Tech Evolution and the Law of Sevens

In 1987, there was a moment during the film Wall Street when audiences first witnessed Gordon Gekko on a South Hampton beach, talking on the Motorola DynaTAC. Subsequently dubbed "the brick," this $4000 phone was at the time a radical concept that now seems primitive.

That moment was the first in a pattern of events I've observed as a long-time analyst and journalist. I call it the mobile Law of Sevens and it goes like this: Every ten years -- at a given decade's seventh year -- we see a hardware-driven inflection point in mobile technology.

Ten years after Wall Street, we saw 1997's emergence of the Motorola Star-Tac. It marked the first mass-adoption of a form factor that would rule the next ten years: the flip phone. Then in January 2007, that decade's moment came with Steve Jobs' unveiling of a revolution: the iPhone.

Now, at the onset of 2016, we're one year from the next milestone in this cycle. When first devising the law of sevens I wasn't sure what would come next. It's clear now -- though they aren't fully mobile yet -- it will be all about virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

We might not even have to wait until 2017. Just as Moore's law was revised in 1975, these cycles can change pace over time. The Gordon Gekko or Steve Jobs moment for VR and AR could come as early as Q1's Oculus Rift consumer release. Or maybe it already happened.

VR's applications will start with gaming, entertainment, education and the elephant in the room, porn. Less-obvious use cases include immersive journalism; professional training (pilots, doctors, etc); collaborative design; product manuals and customer support.

AR could have even more practical and utilitarian applications. Though Google Glass was before its time and a lesson in the fickle but deadly fashion implications of wearable tech, AR's graphical overlays to the real world are a natural fit for local discovery and commerce.

Killer apps will include everything from retail to real estate. Just glance at a house to see it's specs and asking price. Picture the same with restaurant reviews. There are also social media implications. Forget the news feed... see my status update floating above my head.

But how will this all come together? Learning from the iOS ecosystem, it wasn't the gadgetry of the iPhone's 2007 launch that impacted us most. The hardware was just the foundation for an ecosystem of innovation and apps. Everything from UrbanSpoon to Uber.

The same will be true for VR and AR, but the supporting ecosystem will be even more robust. It won't just be apps, but technically complex content creation. For VR that means immersive worlds; for AR it means dimensionally-accurate graphics that meld with the physical world.

For example, most VR renderings are relatively passive. The POV is that of a detached head without the sensory appendages with which we normally experience the world (for now). AR meanwhile needs physics engines for realistic interaction between real and augmented objects.

In both fields, these technical challenges will engender a value chain, including development muscle, supporting hardware, and lots of tech deals. In other words, they'll not only a fuel an ecosystem but potentially a $150 billion economic engine.

It's precisely these technical challenges, and the size of their payoff, that make AR and VR so opportune. And this will all happen throughout a variety of verticals and use cases that exceed those mentioned above, and rival the smartphone's addressable market.

Like the smartphone and most technologies that came before it, there will be several other killer apps that -- paraphrasing Michael Corleone -- have yet to reveal themselves.