Cavemen didn’t need Glass

An Upper Paleolithic Age version of Google Glass would have prevented the adoption of writing systems


It was April 2008 when I first met Peter Gabriel’s team. They came to see me in Manchester to show me a concept that Peter been toying with. The principle was a simple one: “Convert text to image on the fly. We need your team to build out the technology to make this concept a reality,” they said.

Peter’s team had been busy for 12 months building a huge library of 10,000 images, which would cover the majority of words in the common spoken English language. Six months later and Gabble was born.

Gabble has stuttered somewhat as a concept since then, mainly because it was ahead of its time, and it was only a first generation concept. Fast-forward to 2050 and I think the basic premise of Gabble will be commonplace.

Even allowing for the digital world’s constant acceleration, it will still take 30 years before information is augmented onto our world, either as non-intrusive eyeware, or onto the objects around us and it will take a long time for people to move away from screens. In the wider picture, three decades is no time considering how long it took rectangular writing areas and then screens to become commonplace.

I believe that there is one fundamental difference to our original brief. ‘Convert data to image’ rather than ‘text to image’ is far more useful to help humans to communicate better. We do a good job with our basic senses talking, listening and seeing already, so converting text to images wasn’t that powerful as we still needed to input using a traditional keyboard.

What the concept work did uncover was our absolute reliance on writing systems and how they have shaped the technology landscape. It is important to understand the evolution of these systems to see that we could have taken a very different path to communication with each other.

The oldest known symbols created with the purpose of communication through time are the cave paintings, a form of rock art, dating to the Upper Paleolithic. The oldest known cave painting is that of the Chauvet Cave, dating to around 30,000BC.

Just as the small child first learns to draw before it masters more complex forms of communication, so homo sapiens’ first attempts at passing information through time took the form of paintings.

The next step in the history of communications is petroglyphs, carvings into a rock surface. It took about 20,000 years for homo sapiens to move from the first cave paintings to the first petroglyphs, which are dated to around 10,000 years BC.

Then came pictograms before ideograms, and we eventually started using letters and words around 4,000 years BC.

Fast forward more than 6,000 years and the way in which we communicate today is restricted by the device we use to consume it. A newspaper, a book, a magazine, website or mobile phone are all based around square or rectangular devices to present the information. The early books were obviously created that way for easy transportation, so that humans could take it with them wherever they go.

Not only have humans created restricted environments to communicate within, but we have also evolved across continents and countries independently over thousands of years, making it very difficult for cross-cultural communication.

Also, think about the way we dream, some more vividly than others. We all dream and we all process a series of images. The definition of a dream is ‘a succession of images, thoughts, or emotions passing through the mind during sleep’

So while we are asleep and our unconscious mind looks within to find disparate sub-conscious images, and randomly throws them together. The outcome is that we wake up with a complete story, even if we are left with only snapshots of it, rather than entire sequences.

But, our minds are able to connect the images and make sense of them. If we could record that sequence of images and play them back to a stranger, they would instantly understand and recognise the story, no matter what language they spoke. Images are more powerful than words… and always will be, a picture tells a thousand words as the saying goes.

Scraping these writing systems, if we could start again back from 30,000 years ago, and if technology wasn’t a restricting factor but more of an enabler for communications, what would happen?

We would probably try to create a single writing system with a global understanding, but that would still limit our communication within the channels we had become accustomed to. We would still end up with square and rectangular systems to consume the information and would need an input device like a pen or keyboard to create it.

But how about a very different world evolution. It is the year 30,000 BC and Google has invented an amazing Upper Paleolithic version of Google Glass, and that the smarter folks back then had to figure out how to communicate with it.

They would not have any preconceptions of writing systems, but they did see the cave paintings around them. They would also have an awareness of the multicultural world in which they lived and the diversity of the spoken language.

Perhaps they would begin to explore the use of images to communicate. They would start with local images by the cave, such as a giraffe or a bird, before moving on to find an image for every single living and static object on the planet, they would also explore combinations of images to better depict an idea or action.

Augmenting images onto reality, so that humans could quickly view and interpret the meaning. They would also begin to explore the combination of images to provide an even more descriptive explanation of the particular event in time.

An augmented system of images overlaid onto our Upper Paleolithic Google Glass device would allow us to quickly interpret and quickly engage with our groups quickly and efficiently; our futures would have been transformed.

They effectively would have had an Upper Paleolithic Gabble to communicate with, so Peter Gabriel was on to something. The way we are going to communicate over the next 30 years is going to be very different to what it is now, and its evolution may be as extraordinary as anything we have everything achieved or experienced.

Business is driving the need to visualise data to make sense of it, and the consumer will want the same richness of understanding from their own personal data/telemetry about themselves being presented in a visual form.

Gabble was the first attempt at this intelligent text-to-image process. In time the process will be data-to-image, then voice-to-image, even thoughts-to-image as the end product. Gabble in the future will be an image generation engine, as much as its six-lettered counterpart Google became a search engine.