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Virtual Reality: The Next Computing Platform (part 1 of 3)

I am from an era before the Personal Computer. When I grew up we did not have telephones in our homes. I remember as a child, using public phones to make a phone call. Public phones were all we had in my neighborhood. I remember later some people getting a phone installed in their home. Where I lived, this took years and few people had it. I remember seeing one for the first time. The was a circle with numbers on them, and a disk with holes on top of the numbers. You’d stick your finger inside the whole for a number, and rotate the disk all the way to a metal piece that kept your finger from turning further. Then the disk would slowly turn back to its original position, and you’d move your finger to the next number and rotate the disk again. I remember the sound of it to this day. It still seemed pretty magical that you could talk to someone far away. It felt so real. But the reality is that even that experience of picking up the phone, placing it next to year ear and hearing someone on the other side was a virtual experience. Technically, it was an analog connection as a opposed to a digital one. But it was virtual nonetheless.
Landlines, as we used to call them, have practically gone extinct. They got replaced by cell phones, which happened much faster once the technology became practical and economically viable. The ability to bring a phone into your pocket and have the ability to talk to anyone at any time wirelessly, was pure magic. Analog phones still offer higher audio fidelity to this day, but the convenience of cell phones is too great for us not to make the switch.

What happens during a phone call, digital or analog, is that your speech gets converted to a format that gets transferred over a line, or cell tower, or even the internet. When it reaches the recipient, it gets converted to an audio format that the other person can hear. The person hears whatever they hear, which is close enough to what the sender has spoken, and their brain interprets that audio into a message. This transmission and conversion is done so fast, that the person receiving the message has the experience that the other person is right there “on the other side” talking to them. But the reality is that the person is speaking into a phone device, and there’s a delay during the transmission. This delay is just not noticeable by our brains. It’s noticeable when we are using a satellite phone, because the distances between a phone on Earth and a satellite orbiting in space is much longer. So when we ask question, it takes 7 to 10 seconds for the other person to hear our question, and we have the experience of a delay. Which is not satisfying. If we all had only satellite phones to talk with, we’d likely prefer to talk to people in person rather than on the phone. Only when the experience is so good that you do not perceive the difference are we wiling to switch to a different medium for communication.

When Personal Computers became popular and mainstream, all we had at the time was a command line. Think of DOS or Unix, before a GUI Operating System. Computers, to most people, were not interesting. It was, in fact, difficult for most people to understand their function in society. But there were those of us who were fascinated by it, and could understand it’s potential. PCs became more interesting when a GUI OS was introduced (one that allows you to drag and drop items), and certain applications were made. One of the applications that had great appeal was Skype, which allowed users to not only talk to someone using their voice, but could not see the image of the person talking in real-time through a camera connected to the PC, which we called a webcam. This was before cameras were integrated into laptops. When there were no laptops you had to purchase a webcam separately. The original images were of poor quality, but the experience was still satisfying. Over the years, all Technologies have evolved, and Skype and other similar tools offer better audio and video quality than before. And it’s also possible to use Skype on a smartphone or tablet, which is pretty remarkable given how this all started.

Since PCs were introduced, Notebooks quickly became popular. The ability to bring a computer with you wherever you went allowed people to do their work from a variety of places instead of just their office. Wi-Fi connections became more widespread, and I would say Wi-Fi service was one of the big factors that made Starbucks so popular: besides offering coffee, you could bring your laptop to a Starbucks and connect to the internet through their Wi-Fi and “have and experience”. It’s like an Internet café where you bring your own equipment.

One thing that made Notebooks popular was their affordable price, which came down as demand increased and so companies were able to reduce their manufacturing cost.

We stayed in the PC realm for a while (longer than I’d have liked), and smartphones that had an appeal were hard to produce. There were many attempts, but the experience of using a smartphone was for the most part very lacking when compared to using a PC. Some devices became quite popular such as the Palm Pilot and Blackberry. But mass adoption still did not happen until the iPhone was introduced in September 2007. The iPhone was such a good product, that it would revolutionize the whole computer industry. It was the first mobile device that encompassed a gyroscope, GPC, accelerometer, and most importantly, provided a great experience. The iPhone was the first device that allowed you to truly browse the web. A lot of pinching (an event introduced by Apple with the iPhone) to zoom in a website was still required, but you could finally, for the first time, browse the web with a device that fit into your pocket.

Go to part 2 of 3

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