Pattie Maes' Sixth Sense technology: What's stopping this?

March 12, 2009

I was watching this magnificent video about a new technology named Sixth Sense on TED, and while I’m blown away by the use of technology to amazing effect, I can’t believe that this will become a mainstream technology on any timeframe short of generations. Watch the video if you haven’t already, and then we’ll discuss my concerns.



The first thing that came to my mind was bandwidth. Sure, iPhone users have increased 3G usage by a dramatic margin, but that’s nothing compared to what demand would be like if these things became mainstream. My guess is that the increase in Google’s traffic (and FaceBook’s, and LinkedIn’s, and all those other services with information about people and places) would be expressed in orders of magnitude. We’re talking about huge bandwidth demand here, as well as a significant increase in demand on computation resources (meaning efficient software and lots of metal). There are some pretty huge challenges in meeting those requirements, and I see Amazon making a killing with their Elastic Compute Cloud, and Google doing the same with App Engine. Fortunately, wearable technology such as this is unlikely to become mainstream quickly (see below for why), so we have the chance to develop our infrastructure to cope, without necessarily relying on a few huge providers.

The time for visual search will come with the adoption of this technology. You can only tack barcodes on so many things before you get sick of them. What will really add to the power of the Sixth Sense is the ability to search on an image (i.e. find me information on the object in view right now. That obviously still has a long way to go, but if anything’s going to drive demand for it, this will.

One other question also comes to mind: what happens when 2 people are using this technology to look at (and get information on) the same item? Obviously a limitation of this system is that only one projector can use a surface at a time. That’s just the way this will work, until we get it working on a pair of glasses (which would raise problems of its own). Presumably an etiquette would develop about “viewing rights” on any given space or thing, but it is a question that needs consideration.

Social issues

The thing that really leapt out at me when I watched this video was the reactions I imagined from non-nerds. There are the obvious “is it magic” questions, but I can imagine many people asking what this is going to do to our minds, especially memory and recall. My favourite example is the shot from the demo video where Pranav (the speaker’s student) looks at another person, and he views relevant keywords about that person on his new acquaintance’s chest.

I see three big problems with this:

Am I wrong? Are there other big problems I haven’t noticed? Tell me about it. I’m curious.

Pattie Maes' Sixth Sense technology: What's stopping this? - March 12, 2009 - Lucas Wilson-Richter