You Are Not Late

You Are Not Late

Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an entrepreneur in 1985 when almost any dot com name you wanted was available? All words; short ones, cool ones. All you had to do was ask. It didn’t even cost anything to claim. This grand opportunity was true for years. In 1994 aWired writer noticed that mcdonalds.com was still unclaimed, so with our encouragement he registered it, and then tried to give it to McDonalds, but their cluelessness about the internet was so hilarious it became a Wired story. Shortly before that I noticed that abc.com was not claimed so when I gave a consulting presentation to the top-floor ABC executives about the future of digital I told them that they should get their smartest geek down in the basement to register their own domain name. They didn’t.

The internet was a wide open frontier then. It was easy to be the first in category X. Consumers had few expectations, and the barriers were extremely low. Start a search engine! An online store! Serve up amateur videos! Of course, that was then. Looking back now it seems as if waves of settlers have since bulldozed and developed every possible venue, leaving only the most difficult and gnarly specks for today’s newcomers. Thirty years later the internet feels saturated, bloated, overstuffed with apps, platforms, devices, and more than enough content to demand our attention for the next million years. Even if you could manage to squeeze in another tiny innovation, who would notice it?

Yet if we consider what we have gained online in the last 30 years, this abundance smells almost miraculous. We got: Instant connection with our friends and family anywhere, a customizable stream of news whenever we want it, zoomable 3D maps of most cities of the world, an encyclopedia we can query with spoken words, movies we can watch on a flat slab in our pocket, a virtual everything store that will deliver next day — to name only six out of thousands that could be mentioned.

But, but…here is the thing. In terms of the internet, nothing has happened yet. The internet is still at the beginning of its beginning. If we could climb into a time machine and journey 30 years into the future, and from that vantage look back to today, we’d realize that most of the greatest products running the lives of citizens in 2044 were not invented until after 2014. People in the future will look at their holodecks, and wearable virtual reality contact lenses, and downloadable avatars, and AI interfaces, and say, oh, you didn’t really have the internet (or whatever they’ll call it) back then.

And they’d be right. Because from our perspective now, the greatest online things of the first half of this century are all before us. All these miraculous inventions are waiting for that crazy, no-one-told-me-it-was-impossible visionary to start grabbing the low-hanging fruit — the equivalent of the dot com names of 1984.

Because here is the other thing the greybeards in 2044 will tell you: Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an entrepreneur in 2014? It was a wide-open frontier! You could pick almost any category X and add some AI to it, put it on the cloud. Few devices had more than one or two sensors in them, unlike the hundreds now. Expectations and barriers were low. It was easy to be the first. And then they would sigh, “Oh, if only we realized how possible everything was back then!”

So, the truth: Right now, today, in 2014 is the best time to start something on the internet. There has never been a better time in the whole history of the world to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside, than now. Right now, this minute. This is the time that folks in the future will look back at and say, “Oh to have been alive and well back then!”

The last 30 years has created a marvelous starting point, a solid platform to build truly great things. However the coolest stuff has not been invented yet — although this new greatness will not be more of the same-same that exists today. It will not be merely “better,” it will different, beyond, and other. But you knew that.

What you may not have realized is that today truly is a wide open frontier. It is the best time EVER in human history to begin.

You are not late.

Conjuring Images of a Bionic Future

And the last one in the series, from NYTimes

Dick Loizeaux recently found himself meandering through a noisy New York nightclub. This was unusual; Mr. Loizeaux, a 65-year-old former pastor, began suffering hearing loss nearly a decade ago, and nightclubs are not really his scene. “They’re the absolute worst place to hear anybody talk,” he said.

But this time was different. Mr. Loizeaux had gone to the club to test out theGN ReSound Linx, one of two new models of advanced hearing aids that can be adjusted precisely through software built into Apple’s iPhone. When he entered the club, Mr. Loizeaux tapped on his phone to switch his hearing aids into “restaurant mode.” The setting amplified the sound coming from the hearing aids’ forward-facing microphones, reducing background noise. To play down the music, he turned down the hearing aids’ bass level and bumped up the treble. Then, as he began chatting with a person standing to his left, Mr. Loizeaux tapped his phone to favor the microphone in his left hearing aid, and to turn down the one in his right ear.

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Dick Loizeaux, 65, who began suffering hearing loss nearly a decade ago, recently had a “comfortable conversation” in a noisy New York nightclub using the GN ReSound Linx hearing aid.CreditSally Ryan for The New York Times

The results were striking. “After a few adjustments, I was having a comfortable conversation in a nightclub,” Mr. Loizeaux told me during a recent phone interview — a phone call he would have had difficulty making with his older hearing aids. “My wife was standing next to me in the club and she was having trouble having the same conversation, and she has perfect hearing.”

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the latest crop of advanced hearing aids are better than the ears most of us were born with. The devices can stream phone calls and music directly to your ears from your phone. They can tailor their acoustic systems to your location; when the phone detects that you have entered your favorite sports bar, it adjusts the hearing aids to that environment.

The hearing aids even let you transform your phone into an extra set of ears. If you’re chatting with your co-worker across a long table, set the phone in front of her, and her words will stream directly to your ears.

When I recently tried out the Linx and the Halo, another set of iPhone-connected hearing aids made by the American hearing aid company Starkey, I was floored. Wearing these hearing aids was like giving my ears a software upgrade. For the first time, I had fine-grain control over my acoustic environment, the sort of bionic capability I never realized I had craved. I’m 35 and I have normal hearing. But if I could, I’d wear these hearing aids all the time.

IPhone-connected hearing aids are just the beginning. Today most people who wear hearing aids, eyeglasses, prosthetic limbs and other accessibility devices do so to correct a disability. But new hearing aids point to the bionic future of disability devices.

As they merge with software baked into our mobile computers, devices that were once used simply to fix whatever ailed us will begin to do much more. In time, accessibility devices may even let us surpass natural human abilities. One day all of us, not just those who need to correct some physical deficit, may pick up a bionic accessory or two.

“There is a way in which this technology will give people with hearing loss the ability to outperform their normal-hearing counterparts,” said Dave Fabry, Starkey’s vice president for audiology and professional relations.

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CreditStuart Goldenberg

Imagine earpieces that let you tune in to a guy who is whispering across the room, or eyeglasses that allow you to scan the price of any item in a supermarket. Google and several international research teams have been working on smart contact lenses. In the beginning, these devices might monitor users’ health — for instance, they could keep an eye on a patient’s blood pressure or glucose levels — but more advanced models could display a digital overlay on your everyday life.

Or consider the future of prosthetic limbs, which are now benefiting from advances in robotics and mobile software. Advanced prosthetic devices can now be controlled through mobile apps. For instance, the i-Limb Ultra Revolution, made by Touch Bionics, allows people to select grip patterns and download new functions for their prosthetic hands using an iPhone. The longer you use it, the smarter your hand becomes.

Hearing aids are the natural place to begin our bionic quest. About 36 million American adults report some degree of hearing loss, according to theNational Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, but only about a fifth of the people who would benefit from a hearing aid use one.

That’s because hearing aids, as a bit of technology, have long seemed stuck in the past. “Most people picture large, clunky bananas that fit behind your ears and show everyone you’re getting old,” said Ken Smith, an audiologist in Castro Valley, Calif., who has fitted more than two dozen patients with the Linx.

Until recently, many hearing aids were also difficult to use. For lots of potential users, especially people with only mild or moderate hearing loss, they didn’t do enough to improve sound in noisy environments.

Talking on the phone with a hearing aid was especially problematic. While some hearing aids offered streaming capabilities to cellphones, they were all clunky. To connect to phones, they required an extra streaming “wand,” a battery pack and wireless transmitter that the user wore around his neck — a device that nobody looked good lugging around.

In 2012, Apple announced the Made for iPhone Hearing Aid program, which would let the company’s mobile operating system connect directly to hearing aids using a low-power version of Bluetooth wireless technology. Representatives of both Starkey and GN ReSound say they saw the iPhone as a way to correct many of the tech problems that had hampered hearing aids. The phone could act as a remote control, a brain and an auxiliary microphone for hearing aids, and it would finally let people make phone calls and listen to music without carrying a wireless dongle.

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GN ReSound’s Linx is one of two new models of advanced hearing aids that can be adjusted precisely through software built into Apple’s iPhone.

But more than that, the companies say, the iPhone could do something potentially revolutionary for hearing aids. “A lot of the people who could benefit from wearing a hearing aid now don’t have any excuse — they can’t say it’s too clunky or not cool,” said Morten Hansen, GN ReSound’s vice president for partnerships and connectivity.

Dr. Fabry, of Starkey, was blunter: “We thought we could make hearing aids cool.”

Aesthetically, both companies seemed to have pulled off something close. The GN ReSound and Starkey hearing aids are fantastically tiny and attractive; each is just a fraction of the size of a conventional Bluetooth headset, and when they’re set behind your ears, they’re virtually invisible. They are also quite comfortable. A few minutes after fitting each model into my ears, I had forgotten they were there.

On the other hand, neither is cheap. Starkey’s Halo starts around $2,000 a hearing aid, while GN ReSound’s Linx begins at more than $3,000 each. Few health insurance plans cover the cost of hearing aids; Medicare does not.

Some people who have used them, though, said the new hearing aids were well worth the price. “I fell in love with them in the first 30 seconds,” said Todd Chamberlain, who recently began using a pair of Halos.

Mr. Chamberlain, who is 39 and works as an industrial safety officer in Ephrata, Wash., has worn hearing aids since he was 3 years old.

“I’m surprised they haven’t done this earlier — putting it all in an app, that seems so obvious these days,” he said.

Soon, we might be saying the same about all of our senses.