6 nerd words everybody gets wrong

Words matter. If you're going to talk tech, make sure you do it right.

virtual reality football headset and gloves
Credit: Thinkstock

The language of technology is a moving target. As the technology changes, so do the usage models, business models and behaviors associated with it. So do the words.

There are words people often use incorrectly. You don’t have to be a linguist to do your tech talk right. Here are the most commonly used words and phrases everyone should know and how to use them.

Virtual reality

When you put goggles or special glasses over your eyes, such as Samsung's Gear VR, next year's Oculus Rift or devices based on Google Cardboard, you see something that isn't there. If what you see is 100% computer generated, you're experiencing virtual reality (VR).

But these same goggles are also capable of showing video. In fact, most of the content available on these platforms so far has been 360-degree video. Some of this video is just a flat moving image, and some is extremely sophisticated 3D video that shows depth. Either way, if what you're seeing was shot with a set of cameras, rather than created with a computer, then you're experiencing "immersive video," not "virtual reality."

Calling 360-degree video "virtual reality" is a common mistake. You should call it "immersive video."

Augmented reality

Another broad class of experiential glasses or goggles enables you to see the real world, but into this natural field of vision, artificial, computer-generated content is placed. Google Glass is at one end of the spectrum. Microsoft's HoloLens and Magic Leap is at the other.

Google Glass displays a rectangular screen, which is usually filled with the kind of notification content you might see on your phone. HoloLens and Magic Leap actually create the illusion that the computer-generated content is there and can interact with real world -- for example, that virtual objects are sitting on real tables -- or going under them.

These experiences are usually referred to as "augmented reality." But they're usually not.

"Augmented reality" is just what it sounds like: when reality is augmented. The most widely used augmented reality app is probably Google's Word Lens app, which translates signs and menus into other languages. Here's me using the iPhone version in Italy. There's also a Google Glass version.

The label "augmented reality" is appropriate because reality is the focus of attention -- the experience of real things are being enhanced by computer-supplied information or images.

However, many of the applications for Glass, HoloLens, Magic Leap and other platforms insert information into the users experience that is unrelated to reality. For example, Google Glass might show an incoming email notification. Magic Leap might play a game in which reality is just the background, and the content of the game is the main focus of attention.

These experiences are called "mixed reality," not "augmented reality."

Calling anything that combines the real with the virtual "augmented reality" is incorrect. The best phrase is usually "mixed reality."

Digital nomad

The phrase "digital nomad" is dated. The phrase usually refers to a person who becomes "location independent" and can live abroad or travel the world because work can be done over the Internet. It comes from the past when using a laptop to connect to the Internet and do work from a outside an office was rare.

Nowadays, people work on their smartphones, tablets and laptops from anywhere all the time. So there's nothing special about using the Internet to work outside an office.

"Digital nomad" is anachronistic -- like "color TV," "multimedia" PC, or the "worldwide web." Everyone has accepted as a mundane banality that TV is color, that PCs have speakers and that the web is global. Likewise, anyone who is away from the office -- at a Starbucks down the street or at a cyber cafe in India -- is of course able to connect to the Internet and get work done.

"Digital nomad" is an obsolete term. Someone who lives in different locations at different times is simply a "nomad."

Unicorn

A unicorn in Silicon Valley parlance is a pre-IPO startup with a valuation of $1 billion or more.

The only reason these startups are called unicorns is because they are so rarely seen. The term was coined two years ago by Aileen Lee, a venture capitalist and co-founder of Cowboy Ventures. At the time, there were fewer than 40.

Now, there are at least 139 unicorns. More to the point, there are several startups worth more than $10 billion and there's one worth more than $50 billion -- Uber, which is the only "Ubercorn."

We should all stop saying "unicorn." Startups with more than $1 billion valuations aren't rare anymore.

Normals

People in technology, including entrepreneurs, tech executives, venture capitalists, journalists and others have taken to referring to people who are not technical or not in the industry as "normals." The idea is that only an abnormal person would be into technology.

In fact, the use of "normals" is condescending. It's a false compliment that implies the need for a euphemism to describe someone who doesn't know about or care about technology.

It's a better idea to avoid this condescension and be specific. If we're talking about someone with a non-professional level of knowledge, then "lay person" will suffice. If we mean that someone is representative of the general public in some regard, then "average" -- as in "average consumer" or "average user" is the way to go. If we mean someone who's not an engineer or software developer, then be accurate and say "non-engineer" or "non-developer."

"Normals" is a vague and condescending euphemism that should be avoided.

Drone

You've heard the word "drone" used to refer to any remote-controlled thing that flies -- from large military aircraft that can drop bombs to tiny consumer toys that can be controlled with a smartphone app.

Some of these aircraft use artificial intelligence to pilot themselves, and others do not.

But "drone" is accurately applied only to any unmanned aircraft that can fly by itself and navigate using artificial intelligence. It's a reference to automation, not flying or remote control.

Even some of the biggest and most expensive military "drones" aren't drones at all, but remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

None of the consumer devices are "drones." (Sure, give it a year or two and A.I.-controlled drones will be sold to consumers. But for now, consumer drones don't exist.)

A better term for consumer remote-controlled devices is "quadcopter," which simply refers to the number of propellers.

The use of "drone" to refer to consumer quadcopters is incorrect.

Words matter and technology is global. If we want to be clear and understand each other, and also accurately represent reality, it's a good idea to be precise in how we talk tech.

This story, "6 nerd words everybody gets wrong " was originally published by Computerworld.

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