Digital trends are moving so fast it’s hard to imagine what’s going to happen next. Or is it? When we look to the future we can often see the things that were predicted in our past. And it’s reassuring to remember that successful innovation is frequently not about being first. It’s about being second, but getting it right for real people. And that’s the opportunity for brands.
So why is it important for businesses to be future facing? As Mark Twain said: ‘Plan for the future, because that’s where you’re going to spend the rest of your life’. And it’s also where the profit lies. The Economist did a fascinating study about the difference between predicting future success and trying to replicate past success. It tracked the best performing shares over the course of the entire 20th century. And it worked out that if you had a single dollar in 1900 and you looked ahead and invested it in what you knew was going to be the best performing shares that year, and then re-invested your earnings at the end of each year in the same way, by the end of the century you would have turned your $1 into $1,300,000,000,000,000. That’s $1.3 quadrillion to save you counting zeroes.
By comparison, if you invested $1 in what you knew was last year’s best performing shares, and then reinvested the same way each year, by the end of the century you’d have $290. And no extra zeroes.
So there’s a real incentive to keep your eyes on the road ahead. But how do we make the best predictions about the future and where things are going? Then you actually do have to turn to the past.
Everything new was invented ages ago
While it is exciting to think that we are living in an age where brilliant new things are being created every day, it is also worth taking a look at the heritage of our ‘new’ things. That shiny new Apple Watch? Not so new. Okay, maybe all the bits haven’t existed in that particular form before, but nothing it’s made up of is new. That touch screen interface? Invented in 1967. The screen? Corning started making the glass in 1960 with Corning Ware. And GPS? It’s been around since 1973. Although, to be fair, given the Americans made sure it wasn’t entirely accurate so Russians couldn’t send a nuke direct to the White House, it didn’t always work as well (as if a few metres was going to make that much difference).
So let’s look at some trends and the opportunities they present to brands.
Internet of ME
We’ve been talking about connected devices for a bit and the ‘internet of things’ or the ‘internet of everything’. I find it easier to think about the possibilities of what this means when I consider it as simply the ‘internet of me’. What around me can I connect to, and hack into, to make my life better and easier? How can I enhance my own ability and extend beyond my physical reach to give myself, literally, super-human ability? And there are three big areas that have spawned a whole bunch of things to help and that will continue to develop over the next decade: wearables, or wearable technology; nearables, connecting you to, and giving you control over, the things near you and previously out of your reach; and hearables, one of the ways we will engage with our connected devices through discreet earpieces, so the communication almost becomes an inner voice.
Back in the ‘90s, Steve Mann at MIT was strapping cameras to every part of his body. Bloody-minded about his vision of wearable technology, he’s acknowledged as the founding father of a whole new category and industry. The first ‘Glasshole’, he was amazingly prescient. His EyeTap from 1999 with its ‘Glass Eye’ camera is near identical to Google Glass, which arrived 14 years later.
But they never took off, then or now, simply because this form of wearable computing isn’t natural and intuitive. You have to wear something unnatural (a camera and screen on your face) and learn and adopt new gestures and behaviours (jerking your head backwards and looking up to the sky to activate Glass). Not so elegant, and slightly concerning in public.
When we were living in New York we used to have ‘maker sessions’ (tech speak for ‘brainstorm’, where something actually gets made, not just talked about) at the ACE Hotel, near Google’s offices. Occasionally we’d see a Google employee out wearing prototype Glass well before its release. Word had it that Google would only allow attractive people out the building wearing the headsets. And sadly, this didn’t help matters, it made even their gorgeous employees awkward and unnaturally conspicuous. Which is a clue to where wearables are heading: into the realm of discreet, intuitive and easily blending into our daily lives.
Google is slowly course-correcting with its skunkworks team at Advanced Technologies and Products. It’s led by Ivan Poupyrev, a Russian chap we met in New York who was head of innovation at Disney at the time. And its first two projects are already gathering keen attention.
Project Jacquard: ‘Someone hacked my pants’…
Poupyrev and his team realised the mesh-like structure of textiles is the same as the structures of touchscreens that we use on our everyday devices. So if they replace some material threads with conductive threads, they could create a fabric that can recognise a series of touch gestures, just like a mobile phone or tablet. And imagine what you could do with that.
We’re moving away from electronics and now making the basic materials of the world around us interactive. Any fabric can now have interactivity woven in, making computing invisibly integrated into the clothing and able to disappear from our palms and our dinner tables.
Levi’s is the first brand to collaborate with Google on this. I’m excited because I pretty much only wear Levi’s. So if my phone can talk to my pants then I won’t need a separate activity tracker because my pants can do that better, and I won’t need haptic feedback on my smart watch because my shirt cuff could do that more discreetly than an Apple Watch.
Google’s also just invented the best controller in the world—and you already have two of them…
Over the next five years the number of connected devices is expected to almost triple, from nine billion today to around 24 billion, according to the GSMA. And control of these electronic devices will be key. Wearable clothing might control devices on me, but motion controllers will likely manage the computing around me.
Motion controllers admittedly aren’t new: Leap, X Box Kinect and Wii have been around for a while tracking hand and body movements through cameras to effectively replace a mouse or a keyboard. But camera-based controllers have limited accuracy and they don’t work in the dark. Soli, Google’s new controller, uses radar, which detects objects in motion through high frequency radio waves, a bit like a cop on a highway using his radar gun to catch speeders. But this radar tracks the smallest micro gestures of your hand movement in 3D, which means you can make really tiny, nuanced gestures and it will interpret them. Imagine you were talking to a mate across a crowded room. How might you ask them to turn the volume up? Probably with your thumb and index together slowly dialling up the music. Soli will understand that gesture and increase the volume.
What’s the opportunity for brands when screens disappear?
When phones are invisibly tucked into pockets, technology disappears into fabric and gestures become ubiquitous, it begs the question: how will your brand stand out without visual cues? Apple, Xerox and Microsoft have been quietly patenting gestures for two decades. When you pinch and zoom on your screen, or shake your phone to perform an undo action, those are trademarked gestures (curiously, Nintendo Wii never trademarked any of its gestures, just the hardware).
So, what’s your brand’s gesture? How is it different from your competitors and can you own it? Not own the trademark, that’s always tough to protect anyway, but protecting and owning the gesture in the hearts and minds of consumers?
Futurists are in agreement over the fact that soon billions of devices will be connected to the cloud. Wearable devices will proliferate, and brushes of sleeves will control mobile phones neatly tucked in an inner pocket. But to communicate by voice with your phone, and via your phone to friends, you’ll likely be using an earpiece, much like in Joaquim Phoenix’s character in the movie Her.
Earbuds are ubiquitous and come with every phone, so it’ll be easy for people to adapt to this ‘new’ technology. And it’s a natural step to move to discreet in-ear buds that are activity trackers and communicators with your phone and the world. And they’d be wireless. That’s one little white cable I won’t miss untangling daily…
Earpieces can also be used to monitor temperature and heart rate and perform other physical tracking with more potential than a pedometer or wristband. It’s interesting to see what’s emerging, especially as the boom in fitness trackers seems to be ebbing, mostly because it’s another thing to wear and easy to forget.
Dash is an in-ear headset, either tethered to your mobile or as a standalone music player with 4GB of storage. But the beauty is some of the features: heart rate monitor and heart rate variability, oxygen saturation, body temperature, calories burned. These are things a cute band on your wrist can’t measure because this one is effectively inside your body so it’s measuring your vitals (and it’s harder to cheat. I’ve heard of people tying their FitBit to a cat to get their steps up).
Sound Hound recently released its new app. It uses natural language recognition and it really works. If Siri is for small talk, asking for a Google search or to call home, then Sound Hound means business. Ask it complex questions, like ‘What time is high tide on the Waitemata on the last Saturday in November two days after the All Blacks game in November’? And it will tell you, blisteringly fast. Now imagine baking that into an earpiece…
Here wireless earbuds are beautifully simple. But they’re not headphones, and they’re not a hearing aid. They’re a way to customise how and what you hear in the real world.
Like on a noisy commute when you want to dial down the world, the rattle of trains and the crying babies; or at your kid’s school concert when you want to put yourself in the front row and hear every word they say. Adjust the volume, crank the bass, mute the sounds you don’t want to hear. It’s your way of putting a volume and EQ control on your ears and the world.
Again, like the invisibility of technology with the wearable trend, what is a brand’s opportunity when you experience a brand with just your ears? It harks back to the heyday of radio and the ‘theatre of the mind’. Think about the brands you currently experience by hearing: the audio user experience. Like the sound your Mac makes when it boots up, the big two-handed C-major reverb moving left and right across speakers. Its ‘audio navigation’ is letting you know it’s doing something and starting up even though nothing’s on screen yet, so you can take your finger off that button. Apple calls it an ‘Earcon’, an icon for ears. Think the Skype call ring, or Intel inside. So what’s your brand’s sonic trigger or ‘Earcon’
Nearables are the next generation of connected devices. At first we could remotely check home security cameras on our smart phones, then we started being able to remotely control our temperature settings, now we can start to pretty much control anything. It’s creating a $1.2 trillion opportunity for the wireless industry. And it will be changing life in ways big and small.
Amazon Echo is a sleek device that’s voice-activated internet, but it feels like Artificial Intelligence. Ask it questions and it can play music, settle Trivial Pursuit questions, read out recipes and give basic conversions from ounces to grams so you can make dinner like Jamie Oliver. Pretty much everything your mobile or tablet does, but in an elegant speaker-like device sitting on the kitchen table that you never have to touch.
Hue are simple LED lightbulbs with added Bluetooth capability that allow you to connect and customise your lighting—and applications go beyond mere mood lighting. For multi-tasking mums it can let you know that the food in the oven is ready with some gently flashing lights that won’t wake the baby, and for those with hearing disabilities, the light can be a simple signal that someone’s at the door. No doubt as people play with it they’ll come up with even better hacks for this simple lightbulb, and I love how such a basic ubiquitous device can better people’s lives in so many simple ways.
Roost is a WiFi enabled 9Volt battery that plugs into the $10 smoke alarm you’ve had forever. The Roost battery adds smarts to your old smoke alarm, letting you monitor it remotely, see when it needs changing, and even share information so your neighbour can keep an eye on things while you’re away. So no more wandering round the house at 2am for the chirping smoke alarm.
And it’s not just little things that are getting smart and connected. The Mercedes F015 is the driverless car we’ve been talking about since the ‘50s. The prototype is here and autonomous cars will shortly be on our roads. Although it does raise some ethical questions. Like, can I send my daughter to netball on her own? Can I ‘drive’ drunk? Or sleeping?
Given how simple it can be to pop something like an Estimote Sticker or a beacon onto something to make the device trackable and connected, there will be opportunities for your brand to use tech and add some smarts.
See you in the future.