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  • How will our relationship with tech change in 2018?
  • How will our relationship with tech change in 2018?
    StockSnap, Creative Commons (2017) ©
REPORT

2018 Expert Outlook on Technology

Do people want more selective social media? Can VR extend to our other senses? And how is AI heightening expectations for personalisation? In this part of the 2018 Expert Outlook series, we speak to three technology experts about how the devices we use are changing us. 

Location Global

Scope
2018 will see greater integration of all things augmented, virtual and artificial – but with a more sophisticated awareness of their consequences. As AI heightens standards for personalisation at every step of the way, and VR becomes a progressively real escape, people will expect brands to keep up with an increasingly frictionless, seamless world. At the same time, a better understanding of how what happens online can impact real life will have more people turning to filtered networks and services that give them a greater sense of control.

In the communications chapter of our Expert Outlook 2018, Canvas8 speaks to Dr Wendy Powell, researcher in virtual reality at the University of Portsmouth; Kyle Chayka, technology writer for the The New York Times and New Republic; and Adelyn Zhou, the CMO at TOPBOTS, a research and advisory firm in applied AI for enterprises.

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Dr Wendy Powell is a researcher in VR at the University of Portsmouth and an expert in the engineering of VR systems, with 12 years’ experience in creating and studying virtual environments and interactive applications. Dr Powell directs the Virtual Interactions and Applications Research Group at the University of Portsmouth and she is a VR technical expert for, and senior member of, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

As VR develops in 2018, people will want better wireless hardware with high functionality. Currently, wired VR is high quality and high performance, requiring expensive PCs to run, while wireless VR is mostly lower quality and has lower functionality. The big companies are all trying to jump across this gap and create VR technology that has good tracking, good performance and is wireless. Though products like Oculus Go and Google Daydream are helping people take mobile VR much more seriously, we don’t yet have a product on the horizon that offers high performance and inside-out tracking – as in, the ability to track a user’s movement through space – without having them wired up with lots of pieces of kit around the room. In 2018, we are certainly going to see a big push towards it as the next holy grail of good VR.

In any technology growth market, you always have to push to be bigger, better and faster. Everybody wants big changes, but more functionality usually comes in incremental steps: a bit more resolution, a slightly better field of view and a little bit more battery life. The market is opening up thanks to the gaming and entertainment worlds, where people are always pushing for new experiences and are much more likely to be early adopters. But almost every sector is exploring the possibilities at the moment and, while there is a tendency to want to jump on the bandwagon, it’s becoming evident that bad VR is worse than no VR.

In 2018, people will want better wireless hardware with high functionality In 2018, people will want better wireless hardware with high functionality
Collision Conf, Creative Commons (2016) ©

Where VR clearly has something extra that no other media platform has is in the field of journalism, where it can offer a first-person view of what is happening in the news or in a documentary – a very different experience than looking at a screen and watching a presenter talking to you. And companies, from the BBC to Fox and Disney, are investing a lot more in VR, as a more widespread adoption of VR is going to change the way we make stories. Narrative inside VR is no longer driven by a director who decides what is interesting and where a viewer looks. In VR, you have the ability to look around and the choice of what to pay attention to. Whether we’re telling real or fictional stories, VR will require a new set of skills to present narratives. And while people have been adopting online identities for decades, VR will offer the potential for them to really try out being somebody else.

In terms of hardware, there are many companies aiming to take VR to the next level. Qualcomm has been working on high-performance processors to support VR, while HTC has been and continues to be a big investor in the VR market. Companies like Leap Motion and GloveOne aim to bring hand tracking – when you can see and control what your hands are doing in VR – to mass use. This is going to make a big difference, because there isn’t a true sense of being able to use your whole body to interact with VR yet. In a similar sphere, Ultrahaptics uses ultrasound to generate specific and precisely located sensations, essentially in the air, to allow greater sensory engagement. In the near future, we are going to see a very big push for haptics in the VR space.

Almost every sector is exploring the possibilities at the moment and, while there is a tendency to want to jump on the bandwagon, it’s becoming evident that bad VR is worse than no VR

Dr Wendy Powell, lecturer in virtual reality at the University of Portsmouth

And as people become increasingly interested in using VR as a social space, companies like EMTEQ – which is investigating how to read emotion in VR via the activity of eye and facial muscles – will be ones to watch. Fove is the first headset that has got in-built eye tracking, and other companies are looking at doing something similar. Eye tracking gives us a much stronger sense of what is drawing a user’s attention, how they are feeling and, to a certain extent, the emotional content as well.

As with any new technology, there are ethical and moral worries around how VR is being implemented. When you are in VR, everything feels much more real. We are more likely to engage and believe the way someone presents themselves to us when we have that fully immersive experience. VR has the potential to be incredibly positive, but it also opens up all sorts of avenues for misuse. From a psychological point of view, looking at a screen, pressing a button, and attacking someone with your sword is a very different experience from being in VR and actually attacking someone with the sword in your hand. The game, TV, and film industry are all looking at how to modify and mitigate content in a way that’s responsible.

VR poses ethical and moral concerns, with avenues for misuse VR poses ethical and moral concerns, with avenues for misuse
ANDRIK LANGFIELD PETRIDES, Creative Commons (2017) ©

Kyle Chayka is a journalist and essayist living in Brooklyn, writing about technology, culture and business. He has contributed to publications including the ‘The New York Times’, ‘n+1’, and ‘New Republic’. His first book, on minimalism, will be published in the United States by Bloomsbury in 2019.

What is interesting about the technology industry in 2017 is that the scope of the start-ups we are seeing don’t actually depend on technological innovations at all. If you look at Airbnb or WeWork, or even Uber to a large extent, what they really depend on is traditional physical things like an office space, home or car. The fact that the biggest start-ups are not actually innovating in technology themselves, but instead relying on playing the middle-man to bring greater convenience to people, is probably a trend that will continue.

In the start-up world, actual technology is having less and less of a role to play. The wave of innovation that we have seen with iPhones, apps and social networks is coming to an end. The actual technological innovation is happening with biotechnology, cryptocurrency and augmented reality (AR) – but they aren’t necessarily highly valued right now. AR will definitely see a lot of action in the coming year; it is also the most immediate technology, as seen in the new iPhone, which is hyper-equipped for AR, specifically all the special imaging technology in the camera.

Lately, I’ve been researching digital nomad culture, as in people working anywhere but based on their laptops. What is evolving around that suggests the future of app-mediated living, where people don’t have leases on apartments but they do have subscriptions to residential start-ups or other communities that connect digital nomads. The technology provides a lifestyle infrastructure that helps them travel more and find places to stay and find jobs.

Tech has the potential to provide lifestyle infrastructure for digital nomads Tech has the potential to provide lifestyle infrastructure for digital nomads
Strelka Institute for Media, Creative Commons (2017) ©

Relatedly, we may see the public space of social networks transform into more intimate social spaces. We already have access to these vast uncontrollable social spaces online, but it seems that more of the technology that is coming down the pipeline is about creating controlled social environments where you interact with a few people who you actually know and trust.

It could be something like Slack, or it could be a private version of a platform like Airbnb. Even if you think of private dating apps like Luxy or The League, it creates a pre-vetted group of people who happen to be good looking and rich – I think more things like that will happen for better or worse. Perhaps, initially, it will be negative and dystopian, but if the tools are put out there then hopefully it can empower more people.

People will try to use technology to create more of a controllable space in their lives. Another new media start-up, Galley, is basically an invite-only app-style message board for media insiders. It is a way for people to communicate with the immediacy of Twitter, but within a private space they have created rather than a broadcast system. So perhaps we will see people looking more for that privacy, not just in social networking, but in terms of living spaces as you see with co-living start-ups. We’re seeing an increased interest in filtering experiences both online and offline. We can see that happening more in different areas of life: if you trust Facebook or Tinder to handle your socialising and Twitter to handle your professional communication, then why wouldn’t you trust WeWork to handle your office space and WeLive to handle your roommates?

But the issue with all of these mediators is that they are scalable or too scaled; you can’t have intimate contact with someone as you would in day-to-day life and be the biggest company in the world. I don’t identify with Uber or Apple; even when you think about Airbnb, I don’t know if you can serve millions and billions of users and still be a brand that people identify with and feel good experiencing their personal lives through.

The issue with all of these mediators is that they are scalable or too scaled; you can’t have intimate contact with someone as you would in day-to-day life and be the biggest company in the world

Kyle Chayka, technology writer for the New York Times

Traditional businesses are certainly not primed for this. What company would be totally ready for ultimate mobility, ultimate flexibility and ultimate precarity? We definitely see it more in lifestyle spaces, with hotels, gyms, office spaces and restaurants merging into one conglomerate space that caters for people who work random jobs at random hours. All these spaces have to serve a function of being partly domestic, partly office, partly service-oriented and partly health-oriented. Equinox gyms are a good example, where members are committing to the Equinox existence from top to bottom; as is Oscar health insurance – gig-economy coverage for American contract workers, which presents itself as a branded lifestyle space.

We are seeing apps and platforms stratified into different generations: first, you have the mass networks, then you have the less-physical digital networks, and then on top of those things you will have these filtered versions. Now, people feel able to create their own networks rather than having a network structure imposed on them. Airbnb found success as a totally open system – but as it grows to be so big it can no longer make every design choice for its 2 billion users, it will want to offer more targeted, filtered experiences, such as those created for HNWIs. It will win over more customers by providing the option to filter, or not filter, one’s experience.

More traditional brands need to prime themselves for flexibility and mobility More traditional brands need to prime themselves for flexibility and mobility
Strelka Institute for Media, Creative Commons (2017) ©

Adelyn Zhou is an experienced marketer and technologist who writes about how AI, machine learning and automation can improve businesses and lives. She is the CMO at TOPBOTS, a leading research and advisory firm in applied AI for enterprises. She also guides Fortune 500 companies on AI strategy and implementation.

The technologies we are using now will continuously get smarter at an exponential pace. We have seen huge advances in terms of what AI can do across sectors: from using AI to detect the possibility of disease or cancer, to generating music, films and ad campaigns. Across the board, we’re seeing technology become more human; there are instances where human and computer become virtually indistinguishable, for example when generating text for reports on sports, weather or financial data.

You can see Adobe’s AI editor edit photographs in such a lifelike way that, for human eyes, determining what is real and what is fake is increasingly difficult. Of course, this raises concerns in a world where fake and real news are contested. Overall, innovations in technology can be amplified to another level. The fact that machine intelligence can learn and create will only be exponentially increased; as a result, a lot of side effects can pop up.

Technology is successful when it becomes seamlessly used in daily life or work. You don’t even think that you are using technology, it is just something that you do. That’s evident with how AI has been integrated into smartphones: if we are using emails with ‘quick replies’ or if we are talking with Siri, that is all AI. We don’t even think twice and we start to expect that level of ease and interaction from all the tools we are using.

Over the next year, experiences will only become more seamless. There are going to be more IOT devices that we have around us, all of which will be collecting data. This will continue to raise questions about privacy and the way we use that data – but the end result will see the intersection between humans and technology become increasingly indiscernible. Devices like the Apple Watch are already integrated into the human form and, over the next five years, we may see better sense augmentation: devices that can enhance our ability to see or interact with our environment.

It’s imperative for businesses and brands that want to stay relevant to embrace these new technologies. Some companies have adopted it well, whether front- or back-end: from personalising shoppers’ experiences to knowing when to reorder and re-stock products before they’ve run out. But even if a brand isn’t doing much yet, it’s not too late to catch up. For brands that are not yet embracing these technologies, I would say that they’d need to get their data in order and educate themselves on these emerging technologies and applications.

Technology is successful when it becomes seamlessly used in daily life or work. You don’t even think that you are using technology, it is just something that you do

Adelyn Zhou, marketer, technologist and CMO at Topbots

Even though people don’t typically associate the beauty industry with technological development, Sephora has been testing out a wide variety of AI technologies, from chatbots that help people automatically schedule appointments to using in-app AR to suggest shades of makeup that match the clothes a user is wearing. Another company that is making AI easy to use is Stitch-fix – a personalised shopping experience that sends a package of stylist-selected clothing every month. AI supports the entire process: from suggesting clothes to the human stylist and keeping track of shipping and inventory, to creating new styles based on the feedback from customers. It is taking these hundreds of different types of the parts of clothing – whether it’s the fabric, colour, cut or style – and using machine-learning algorithms to create completely new looks based on what people love. Now, some of the items of clothing that the machines have created are the top-selling items in the company’s catalogue.

Some agencies are using machine learning to support marketing, too. Toyota worked with IBM’s Watson to create thousands of quick taglines for a new car. A human probably would not have easily or creatively been inclined to make up all these different versions. It’s a system that will get smarter over time – it can help copywriters come up with interesting puns and new creative ways to market a product. Similarly, you now have video being cut using machine learning; as people respond to more personalised advertising, AI opens up the possibility of creating hundreds of mini videos tailored to each of the millions of Facebook users. It’s another way of heightening personalisation for vast audiences.

Author
Alex Quicho