The Technologies You & Your Organisation Can't Afford to Ignore
If you were a school teacher grading the performance of some of the most promising technologies of 2015, you’d have to mark an ‘unsatisfactory’ beside some very big players.
One year ago, augmented reality was expected to emerge near the top of the class for the year ahead. It failed miserably. You can pick up Google Glass, or any of its derivatives, for a song on eBay.
In short, this was because few people felt any emotional connection with these devices and saw no unique value-add with the technology itself.
We’re still too emotionally invested in our smartphones and their constantly evolving world of apps. There were not enough things AR wearables could do that a smartphone could not.
Much the same could be said for wearables generally. Even the mighty Apple brand wasn’t enough to lend street-cred to wearable devices such as hyper-watches. Again, a smartphone can do all the things an iWatch can. Why buy another expensive piece of kit?
Other failing students in this year’s best-of-tech classroom included ambient computing – the technology that allows you, through voice commands, to control a smart office or home.
Amazon’s Echo device is a remarkable piece of technology. Yet potential customers asked why they’d want a black column sitting ominously in their offices when their tablets can control heating and lighting and they use a smartphones to access entertainment.
Of course, the most unexpected failure might be 3D-printing – or additive manufacturing. Some pundits predicted, at the end of 2014, that we’d see 3D printed meals in restaurants before the end of the forthcoming year.
The 3D market has remained static. Yes, it has seen inroads in areas of design; furniture, buildings, cars and airplanes are all designed and tested now using 3D-printed prototypes, as are medical prosthetics.
There were also developments in industry, particularly within manufacturing. This is where 3D-printing probably offers the greatest benefits long-term.
Once again, however, as an everyday consumer or business product the technology offered no unique value add. Consumers asked: why would I want to print a pair of shoes when I can buy three or four pairs for price of the printer, materials and software?
These were the fail-graders. We can now turn our attention to the members of the tech class that developed well in 2015 and, more importantly, have set a platform of bigger things in 2016.
From Facebook’s Occulus Rift to Google's entry-level (and cheap) offering, Cardboard, the competition for the new generation of VR devices is really heating up.
While augmented reality adds a 3D picture or graphic to our real-world sight, virtual reality invites us to ignore reality, to step into an artificially constructed 3D environment.
VR relies on haptic technology - that is, technology that fools the human senses. Now quite a few years old, VR tools are still best at playing tricks with our senses of sight, sound and, to a lesser degree, touch.
The latter is improving, as technologists experiment with ways of turning the vibrations that give rise to tactile sensations into binary code. This will enable touch to be communicated between computers and thus shared with remote users.
Designers are now also working to emulate the senses of smell and taste. Full capability in this area may be a little way off yet, but it would be unwise to bet against it becoming a consumer option within the next five years.
Once the goal of going fully haptic is achieved, VR will impact many aspects of how we work, play and live.
Even with today’s technology, VR will change education, providing new opportunities for remote learning - teacher in one location, students in another - and collaborative learning, with pupils researching problems together over vast distances.
In the media and entertainment space, VR will provide for immersive newscasts which will transform audience members into virtual eye-witnesses to history.
It will also add another dimension the world of movie-making. Imagine being able to “feel” the atmosphere in a room during a tense murder scene, or the sensation of rapid descent with a parachuting action hero – with all of one’s senses in play.
VR will become an important tool for business, too, not least because of its potential for immersive marketing, client relations and training.
Airlines will offer virtual samples of in-flight services and, as fully haptic tools arrive, restaurants will market their wares with taste-and-smell online menu samples.
Customer relations departments in department stores will invite clients to use VR to pinpoint product faults in very specific ways.
Business conferencing will see remote delegates joining in-house guests for that big keynote or marketing announcement. Executive coaches will use virtual reality to simulate potential problem scenarios, creating immersive training opportunities.
Will VR replace the need for physical interaction, in real space? Absolutely not – in fact the opposite will be true. The greater our engagement with virtual, the more will be our perceived need for real contact. High-tech always gives rise to a greater hunger for high-touch.
Design and manufacturing will benefit hugely from VR’s ability to simulate new products in three dimensions before they are built.
Through VR, designers may also become more innovative. Neurological studies reveal clear links between the parts of the brain responsible for problem-solving and those involved with day-dreaming.
When people day dream, they imagine themselves within future scenarios and solve problems within those scenarios. (This might explain why so many of history’s great inventors have been inveterate daydreamers.)
A technology that stimulates the imagination as VR will do, encourages this kind of immersive problem solving.
Virtual tools will also transform medicine, providing for a more widespread use of remote surgery.
A head doctor in one location will perform an operation on a patient in another, via either robotic tools or a human third-party surgeon. Augmented reality offers some benefits in this area but cannot compete with future VR.
We may soon also be visiting our local GP via Occulus Rift, potentially cutting waiting times, de-cluttering clinics and reducing costs for over-strained health services.
Again, like most digital technologies, VR will work best as an adjunct to face-to-face interactions, especially for patients who are not tech-savvy, or who may recover more slowly if denied the benefits of human touch.
In the end, patients will be likely to respond more positively if given the option of a virtual or "real" consultation from the start.
Meanwhile, mental health practitioners will use VR to condition clients to overcome anxiety-inducing situations such as the fear of flying.
In time, VR may well be used as an adjunct to human memory for people affected by Alzheimer’s and similar conditions, especially as we move toward ever greater levels of life-logging using photos and video – and, in time, mobile 3D video.
In short, virtual reality will change our lives as it becomes more haptic, mobile – holographic smartphone calls are not far away – and mainstream – that is, as more technologists design unique apps for the VR space.
A decade ago, Sony couldn’t get a robot to walk. Today, it has an entire wing of its research facility in Japan devoted to the study of Robot Anthropology – an ongoing investigation into how these machines will interact with us in every facet of life.
Robots are becoming widely accepted in Japan as extensions of (and sometimes substitutes for) human beings, in industries including aged care, hotel services and retailing.
Meanwhile, GE has spider bots climbing and cleaning huge wind turbines in the US. Some American hospitals use bots to dispense medications in non-life-threatening cases.
The next five years will see ever greater developments in the design and manufacture of social bots, which can read human biometric signals and simulate human emotion responses.
The technology for this has been developed in innovation hubs such as the Cambridge Science Park, the home of software called simply ‘Emote”.
Right now, the US Navy’s research wing is looking at whether robotic machines can be programmed to make learn to make ethical or moral decisions. This is a sign of the importance governments and industries are placing on breaking ground in the area of artificial intelligence.
Already, robots are a core feature in the evolution of the so-called Industry 4.0. This will see the replacement of old-style, everything-under-one-roof factories with highly specialised, fully automated production units spread over large distances, all hooked up via the Cloud.
Another important feature will be progress in cognitive computing and brainwave interfaces. The Free University of Berlin has already developed BrainDriver, a software platform which allows a driver to control a car using nothing more than the power of brain waves, transmitted through a head-mounted array of sensors.
Meanwhile, we will see huge strides forward in the design and application of exo-suits. These will be used to boost productivity in industry – by a factor of 27 times in some cases. In medicine, they will help people recover from limb injuries and strokes.
Within a few years, injectable nanobots, built from the atomic level up, will be widely used to help identify and destroy harmful cells within the human body.
This will be a big year for drone-based technologies, too. Commercially, drones represent an important aspect of robotics.
More sophisticated varieties of drone will be programmed to ‘learn’ from their environment, in much the same way that passenger jets’ computers ‘read’ their environment to direct and correct flight paths.
In the US, the private and commercial drone industry is expected to be worth $2 billion (USD) globally by 2020 – those projections will grow rapidly if Amazon and others are given permission to fly deliveries using drones. Meanwhile, on the military side, the industry will be worth five times that amount by 2020.
Despite the seeming ubiquity of social media apps and devices in today’s cluttered business space, there’s every reason to say, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’.
This year will see a growing courtship between social media and virtual reality. Once firmly married, this couple will give birth to a new form of avatarism.
An avatar is simply a digital representation of the real you for the digital world. We already have avatars, though we’d seldom see them as such.
If you have a handful of social media accounts on different platforms, you already have personal avatars. You have invented and developed specific characters for each platform, which provide your digital face for the cybersphere.
None of these characters represents the entirety of who you are; at best, each highlights a different side of your personality.
This is caveman avatarism compared to what’s on the horizon. For example, this year sees the launch of Virtual Social Media – or Sociable Media.
A good example of it is found with a recently launched platform known as vTime. Using a basic headset and any portable digital gadget, you can place a 3D avatar of yourself – designed by you – into an imaginary space and invite your friends to join you, via their avatars.
Instead of writing to or skyping each other, you can ‘sit’ in the same virtual space and chat.
This year will also see a much greater use of Big Data and the (slowly) emerging Internet of Things, to focus the power of geofenced marketing and social shopping.
In 2016, social media will find new markets among business users. Already, a growing number of companies in the US are experimenting with social media platforms in an effort to replace cumbersome email software, for both internal and customer-facing communications.
Only around 12 percent of companies doing this at present say they are doing it well. However, that percentage will grow as social media giants such as Facebook continue to push their new business applications – with support and training to back them up.
Social media will also start to play an even larger role in the direction of traditional media. We will see new mergers with established media players and more buy-outs of the type seen when Amazon’s Jeff Bezos purchased the struggling Washington Post.
Arguably, if these buy-outs are carried out in the right way they bring great new opportunities to both new and old media. The Bezos-Post deal potentially combines the rigour and accountability of old-school journalism with the mass dissemination of social media.
The new phase in the evolution of social media will have a huge impact on politics. Already, with the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US, we are seeing the power of social media to disintermediate politics.
Cutting out the middle-man of old media to speak directly to the public is proving a winner with potential voters – though whether it can swing a US election remains to be seen.
Countries like Moldova have already shown how useful social media can be in bringing expat younger voters into national elections. Through canny use of e-voting, Moldova has reduced the impact of the nation’s post-communism brain-drain, while helping to keep liberal democratic parties on top in elections.
Education will shift too, with rapid growth in the field of nanodegrees. The massive open online course (MOOC) is now giving way to the massive open mobile course (MOMC).
Students will soon be able to take full course, largely free of charge, from top universities, in small units driven by mobile apps.
Social media will also help to change the measure of success within the business community. Return on investment (ROI) will be forced to share top billing with return on community (ROC), was companies take on a social enterprise aspect in place of their old CSR arrangements.
In part because of the ubiquity of social media, which places all the world’s needs constantly in our eye-line, customers want to know that their buck is helping to support something beyond the corporate front door.
At the same time, as privatisation of government services grows to accommodate cost-cutting, private companies will have to sign up to payment-for-success models. A percentage of funding will increasingly be linked to proven benefits to community welfare.
Social media will also play a part in the growth of acceptance for cashless payment options such as crypto-currencies. The overall benefits of this are questionable.
The best known of these currencies is Bitcoin, though it is one of many. Whilst the US Senate recognises Bitcoin as a currency, it is like all cyber-currencies unregulated. It is not tied to any external value standard such as the value of gold. It is worth whatever its users decide at any given time, so that its value is subject to wild fluctuations.
However, with the growth of social shopping and digital shopping generally, more retailers, service-providers and universities will allow for them as payment options. As a result, digital-only currencies will gain traction.
Perhaps not this year, but in time, governments will be forced to act, either nationally or trans-nationally, to regulate these currencies. Doing so will bring them further into the mainstream and grant them legitimacy within the mainstream economy.
This will in turn raise hugely important ethical questions about digital debt, which will rise as we increasingly divorce spending from the substantiality of paper money and separate spending from forethought.
Related to cyber-currencies in the push for cashless payments – which are financially supported by banks, for whom cash is a time-consuming and costly option – are subcutaneous payment chips.
No longer strictly the purview of science fiction, these are now being used, albeit on a small scale, within industrial parks in countries like Sweden.
They may seem a convenient option, but their use raises the issue of whether we want our bodies to become, for the first time, fully hackable and trackable devices. They will also increase the rates of violent theft.
After all, I might steal your wave-and-pay card without physically hurting you, but I can’t remove an imbedded RFID or chip without violence.
Whatever the longer-term benefits and losses, social media is set for another big year in 2016. There will be fewer newer players in the game, but those who avoid the cannibalising attempts of the big fish will offer boutique services and merge technologies like holography with social media.
Of course, technologies cannot be graded on their technical capacities alone. They must be weighed against the cognitive and social impacts they produce. As a social futurist, that is an area of great interest to me and it represents a core part of what I do.
In the end, technology is not destiny. We are a product not of the technologies we devise, but of how we choose to use them.