In late January both Microsoft and the Gates Foundation, two entities founded by the same guy, announced major new directions that have a weird and provocative parallelism. One is a new product category from Microsoft, and the other a new vision for global economic progress from the Gates Foundation. Both merit our attention, not only as organizational initiatives but as powerful visions for the world’s future.
Microsoft unveiled something called HoloLens, special glasses that overlay a kind of virtual reality on top of actual reality. The company says it’s “a world that blends holograms with reality,” “the next generation of computing,” and “a new medium for artistic expression” that “truly blends your digital life with your physical life.” The videos are worth watching. It does get weirder. One company researcher in a promo video says it will allow “using your world as a game level.” In its promo for a new Wired cover story written by my friend Jessi Hempel, the magazine calls this vision “slightly bonkers.”
HoloLens still only exists in prototype and won’t emerge as a product until later this year. As someone who hasn’t tried it yet I remain slightly fuzzy about how it’s supposed to work. Nonetheless, I’m impressed that this company not known for being either weird or aggressive, except in the intensity of its business tactics, has stepped up. HoloLens has an oddly comprehensive potential to alter the way people interact with technology, if it lives up to its promises. But I also heard Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and others use a provocative phrase to describe what HoloLens represents: “mixed reality.”
Mixed reality is a a useful blanket term for the world we’re all entering into. As computing intersects with traditional processes and behaviors across business, society, and our lives, many sorts of realities are mixing. When people work next to a robot on an assembly line, that’s mixed reality. So is when a student writes a school report using both a printed book and Wikipedia. When we navigate our cars using Google (or Bing) maps, that too mixes realities (even more so if the car drives itself). Tech will increasingly mediate the world of information and interaction. And if we wear glasses or contact lenses so that intersection happens more seamlessly, it will feel even more like mixed reality.
But the phrase “mixed reality” took on more intensity for me when I was reading and watching videos in the very slick annual letter from Bill and Melinda Gates. It details the next phase of projects from the Gates Foundation. Gates co-founded Microsoft back in 1975 with Paul Allen, led it for decades, and now under CEO Nadella is back to spending 30 percent of his time at the company. But his passion, and his wife’s, is the foundation, which has given away almost $32 billion over its history and has more than $42 billion still to give.
The Gateses are announcing what they call a “big bet.” Here’s how they describe it: “The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else’s.”
The letter explains in some detail how four fundamental trends give them confidence in the likelihood of this extraordinary advancement. In the words of the letter:
-Child deaths will go down, and more diseases will be wiped out.
-Africa will be able to feed itself.
-Mobile banking will help the poor transform their lives, allowing people to save what they earn or borrow what they need, cheaply.
-Better software will revolutionize learning and online education will reach hundreds of millions of people.
This is a litany of optimism that is deeply welcome, coming from a group so engaged in research and action around these very priorities. The Gates’s letter is not merely a prediction, but even more a statement of aims and goals. But what I find the most compelling, powerful, and poignant element of the letter is something Melinda and Bill Gates say together in the accompanying video: “We believe that in the coming years people will expand their circle of compassion, from their family and their clan, to their country, their region, and the world.”
I hope they are right, because the future they paint is truly one of mixed reality. Those of us in developed countries, especially the United States, have become used to being on top—technologically, militarily, politically, and economically. The mixed reality of the future will be one in which everyone is far more equal—in which many more countries have human resources capable of tackling big problems and generating productivity and wealth. If Bill and Melinda Gates are right about compassion it means that it is less likely that the surge in economic, educational, and political progress for the world’s poor will lead to conflict as those who already have more fight to stay on top. The implications of the second sentence of their big bet, that the lives of the poor will improve faster than those of everybody else, are that we the rich had better get used to sharing the full resources of our planet.
The ultimate mixed reality future is created by the intersection of the two most epochal changes underway in the world. One is the accelerating and disorienting progress of technology that alters all of our lives. The other is the accelerating and disorienting progress of societal advancement, so closely related to the first one. While all of us will benefit, that advancement will mean an economic and social leveling that will empower and improve the lives of the half of humanity that has historically been left out, even as the other half, the beneficiary of the industrial and electronic ages, sees its historic prerogatives diminish.