This week in disruptive tech—February 13, 2016

A roundup of news and perspective on disruptive technology from around the world. In this issue: Space travel, alternative energy and virtual reality.

N S Ramnath

[Photograph by WikiImages under Creative Commons]

Space travel: Settling down on Mars

In 2012, when Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp announced an audacious plan to colonize Mars, it kicked up a lot of interest among space enthusiasts. The Netherlands-based Mars One—Lansdorp’s venture—offered a one-way ticket to Mars, and over 200,000 people showed interest. But, scientists weren't so impressed. Michio Kaku for example, called it “a tragedy waiting to happen”. Eventually, the scepticism started spreading, especially after one of the 100 finalists—an astrophysicist himself—raised questions about the viability of the project, and the selection process. (You can read Lansdorp’s response here). Mars Jinx is hard to overcome.

Recently, Elon Musk set a timeline that's as aggressive as Mars One's. He wants to send human beings to Mars by 2025. (Earlier he half joked that he “wants to die on Mars, not by impact”, which highlights the technical challenges involved). Musk has his share of critics. But still, when Musk speaks about Space, it’s different. Not only because of what his company SpaceX has achieved so far, but also because of how well his other projects and ideas sit with the Mars mission. Transportation on Mars, for example, has to be necessarily electric, because of lack of oxygen. Musk’s proposed high-speed floating train Hyperloop might work better on Mars.

And his vision is both ambitious and inspiring: “It’s really a fundamental decision we need to make as a civilization. What kind of future do we want? Do we want one where we are forever confined to one planet until some eventual extinction event however far into the future that might occur, or do we want to be a multi-planet species?” said recently. (Check out this fascinating essay on life on a simulated Mars by Sheyna Gifford.)

The more immediate question is whether it's possible to send a person to Mars by 2025. That would be five to 10 years ahead of the time Nasa is looking at. Then again, that deadline would be a wrong place to look for answers. The small steps that Musk takes in the next few years will provide a better answer. Musk seems to believe in that approach too.

 

Virtual reality: On a device near you

Just a few years back virtual reality (VR) was mostly claimed by fiction writers, futurists, early adopters and startups. When Oculus VR was bought by Facebook in 2014, the project's backers on Kickstarter saw it as a betrayal. When Google introduced Cardboard, the underlying message seemed to be “we are just experimenting”. And only a few days ago Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said, turning VR into a business is a part of its ten year plan, to temper investor expectation. It might not become as big as smartphones, but there is no denying that big companies are getting serious about VR. Relatively inexpensive VR sets such as Samsung Gear VR are already in the market. Apple has quietly started selling VR Viewer. And more expensive ones such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive, and Sony’s Playstation VR will be hitting the market soon. It’s not clear how many customers these companies can attract given a price of a few hundred dollars. So, Facebook is offering deep discount on computers needed to run VR games.

But, looking at the devices in the market today and the prices to get a sense of VR’s potential would be a bit like looking at a mobile phone in the 1980s to predict the mobile phone market today. (In the 1980s, McKinsey told AT&T that the market would be a niche with about 900,000 phones in the year 2000.) A look at two big acquisitions/investments will give a better picture.  Apple bought FlyBy Media, a VR firm. And a bunch of tech, finance and entertainment companies led by China’s Alibaba poured in $794 million into Magic Leap, another VR company. FlyBy Media has built software that allows mobile phones to “see” the world around them. Magic Leap is focused on mixed or augmented reality, that brings together real and virtual worlds—bringing to life what management guru Peter Drucker saw as the future of human interactions. It could be a professor in the Silicon Valley, teaching a student in Bengaluru, as if they are in the same spot, perhaps on a mountain top that they both love, or it could be a management consultant questioning executives on a shopfloor.

It’s like in science fiction, except as Peter Diamandis of X Prize pointed out, “What we’ve seen is a number of technologies coming together, infinite computing, very cheap high-resolution cameras, machine-learning capabilities, low-latency/high-bandwidth networks. All of these things are coming together to reinvent the virtual world experience.” Its impact will be as deep and wide as computers and mobile phones—education (imagine medical students taking a tour of the human body, as if it’s a city, with a professor acting as a tour guide), gaming (it’s already an early adopter, but it will push boundaries), travel (space travel will be democratised in the virtual world, long before it does in the real world; and even our domestic travel would be greatly enhanced).

Storage: I have the power

Business models often struggle to keep up with changes in technology, especially when it gets adopted fast by customers. Traditional media is a case in point, staying several steps behind as readers started spending more time online, earlier on their computers and now on their mobile phones. Often incumbents ignore the technology, looking down on startups, saying the quality is too poor or the cost too high (as Clayton Christensen pointed out in The Innovator’s Dilemma). Even a few years back, retailers dismissed ecommerce, saying it exists only because of venture capital funding. That’s pretty much the same argument the traditional utilities offer when it comes to solar energy and renewables as such—that they are too costly. In a fantastic four-part series, Ramez Naam argued that solar and wind energy prices will go down, as will energy storage costs—and renewables will go pretty darn far. The right way to think about solar energy is to think about the package—solar plus storage. David Roberts of Vox, in a nuanced piece on the economics of solar energy and storage, says the combination “radically expands its value—the whole is more than the sum of the parts. The ability to store energy gives the solar homeowner more control over her energy; she can shift her time of use, storing power when it's cheap and selling it when it's more expensive.” Think Tesla Powerwall (and yet again, Elon Musk).

For many, a more immediate concern around storage is mobile phone batteries. It’s a rare smartphone user who doesn’t carry along a battery pack. (Incidentally, a company called Nomadic Power offers a mobile battery pack to electric car owners who want to travel long distance across cities.) Now, Intelligent Energy—a British fuel cell maker that had earlier worked with Boeing to develop a fuel cell airplane, and led a consortium that developed a hydrogen fuel cell black cab for London streets—has promised to launch a fuel cell battery for mobile phones in the next two years. If it happens, you just have to charge your phone once in a week—just like your first Nokia mobile phone.

Also Read:

The connected customers | McKinsey
“Until now, the consumer has been considered a stand-alone customer. But that idea is shifting so that we now focus on entire households. From a statistical point of view, each single consumer has approximately 2.5 screens—soon it will be approximately 4. If we look at the household and all the different needs that customers have with all these screens, the typical household, then, has about 10 screens, at least.”

Drones in disaster relief | Imperial College News
“One potential application is in disaster relief, says Dr Kovac. These types of emergencies can throw up all types of physical obstacles such as landslides and floods, which prevents teams from reaching those in need in a timely way. Dr Kovac says the aerial drones he is developing could fly to a disaster zone, scan and model the landscape using Building Information Management (BIM) systems, design temporary shelters, and print them on the spot. This could give those in need a place to live until emergency services personnel can reach them.”

How humans evolved | Aeon
“We don’t yet know what triggered the success of these ancient Africans. But we can see some ways that they benefited from mixing with distant populations. As they mixed, they picked up biological solutions first innovated and road-tested by distant populations. Already, we have found Neanderthal or Denisovan genes contribute to immunity, metabolism and proteins expressed in hair and skin. A gene derived from Denisovans has helped people adapt to the low-oxygen environment of the Tibetan plateau.”

A hope for paralyzed people | Futurity
“This technology is really exciting. It’s the first time that we’ve been able to demonstrate and develop a device that can be implanted without the need for a big operation, to chronically record brain activity.”

How unicorns grow | Harvard Business Review
“Firms founded from 2012 to 2015 had a time to market cap more than twice that of firms founded from 2000 to 2003. In other words, today’s start-ups are growing about twice as fast as those founded a decade ago.”

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About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Journalist, Author

NS Ramnath has been writing about business from 2002, first for The Economic Times, and then for Forbes India. He took a break from journalism in 2014 as a Tow Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism Fellow at City University of New York to study business models in media, one of the many industries being disrupted by technology. Now, he devours information on exponential technology, and its impact on individuals, businesses and society. His stories in Founding Fuel revolve around this theme. He is also associated with HowIndiaLives.com, a public data start up. He has degrees in economics and finance from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

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