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Goodbye Facebook, hello hologram phone calls? The future of staying in touch

The way we communicate is about to get a whole lot more virtual.

Image: Shutterstock/Pressmaster

The way we live is changing fast. Every fortnight in our Future Focus series, supported by Volkswagen, we’ll look at how one aspect of everyday life could change in the coming years. This week: keeping in contact.

THEY LIVE FAST and die young – that’s what the relatively short history book on social media companies has taught us.

Websites like Myspace and Bebo shot to popularity during the 2000s, overhauled how we socialise and then burnt out. User numbers declined rapidly for both websites and Bebo itself filed for bankruptcy in 2013. 

Facebook – which was founded after Myspace and before Bebo – prospered as its rivals failed. It became top dog and has set the tone in the revolution of how we communicate. 

It rose to be the leading social network in the western world, commanding the most screen time, but there are hints its dominance could be in trouble. Research by eMarketer has shown the time people spend on Facebook is declining. Three years ago, Facebook accounted 53% of people’s time on social media, but this figure has dropped to 44.6%. 

A bigger problem for Facebook lies with its next wave of users. A Pew Research Center study shows that teenagers are completely abandoning Facebook, flocking to YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat instead.

Dónal Mulligan is a researcher at DCU’s School of Communications who has worked on the analysis of online discourse and how people communicate online. He lectures a lot of young undergraduate students and says this wave of users have lost trust in the likes of Facebook. 

“For many years it was very difficult getting them out of the mode of thinking that Facebook Messenger was the default mode to communicate. 

It’s interesting to hear from first year undergrads that they now regard Facebook as dodgy or are aware of the fact their messages were being used to target ads at them. So there is an increasing awareness that the price of your privacy is being paid for what you might think is this free useful thing.

shutterstock_572264506 Source: Shutterstock/Denys Prykhodov

Interesting trends 

Facebook has been hit by numerous scandals in recent times – most notably the incident in which 87 million users had their personal information sold to data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica by a third-party group.

With the social network’s reputation taking a hit – and users migrating away – messaging app WhatsApp is making ground. It has grown its monthly active user base to 1.5 billion. (Not too worrying for Facebook, considering it also owns WhatsApp.)

“Part of the reason why WhatsApp is surviving so well is down to two things,” says Mulligan. “One of them is it’s now the cross-platform way of communicating. You can’t use iMessage to an Android device, but you can use Whatsapp,” says Mulligan.

Also it has that ability of creating groups. So many people now have their family WhatsApp group and their thematic groups for particular things they are doing.

But as Mulligan points out, people’s preference for using WhatsApp for messaging shows that people aren’t willing to sacrifice their privacy for the ability to stay in touch.

He says the privacy of WhatsApp is still questionable considering the metadata the app collects on who users chat to, but it does suggest that the perception of privacy is very appealing. 

“I think you will see a lot more commercial entities, like Apple have being trying to do recently, targeting both improved privacy and community building features to win users over.

“On privacy, Apple are really hitting it hard. A lot of their ads are explicitly talking about how their products are safeguarding privacy because they know it’s a growing concern for people. The same thing will happen on online platforms. They will try to take the people who are migrating away from Facebook and it will be much more about privacy of their platform.”

What lies ahead? 

Due to the rapidly changing nature of how we stay in touch, predicting the next wave of changes to how we socialise as a society is a tall order. But Mulligan thinks observing the habits of teenagers could hint at what lies ahead. 

He says what adults regard as conference calls are actually quite popular with younger generations, with this new trend enabled by endless data limits on wifi.

“My nephews, who are in their teens at the moment, when they are at home in the evening and gaming, they are all dialled into one another and are essentially having a conference call.

At times, they’re not speaking to the people on the other end of these calls for long periods. In one case, someone else wasn’t even playing the game with them, they were watching a film separately and you could hear them laughing at what they were watching.

According to Mulligan, this trend of conference calls among younger generations comes from that need to be “present and have a connection”. And this is where virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) could make a big splash in communications. 

Screenshot 2019-01-23 at 15.52.23 Facebook's virtual reality network Spaces Source: YouTube/Facebook

The way Rafael Pagés sees it, whether it’s in five years or decades, the future of staying in touch will involve VR and AR in some form – and probably holographic conversations.

Pagés is the co-founder of Irish startup Volograms, which is creating tech to capture people and bring them to AR and VR settings. He says that based on the technology at our disposal, real-time holographic communication is a good few steps away, but it’s not too far.

“Something we can do right now, which would be a step before completely holographic communication, is capturing memories. This is another way of communicating. We’ve created that system to capture people for augmented reality content, it just doesn’t work in real-time yet.”

There are embryonic versions of the AR and VR communications tech Pagés thinks will become commonplace in the not-too-distant future already on the market. Facebook’s Spaces app, which links in with VR devices like Oculus and Vive, allows users to enter a virtual world with their friends using cartoon avatars. People can also chat avatar-to-avatar and even step inside 360 degree videos with the cartoon versions of their friends.

A UK-based virtual reality startup called vTime is working on a similar project and has raised millions of euro in funding to bankroll the creation of its VR social environment.

Pagés says these kind of avatar-based social networks give a hint to where social interaction is going. But long-term, he thinks VR social networks will only really take off if the tech advances to a stage of holograms instead of avatars.

“It’s proving that people are interested in sharing these kinds of experiences when they are in VR or AR. I don’t think that is the future. I don’t want to communicate with anyone using an avatar. Even though I am a big fan of the movie Ready Player One, I would like to use my own face.

“I don’t see that kind of communication working in future. But it is a good way to start and prove people want to communicate and sharing the same space and present, even if it is using AR or VR.” 

More: ‘Did you see that billboard, or was it just me’: The personalised future of advertising

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About the author:

Killian Woods  / Reporter, Fora

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