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You might never watch a movie in virtual reality with friends, despite what Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg suggested five years ago. You might never buy stuff with the computer-based currency Bitcoin. You might never zip around in a robot-driven car.
These technologies excite people’s imaginations and hold enormous promise — but they may never be as widely used as their proponents hoped. And that’s probably OK.
Not every technology needs to be in the hands of billions of people to make a difference. Finding a comfy niche can be good enough.
Recently, my colleague Kevin Roose confessed his love of strapping on virtual reality goggles for workouts that left him sweaty, sore and smiling. We’ll have to take Kevin’s word that lunging at virtual flying triangles on his patio is fun, but it is noteworthy because V.R. has mostly been a disappointment.
Not so long ago, V.R. was predicted to become a Very Big Deal, but instead most of us are happy to ignore it. The same goes for a similar technology called augmented reality, which mixes virtual images with the real world and allows people to check out how a pair of shoes might look with their outfit or play the Pokémon Go smartphone game in the park.
Sales of some V.R. systems like Facebook’s Oculus did increase during the pandemic, and it’s possible that V.R. and augmented reality could still make it big as Apple, Facebook and other companies keep working on the technologies. For years, though, they have remained far outside the mainstream.
As Kevin’s column showed, that doesn’t mean that these technologies are destined for the dustbin of failure. It highlights the vast middle ground between a flop and a technology used by billions.
Like Kevin, I can imagine strapping on V.R. goggles to take a bike ride in an immersive virtual Sicilian countryside. And some of the most compelling uses I’ve seen for augmented reality have not been for sneakers and games, but in settings like factories and field service where workers might fix elevators while consulting virtual repair manuals.
I’ve written before about our affinity for cool technology over more pedestrian advances, and how this fixation can lead to overheated predictions that the latest flashy tech thing will take over the world. Our interest wanes if something turns out instead to be Not That Big of a Deal.
This pattern of hope for a cool new tech, followed by disappointment and then a possible second act is so common that the industry research group Gartner has given it a name: the hype cycle, with a low point (the “trough of disillusionment”) about where V.R. has been.
After the trough comes the slope of enlightenment, when people retool to figure out where a technology could be put to more effective use. (You either love these metaphors or you hate them.) The outcome may not be as momentous or world-changing as initially hoped, but that doesn’t make a technology pointless.
Jan. 6, 2021, 8:47 a.m. ET
Like V.R., driverless cars may never hit the road in huge numbers — or they might! — but there are potential uses for short-haul delivery vans or fixed routes in office parks. Bitcoin seems so far like a pointless speculative plaything, but similar financial technologies could find a purpose in enabling collective ownership of communal projects like internet networks or local news organizations.
These niches don’t fit the breathless predictions that everyone in the world might use virtual currency or strap on V.R. goggles, but that’s not a terrible thing. Sometimes we need to lower the bar for success.
Fighting the coronavirus in 2021
Monday’s newsletter had predictions from several of my colleagues about technology-related developments that could be huge in 2021. A New York Times health and science reporter, Katherine J. Wu, says she expects that at-home coronavirus tests will be widely available in 2021, and vaccines to combat Covid-19 may clear the way to tackle more diseases.
This may not be “technology” like software and apps, but initiatives to turn back the coronavirus are the biggest human innovation in years. More from Katherine:
The Food and Drug Administration in November and December gave the first emergency clearances for fully at-home coronavirus tests — products that can tell people in minutes whether they’re infected with the virus.
These tests, which are made by Lucira, Ellume and Abbott, aren’t as accurate as ones that route people’s samples through laboratories. But they’re faster, more convenient and should start rolling out en masse this year.
They cost $25 and up, some require a prescription and it’s not clear how insurance will work. But with long delays for conventional lab testing in many parts of the United States, many experts see at-home tests as a welcome pandemic-fighting tool.
And in vaccines, two of the ones designed to protect people against Covid-19 are based on a molecule called messenger RNA, or mRNA. It’s a landmark achievement. No other vaccines based on mRNA have made it to this stage before.
The mRNA contained within them is packaged into greasy bubbles that protect the material as it is delivered into cells. Once inside, the mRNA instructs the production of a so-called spike protein, which can teach the immune system to recognize and fight off the coronavirus.
Compared with the ingredients of other types of vaccines, mRNA is very easy to make in large quantities in the lab. Scientists think this will clear the way for many more mRNA vaccines in the future against many types of diseases — not just Covid-19.
Before we go …
This could be big in Southeast Asia: Two of Indonesia’s prominent young tech companies, Gojek and Tokopedia, are discussing the possibility of merging, Bloomberg News reported. If it happens, the combined company would be something like Uber, Amazon, DoorDash and PayPal under one roof — in a region where internet use is soaring.
What Georgia voters are seeing on Facebook: When Facebook ended a temporary ban on political ads ahead of Tuesday’s Senate runoff election in Georgia, the material in state residents’ Facebook feeds appeared to dramatically shift. Partisan campaign accounts started to elbow out election-related material from traditional news organizations, according to an analysis by the Markup of dozens of Facebook users in Georgia.
Is Jeff’s Beard Board the nicest place on the internet? An online forum about facial hair is a place for advice and “unfettered positivity,” Bianca Giaever wrote in The Times. Among the 23 rules for the beard forum: No harassment and no recommending Rogaine to promote growth.
Hugs to this
A woman found a cat inside her Christmas tree at 4:15 a.m. (Except it was NOT a cat.) What followed was chaos, poking with brooms, a whining dog and a tussle over a light fixture. (If this happens to you, we’d recommend calling in the professionals.)