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The former humanitarian aid worker Malka Older’s 2016 science fiction novel Infomocracy and its two sequels tell the story of a democratic future still rife with natural disasters and conflict. The books feature a next-generation search engine called The Information that has annotated the world with information thanks to ubiquitous augmented reality technology.
By happy coincidence, I had just finished Infomocracy before heading to CES, where I spent some time with Magic Leap. The well-funded startup is making augmented-reality gear, though they prefer to call AR “spatial computing.” In an intentionally dimly lit suite in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, I tried on Magic Leap’s latest projection glasses, which connected to a hockey puck-sized computer that clips to your waist.
It was all good fun when a game of shooting alien robots emerged from a “door” in the wall, but the second demo got me thinking back to Older’s books.
As I looked down at the floor of the room through the glasses, a 3-D projection of downtown Los Angeles appeared. Using a hand controller, I could point and click at bits of the city and get information about traffic and pollution measurements, among other metropolitan data points. I could also walk around the room to see the city from different angles as the projection shifted perspective seamlessly in real-time. It was all very smooth and very cool. I had already started imagining whether Google or some other entity would end up as the “search engine” of an Infomocracy-like future when it was time to go.
As I made my way downstairs at the Cosmo and back through the bright lights and loud noise of the casino, I realized that I had seen a technology that surely will arrive eventually. But pioneers don’t always end up as winners–who remembers the otherwise trailblazing Xerox Alto or GridPad tablet? Magic Leap has had its own struggles. Jessica Lessin’s tech newsletter The Information (hey, there’s that name again) this week put the startup on its 2020 list of troubled tech companies.
Whether Magic Leap develops into an amazing business is yet to be seen, but in the meantime, it has developed some amazing technology.
Agony in 30 second servings. As if we needed another choice for streaming video, Comcast's NBC unit unveiled more details of its ad-supported offering called Peacock on Thursday. It will be free to watch network shows the day after broadcast with ads, a $5 per month tier will have more content, and for $10 all of the ads disappear. It all starts July 15. Meanwhile, Netflix could spend $17 billion on original content this year, more than any competitor, according to a new estimate from BMO Capital Markets.
Cheaper by the dozen. Another crowded market, podcasting, is feeling the pressure. Hyped premium podcast service Luminary cut its monthly price from $8 to $5. It's also adding an annual plan that equates to under $3 a month.
A club that would want me. In the stock market, Google's parent company Alphabet exceeded a $1 trillion valuation, joining Apple, at $1.4 trillion, and Microsoft, at $1.3 trillion, in that exclusive club. My bet still stands that a tech company will overtake newly-public oil giant Saudi Aramco within 12 months. Apple's only $400 billion behind.
Reverse pollution. Speaking of Microsoft and fossil fuels, the company made an unusual pledge on Thursday, saying it would go "carbon negative" in the next 10 years. Going a step beyond more common pledges of becoming "carbon neutral," Microsoft is saying it will be a net benefit to the environment by 2030.
Conspiracy theory. It may be the plot of an upcoming Malka Older thriller, but a cybersecurity expert says he found evidence that a server used by Georgia election officials in 2016 was hacked. The unknown hackers had the ability "to modify files, delete data, and install malware,” Logan Lamb said in an affidavit filed in federal court in Atlanta on Thursday.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
If you've recently ordered food delivered via Uber Eats, DoorDash, or one of the other players in that space, the price you paid was subsidized by venture capital. None of the companies has yet figured out how to turn a profit zipping McDonald's fries and Starbucks coffees to your door, as Fortune's own Danielle Abril explores in a piece about the future of the segment. It's not looking pretty, she reports after speaking with Jordan Nof, managing partner of Tusk Ventures.
"The future of food delivery could play out a number of ways. Companies could refocus on dense, urban areas where they’re more likely to turn a profit because they could deliver more meals per trip, said Nof. They could also switch to offering more deliveries of fast food than restaurant meals, which, according to Webb, would help the companies lower their cost per delivery. Additionally, delivery companies could sell themselves to larger corporations that are willing to take on losses like Amazon (even though Amazon shuttered its small food delivery service in June). Or, to earn more revenue, they could pivot into other services like renting space in shared kitchens.
"In a worst-case scenario like venture capital drying up or the economy taking a downturn, some food delivery services may have to shutter."
FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE
A few long reads that I came across this week:
Good Morning, Vietnam: How a War-Torn Country Became the Second Largest Producer of Coffee in the World (Coffee or Die)
Around me, on low blue plastic chairs, old men smoke cigarettes and trade stories, families huddle around squat tables and watch the hordes of bikes drone by, and servers ambulate from group to group depositing drinks or collecting glasses as they go. In spite of all the chaos of the Vietnamese capital’s streets, cafes are a surprisingly tranquil refuge from the unrelenting hustle. Time, like the coffee dripping into condensed milk, seems to crawl.
For Bumble, the Future Isn’t Female, It’s Female Marketing (Bloomberg Businessweek)
Whitney Wolfe Herd set out to build a safer dating app for women, but it’s not clear that she’s made a measurable difference.
After My Dad Died, I Started Sending Him Emails. Months Later, Someone Wrote Back (Glamour)
“I shot the signals of my mourning into space for months, fully expecting them to die unreceived. And when I least expected it, someone sent signals back.”
How New York’s Bagel Union Fought—and Beat—a Mafia Takeover (Grub Street)
The mob saw an opportunity. Local 338 had other ideas.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Amazon Prime’s numbers (and influence) continue to grow By Don Reisinger
Could Fitbit be a flu warning tool? By Sy Mukherjee
Pinterest exceeded all of its year’s goals for hiring minorities By Ellen Mcgirt
Meet the woman building the ‘backbone’ of the cannabis industry By Nicole Gull Mcelroy
Making green energy more trusted—with the same tech that keeps cryptocurrency safe By David Z. Morris
Beware: Iranian cyberattacks may actually be false flags By Robert Hackett
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BEFORE YOU GO
My feature story last month about delivery giant UPS missed one of the company's key attractions, or so one of my teenagers reliably informs me. Check out the Instagram feed @upsdogs to see the many cute rovers that "Brown"'s delivery force encounters on a daily basis. Fortune is closed on Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. See you back here on Tuesday.
On Twitter: @ampressman