Think of 2015 as the year technology took us all back to the figurative womb.
For one thing, parent-style health-minders such as Fitbit exploded in popularity: In June 2015, TheStreet.com cited research showing that it outstripped Apple Watch in sales the previous month. For another, creative-mom crafts center Etsy got so popular that it rolled out a program to match its craftspeople with small manufacturers to fulfill volume orders. And the Tile fulfilled the vision of parents-to-the rescue, helping many of us find lost wallets, phone and keys. What started as a small crowdfunded venture has morphed into a second-generation, mainstream product you can get in "regular" stores as well as online.
Next year is going to be different: 2016 is the year tech hits puberty. Much like in the movie Ex Machina, the focus is going to be on automation that enables intimacy on demand:
- All-purpose virtual fantasy worlds: These environments have existed for years but will hit their stride in 2016, allowing users to participate in the sexual experience of their choice without actually having to be present. Utherverse, for example, is a massive multiplayer online game oriented to fantasy fulfillment of all kinds, but mostly sexual. As of 2014, it had 50 million members - 53% of them female - in a million "personal worlds." All of them are virtually liberated, "free to do what you want, without the constraints of everyday life," reports IB Times.
- Holographic porn: Google Glass didn't enjoy the success many expected, but it set the stage for a product that lets users engage in experiences ranging gaming to simulated sex as easily as putting on the headset. With a product widely acknowledged for its sophistication, Oculus Rift began as crowdfunded venture on Kickstarter, hoping for $250,000 and raising $2 million - and is now owned by Facebook. Ostensibly for gaming, there are plans afoot to offer virtual porn by subscription when the consumer headsets hit the market in early 2016. As the market for virtual sex grows, so too will the appetite for sex with full-body robots: A study released in October 2015 by futurist Dr. Ian Pierson hypothesized that such simulations will be the norm by 2050.
It isn't all sex - there's emotional intimacy, and community, too:
- Computer-powered conversations: Look for computers that interact with you (like in the movie Her), not just telling you the weather but understanding what you're saying and responding. As MIT Technology Review reports, Chinese Internet company Baidu has designed "deep-learning" software that understands language better than people do.
- Recreating the village: Virtual Harlem began as a "learning lab" experiment in the digital humanities aimed at recreating the 1920s version of the neighborhood. Today, it has evolved into a vision of "a vibrant virtual world populated with the avatars of real people...interacting with each other." We will see more and more examples of experience enactment through immersive worlds.
The medical applications of fantasy are numerous:
- Chronic pain control: As Scientific American reports, a recent study has showed that virtual reality enables patients to exercise a kind of mind control, reducing chronic pain.
- PTSD: The U.S. Army also uses virtual reality technology to help soldiers overcome post-traumatic stress disorder.
As alternate worlds develop, we will see a blurring of the line, or even no line, between environments normally considered socially taboo and those considered ordinary. For example, when Utherverse members aren't having sex or smoking marijuana with other avatars, they can indulge in home decoration or even study up for a better career.
The trend toward "technology for intimacy" reverses a direction that's picked up steam over the past ten years or so. This is the use of technology to steal another person's personal space, or even their life, from a distance.
The most obvious example, of course, is drone killing. As their operators zoom in on identified targets for death, the sensation has been described as that of "playing a video game."
Another example is photographing or videotaping people without their knowledge, during intimate relations and even sexual assaults. A third, seemingly more benign yet psychologically invasive, is the administration of personality-based, in-depth screening tests for everything from recruitment to online dating.
As more and more realistic immersive worlds become available, some profess concern at the potential for harm. They see human relationships suffering as virtual interaction gives users so much control that they lose the motivation to deal with people.
But it is possible to see things another way. Virtual sex, for example, satisfies real needs that might otherwise be expressed in unhealthy - even criminal - ways. Virtual conversations relieve loneliness that could otherwise descend into clinical depression. Virtual therapy promotes management and even recovery from disabling conditions. And virtual education brings high-level skills to those who don't have the money or the means to gather in a physical place of learning.
Bottom line: The future is more and more virtual. And it's easy to find the diversity and intensity of human fantasy expressed there unnerving. But we could look at it another way: safe, healthy, healing and promoting a better real-world existence offline.