses, the sharpness of them, the viewing angle, the sensor arrays, the software, and the size of them and all that, it aims somewhere at about 3 years out. I think that’s why Magic Leap is rumored to be showing off some developer stuff this year, and then next year they’re going to show off their glasses, and then the year after that they’re going to ship.

John Cook: Big picture question: why are people going to want to do it? I know the geeks are going to want to do it, but let’s talk about this from the people that might not be the early adopters. How is it going to change their lives and isn’t it fine just to go through life enjoying just reality? Enjoying the mountains or the sky just for what it is?

Robert Scoble: I believe there’s a really deep cultural shift under way. The kind of cultural shift that we saw in the 1960s when we got really radically new music with rock and roll; we got new drugs with LSD; we got a sexual revolution because of the pill; we had the space race, which brought us the internet so we can all talk to each other; and on and on. And really deep political change, too. I believe we’re in the early stages of that because of these glasses, and there’s going to be people that are not going to buy in, and they’re going to hate it. 

John Cook: Fight against it, and say it’s going to corrupt or cause problems.

Robert Scoble: Or ruin what it means to be human. We’re going to have that kind of argument. There’s other changes happening at the same time. Last night on TED, one of the DNA researchers brought out the full genome and said, “We’re going to be able to hack the DNA of humans soon,” and we have to have a conversation about that.

John Cook: Well, that seems like a bigger deal to me than virtual reality or augmented reality.

Robert Scoble: Here’s the positive side of that: You go to a NASCAR race and you can watch it the way you do today, or you can bring in your Apple glasses or your Magic Leap glasses from Google, or whatever Amazon’s going to ship, and you’re going to put them on and all of a sudden you’re going to see all sorts of stats about the cars going around the track. How fast is each one, what are the lap times, what is the heart rate of the drivers. I interviewed one of the Indy drivers and he says, “Soon I’m going to be wearing sensors, and you’re going to know how scared I am, and what my heart rate is, and what G forces I’m undergoing in the turns, and stuff like that.”

Sports and augmented reality

John Cook: Isn’t there only a certain percentage of people that want to be inundated with that much information? Do you think that’s a big group of people?

Robert Scoble: You go to sporting, people want more and more and more data. We’re playing games with the data. 

John Cook: Fantasy sports.

Photo via Shutterstock
Photo via Shutterstock

Robert Scoble: You have fantasy sports, and now you have eSports. You have ten thousand people going to football stadiums watching two people playing sports, playing games, electronic games. We’re seeing the emergence of drone racing. This is a brand new sport. It’s only a year old, but it’s very, very cool and I predict it’s going to be hugely popular because it’s a cool way for getting your kids into science and technology and it’s a nonviolent sport.

John Cook: Yeah, if the drone’s wrecked, no one gets hurt, right?

Robert Scoble: No one gets hurt. Whereas, if you get your kid into football, they have a dismal career. We should talk about that, right? And you’re going to see a deep cultural shift here. And so you’re going to wear these glasses, and they’re going to do things for you. They’re going to augment reality, and you’re going to wear them. You’re going to have virtual costumes on people, and people love that. Why do you buy Gucci shoes?

John Cook: I don’t, do you, Todd?

Robert Scoble: You’re journalists, you can’t afford them, right? That’s the whole point. Somebody actually gave me a pair of Gucci shoes to prove this point. They’re shitty shoes, actually. I like my Nikes better. In fact today I’m wearing my Nikes, but you wear those shoes with that little green logo on it, and people around the city say, “Nice Guccis.” I was like, “What’s that about? It’s $500 shoes.” But it’s a club that you’re in. You’re going to be augmenting yourself in the same way. You’re going to be presenting yourself in a certain way in the street, but virtualized.

Todd Bishop: Could you go back to watching NFL football games on TV without the yellow first down marker? I couldn’t.

John Cook: Yeah, probably not.

Todd Bishop: I couldn’t and that is a primitive example of what Robert’s talking about.

Robert Scoble: In fact, the same guys who designed that yellow line are already working on virtual reality for football. That came out of SRI research lab in Silicon Valley and back in Boston. They’ve shown me virtualized soldiers and all sorts of things that are coming. It’s just the start. You’re going to walk into a football stadium and it’s going to tell you everything you want to know about everybody on the field. You’re going to be able to spin the field around in real time. They’re already doing this with camera arrays so that during slow motion, they can spin you — the viewer — around the play, so you can see the play from all angles.

Todd Bishop: Why even be at the stadium at that point?

Robert Scoble: For the hot dogs. By the way, let’s talk about the hot dogs at Levi’s Stadium. They have 2000 beacons in the stadium, so they know where you are all of the time. The beacons are little radios that spit out three numbers every thirtieth of a second, and your phone can tell how close it is to one of these beacons. They can triangulate you, plus or minus a meter, in a football stadium. You get food delivered to your seat in the stadium. They also have a sensor on the bathroom lines so they know how long the lines are in the bathrooms, and they will navigate you to the bathroom with the shortest line. It’s fun to go to a football game and be with your friends. Or at a corporate event. That’s what football is now. Amazon has their suite, and then you get invited to the suite, and it’s fun to go and hang out with Jeff Bezos, right?

Todd Bishop: Yeah. Did you see Lady Gaga at the Grammys? What did you think of that? Because, for people who didn’t see it, she essentially had markers on her face, and then there was a digital projection onto her that changed her costumes and her face and everything.

John Cook: I thought it was pretty cool. I liked it. I liked her performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” at the Superbowl better than the Bowie performance. She seemed really operatic in her performance with Bowie. I don’t know. I liked the entertainment aspect of it.

Robert Scoble: You can see it on YouTube, and that is a small taste of what is possible in augmented reality. If we’re wearing glasses, I can dress and I can present myself in a new way to you. I just was at Sephora yesterday, where they make cosmetics or sell cosmetics at retail stores and they’re already doing virtual reality, augmented reality cosmetics. You can aim your phone at your face and see what different shades of lipstick looks like. You could buy, in the future, a Sephora Lady Gaga kit, and have it on your face so when you go to a night club, everybody sees you’re set up on your face the way Lady Gaga was decorated on Sunday night.

Self-driving cars

Photo via Medium/Google Self-driving car project.
Photo via Medium/Google Self-driving car project.

Todd Bishop: This is fascinating stuff. What else do you want to talk about? We’ve got a few more minutes here.

Robert Scoble: We could talk about self driving cars, which I’ve been researching a lot. We could talk about assistance, digital assistance, like Facebook M, or Viv, which is done by the 2 guys who started Siri.

Todd Bishop: Let’s jump into cars.

Robert Scoble: Cars are always fun, aren’t they? Even though we’re not going to have a real self driving car for probably a decade-

Todd Bishop: You’ve been in one.

Robert Scoble: Mercedes gave me an hour long ride in the desert where the car was driving. It was very cool.

John Cook: Were you scared at any point?

Robert Scoble: No. First of all, I know how it works, so, and second of all—

John Cook: You were in the desert with no cars around.

Robert Scoble: Well, there were other cars, and it handled those just fine. It handled stop signs. We hit a tumbleweed. I asked, “What if that was a child?” and he said, “The machine would sense that it was a child of that kind of mass and would stop.” This is a multi billion dollar brand, they’re not going to give a journalist a ride in a car that doesn’t work, right? I was fairly comfortable in it. Actually it felt very comfortable to get a ride. By the way, there was an engineer ready to take over in case the car did something weird.

John Cook: Like in Silicon Valley where the car gets reprogrammed and he gets sent off to the island on the International Date Line. I don’t know if you saw that episode, it’s hilarious.

Robert Scoble: Also, even when they let me drive it, you could always override it, so if it went to the side of the road, you could always drive it back in. You could make it speed up — stuff like that. The problem with self driving cars is it has an embarrassment factor to it. I think journalists are going to have to come up with a new rating, “How embarrassed do you feel in your car?”

John Cook: You mean riding it? Kind of like the Google glass — people were kind of embarrassed to have the Google glass — is it the same stigma?

Robert Scoble: You guys follow the speed limit laws up here in Seattle, but in Silicon Valley we don’t. If you’re on Freeway 280 and you’re doing 65 in the left lane, you’re going to have a lot of people behind you giving you the finger. You’re going to be embarrassed because the cars drive following the law.

Todd Bishop: Wait, you’re not supposed to do that? I’m joking.

Robert Scoble: There’s social rules, and then there’s the legal rules, right? Entrepreneurs always push the rules.

John Cook: When do you think self driving cars are going to take root? When will it become more of a norm on city streets?

Robert Scoble: First of all, you have to define what a self driving car is. I actually went to Virginia’s Transportation Tech Institute on their smart road and they had laid out 5 steps to fully self driving cars. Let’s just define it all the way. No steering wheel, no pedals. The car’s driving, no human is needed. Ten to fifteen years.

Todd Bishop: In time for the Singularity, which is 2045.

Robert Scoble: We’re getting all this stuff all at the same time. That’s why there’s a really deep cultural shift coming. This stuff is changing what it means to be human. It’s coming at us from a number of different directions. Technology really is changing what it means to be human and what it means to work, because a lot of jobs are going to be destroyed in 15 year to 30 years. Start with taxi drivers. They’re not going to have jobs. Surgeons. We need a lot of surgeons right now because people get into accidents and they need to be fixed up. Trauma surgery, you’ll need a lot less of that. You’ll need a lot fewer body shops. Mercedes already says that when they put a sensor on the front of a car and do the radar assisted cruise control, bumper sales went down 30 percent. You need fewer body shops. You need fewer people to make bumpers. You need fewer people to make cars, on and on.

Why everyone will go to Burning Man

Photo via Burning Man
Photo via Burning Man

Todd Bishop: What’s everybody going to do?

Robert Scoble: I think we’re going to go to Burning Man and party. Which is a flippant answer, but look at the entertainment industry. You watch Star Wars, and look at how many names are at the end of a movie, compared to 30 years ago, how many people were involved in making entertainment. We’re going to reeducate people to make new kinds of entertainment. Augmented reality is going to demand a huge industry of people who are going to make stuff for when you’re walking around the street or going to a football game or going to a shopping mall or walking to a hospital.

John Cook: That would indicate there’s more leisure time, if there’s more entertainment being created for people to consume. Is that a possibility?

Robert Scoble: Yeah. The question is, do we have minimum wage now, as a guaranteed salary?

Todd Bishop: Just go socialist. Just elect Bernie Sanders and we’re set.

Robert Scoble: Well, that’s one answer, and the rich people are asking the candidates these questions. I had several VCs say they ask both Bernie and Hillary Clinton these questions, and neither of them have a good answer to this.

John Cook: What was the question, specifically, that was being asked?

Robert Scoble: If we have lots of people who are laid off, what happens? When there’s lots of people who can’t feed their families, what happens? There’s revolution. Let’s just go to the matter, right? The king gets his head cut off. Who’s the king today? Elon Musk. Elon Musk doesn’t want a world where he gets his head cut off.

Todd Bishop: Yeah, that’s why he’s going to Mars.

Robert Scoble: That’s one answer, escape before people figure out that the rich guy needs to have his head cut off. They’re already starting to think about how we make a new world where we have guaranteed minimum wage so everybody is happy? And then, how do you keep people happy? Take them to Burning Man. How do you reeducate people who are driving a taxi today or driving an Uber car to being people who can build something in unity with augmented reality or for the next Star Wars 20, or whatever is coming out? Let’s take them to Burning Man and have education camps. This is already happening. People are opening up camps at Burning Man to teach people how to build virtual reality systems.

So, the answer sounds flippant, “Go to Burning Man,” but it might actually be a real answer. And Burning Man might happen worldwide and happen every week. Because if you’re laid off and you’re getting a guaranteed salary for all socialists, do you want to sit around in your apartment all day long? No. You want to go and hang out with people building LED lighting displays and robots and discovering the future of augmented reality.

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