Mint Primer: Will XR glasses, Neuralinks kill smartphones?

India accounts for 10% of the 7 billion people using smartphones globally. These, however, may be gradually replaced by extended reality (XR) glasses, gesture-based screens and even brain-computer-interface (BCI) devices like Neuralinks in the next 10-15 years.

What prompted this question?

“In the future, there will be no phones, just Neuralinks,” Elon Musk recently posted on X, suggesting that Tesla’s brain chip implant would eventually replace smartphones. It was his response to a post on X that showed an artificial intelligence (AI)-created image of Musk with a phone and a neural network pattern on his forehead, asking if users would agree to implant a Neuralink. The product, called Telepathy, comprises an implant that records neural activity through electrodes, a surgical robot and a user app. However, it is currently limited to helping critically ill patients use their thoughts to move their limbs.

Are there other experts who agree?

Way back in 2013, Mary Meeker, an internet analyst and partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, said the future is about “wearables (smartwatches, etc.), drivables (driverless cars), flyables (eplanes, etc.), and scannables (QR codes, etc.)”. In May 2022, Nokia CEO Pekka Lundberg said technologies like embedded chips in our bodies will replace smartphones by 2030. Furturist Ray Kurzweil believes BCIs will kill smartphones. The late Mark Weiser predicted ubiquitous computing (embedding technology into everyday objects). Apple has underscored the future potential of augmented reality (AR) and wearable technology by introducing products such as a mixed reality (MR) headset called Vision Pro and a MR operating system called visionOS.

What technologies could take centre stage?

Future alternatives to smartphones include AR glasses, smart contact lenses and wearable computers like advanced smartwatches and smartbands with features such as health monitoring, communication tools and even cellular connectivity. Non-invasive BCIs enable hands-free control, while flexible displays combine portability with larger screens.

Is there a timeline for this to happen?

The transition is likely to happen in stages since we currently use our smartphones not just for phone calls but also to surf the Internet, check emails, make audio and video calls, take pictures and selfies, see and even make videos and movies, play games, do banking, make payments and shop online. Smartphones also keep an eye on our fitness and health, and are now evolving into AI- and generative AI-enabled devices, capable of running AI and small language models. So, this could take a while.

What hurdles do they need to overcome?

The limitations of XR glasses, BCIs and other advanced technologies include limited functions, high costs, bulky or intrusive designs that cause fatigue, and limited battery life. There are also concerns about privacy, data security, health and ethics, and the need for significant user training. Then there’s the lack of a robust ecosystem of developers, resulting in a lack of apps and services. Manufacturers will have to build interoperable ecosystems just as they did for smartphones. This is easier said than done.