BY Fast Company 4 MINUTE READ

You don’t have to be a genius to understand that the era of smartphones is coming to an end. Since the launch of the first iPhone, device manufacturers have come up with all sorts of improvements to make the smartphone interesting. Lately, some have introduced the foldable phone which is just a sub-category of the smartphone. 

All signs are pointing to an end for the smartphone era. What will emerge after the smartphone? What will replace the smartphone? To find an answer to that question you have to pay attention to the research and development projects of some of the leading technology companies in the world right now. One such company is Facebook with its Facebook Reality Labs. The research lab brings together researchers, developers, and engineers to build the future connection within the virtual and augmented reality world. 

The team at Facebook Reality Labs is envisioning a time when we have all the benefits of connectivity (and more), without the need to keep our heads and our eyes down, looking at a device. Imagine calling a friend and chatting with their lifelike avatar across the table. Imagine a digital assistant smart enough to detect road hazards, offer up stats during a business meeting, or even help you hear better in a noisy environment. This is a world where the device itself disappears entirely into the ebb and flow of everyday life. One of their projects is a serious contender for what could replace smartphones. Project Aria is a new research project at Facebook with a focus on building the first generation of wearable Augmented Reality (AR) devices. Earlier this week some parts of the project were unveiled to the Virtual Reality (VR) community across the world.

Facebook has built a research device that will assist in the understanding of how to build the software and hardware necessary for AR glasses. The Project Aria glasses are not a consumer product, nor are they a prototype. They won’t display any information on the inside of the lens, and research participants cannot view or listen to the raw data captured by the device. As a research device, the glasses will use sensors to capture video and audio from the wearer’s point of view, as well as eye movement and location data to help engineers and programmers figure out how AR can work in practice. The glasses will encrypt, compress, and store data until it’s uploaded to a separate, designated back-end storage space.

From its conception to its implementation, Project Aria was designed as a way to help Facebook researchers to innovate safely and responsibly. To help researchers develop the safeguards, policies, and even social norms necessary to govern the use of AR glasses and future wearable devices, the researchers are gathering feedback both from people wearing the device and from people who encounter other people wearing the device in public. In the interest of better understanding how this technology can benefit people with varying physical abilities, Facebook is starting a pilot program with Carnegie Mellon University’s Cognitive Assistance Laboratory to build 3D maps of museums and airports that will have multiple applications, including helping people with visual impairments better navigate their surroundings.

Facebook is not releasing this device to the general public and it won’t be for sale. Starting in September, it will be made available to a limited group of Facebook employees and contractors in the United States, trained in both where and when to use the device, and where and when not to. By wearing these devices as they go about their day, at home, on Facebook campuses (once they reopen), and in public, the data they gather will support the development of head-tracking, eye-tracking, and audio algorithms that will one day make the dream of AR glasses real.

Although Facebook emphasised the research nature of this project, there are enough reasons to believe that the latest revelation from Facebook is a sign of things to come. There are already reports that Apple is also working on its own VR glasses project. Judging by current research projects within tech companies it is clear that we are approaching a future where the smartphone will be replaced by wearables such as glasses.  Now is the time for businesses and countries to prepare themselves for the virtual reality and augmented reality future. The end of smartphones and the rise of glasses is a development that should inspire businesses and countries to align themselves accordingly. The alignment may mean creating industries, products, and services that will be served via devices and technologies of the future. The alignment may also mean positioning oneself to take advantage of the massive opportunity lying ahead.  To understand what this means you have to look at what happened after the iPhone was introduced in the market. It brought with it a new economy that we know today as the App economy. Billion-dollar valued apps were created, thanks to the introduction of the smartphone. New careers emerged in the form of App developers. 

Today we talk about app developers for smartphones, smartwatches, and tablets. All of these economic developments came into being because of the smartphone rise. We are now at a point where that development has reached a saturation point. The good news is that something else in the form VR & AR wearables such as glasses is emerging. The time is now to take advantage of this critical technological development. The starting point should be the development of a local Virtual Reality community. This should be followed by a blueprint of what a VR industry would look like for a country or an industry. When the smartphones were introduced Africa missed out on an opportunity to develop apps that could serve the world. Instead, apps were designed in other parts of the world and Africa just became a user of these Apps. The emergence of VR (in the form of glasses) in replacement of the smartphone is an opportunity for Africa to build for the future economic opportunity.

Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of Fast Company magazine in South Africa. You can follow him on Twitter via @WesleyDiphoko