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Consumer Digital Technology: Things to Watch in 2020

At the start of each new year I like to clar­i­fy my thoughts by writ­ing about a few things I think are worth keep­ing an eye on in the year ahead. They’re not pre­dic­tions; I’m not a futur­ist. In pre­vi­ous years I’ve described these as trends, but they’re bet­ter thought of as sig­nals. Or, even bet­ter, just some things I think are inter­est­ing.

Extended Reality (AR & VR)

The first big tech­nol­o­gy plat­form was the web, which dig­i­tized infor­ma­tion. The sec­ond great plat­form was social media; it dig­i­tized peo­ple. We are now at the dawn of the third plat­form, which will dig­i­tize the rest of the world.

Kevin Kel­ley, Wired

The use of aug­ment­ed real­i­ty today — in face lens­es for express­ing iden­ti­ty, make­up try-ons, prod­uct pre­views, and more — is only a frac­tion of its poten­tial; the small­est sliv­er of the pos­si­bil­i­ty space. Extend­ed real­i­ty, or immer­sive tech­nol­o­gy, or spa­tial com­put­ing, or what­ev­er you want to call it, promis­es to be the next great tech­nol­o­gy plat­form. How­ev­er, while the scope of the oppor­tu­ni­ty is (part­ly) vis­i­ble, the tech­nol­o­gy isn’t ready to achieve it yet. Before XR becomes ready for the main­stream there’s still a num­ber of things to be fig­ured out, which we can broad­ly cat­e­gorise as: the hard­ware, the soft­ware, and the prod­uct.

Hard­ware includes the optics (lens­es), the bat­tery, and the sen­sors (cam­eras, LiDAR/infrared). Of these, the sen­sors are in the most advanced state, and the optics are the hard­est prob­lem to crack. Most of the cur­rent­ly avail­able XR head­sets, like the HoloLens 2 or Mag­ic Leap, are aimed at busi­ness users as they aren’t close to being con­sumer-ready yet (the nRe­al Light looks the part but is large­ly an unknown quan­ti­ty). I thought 2020 might have been the year that kick­start­ed XR head­sets, but after learn­ing more about the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges I’ve pushed the date I expect them to hit the main­stream back by a few years.

The soft­ware is advanc­ing pret­ty well: smart­phone AR that can place dig­i­tal objects on faces and flat sur­faces is in dai­ly use on many apps, giv­ing users a new cre­ative can­vas of visu­al effects. Sys­tems to track objects, includ­ing hand ges­tures and the human body, are con­stant­ly improv­ing and will be used more com­mon­ly this year.

The most excit­ing space that’s emerg­ing is the inter­ac­tion of AR with the phys­i­cal world. Build­ing a map of the imme­di­ate area, with an idea of depth and dimen­sions, lets dig­i­tal objects believ­ably appear to inter­act with phys­i­cal ones, pro­vid­ing a sense of real­i­ty and place­ness. Cur­rent XR head­sets map spaces with mul­ti­ple or spe­cial­ist cam­eras, but it’s becom­ing pos­si­ble to do it with smart­phone cam­eras using tech­nol­o­gy from star­tups includ­ing 6D.ai and Ubiquity6, and Google’s recent­ly-announced Depth API.

Our rela­tion­ship with tech­nol­o­gy is still large­ly based around an inter­ac­tion between a human and a com­put­er. Mir­ror­worlds form new con­nec­tions with the world around you.

Kei­ichi Mat­su­da, Leap Motion

The big­ger goal is to share and com­bine all these small maps to build a 1:1 scale dig­i­tal map of the world around us, where phys­i­cal real­i­ty itself becomes ‘click­able’ and search­able. Some peo­ple call this the AR Cloud, or the Meta­verse; I pre­fer the Mir­ror­world. Ear­ly sig­ni­fiers of this are in Snapchat’s Land­mark­er Lens­es and, more prac­ti­cal­ly, in Google Maps’ Live View. Tech com­pa­nies of all sizes are rac­ing to build this map, from Face­book, Microsoft, and Huawei to Niantic and Scape, and the Open AR Cloud con­sor­tium.

The least defined cat­e­go­ry of chal­lenge is the prod­uct itself. Will there be an app store, or an ‘XR web’? Will expe­ri­ences be trig­gered by user prompts or envi­ron­men­tal queues? Will devices be self-con­tained or teth­ered to proces­sors? Will we con­trol them with hand ges­tures, voice, or a phys­i­cal device? What will be the social accept­abil­i­ty of wear­ing glass­es that can record the envi­ron­ment and may dis­tract the user? There’s a lot of scope for exper­i­men­ta­tion here, but it’s far from being set­tled.

It may be two or three years until hard­ware advances suf­fi­cient­ly to be com­fort­ably usable, a year or two more until the plat­form is prop­er­ly defined, and a few years fur­ther until cre­ators real­ly under­stand its pos­si­bil­i­ties. In the mean­time we’re going to see more glimpses of the poten­tial in smart­phone AR and in con­trolled loca­tion-based expe­ri­ences. A lot of it’s going to be dis­missed as a gim­mick; some of it actu­al­ly will be.

The Ocu­lus Quest is the clos­est I’ve yet seen to a break­through con­sumer VR device for ease of use and onboard­ing, but despite it my posi­tion on VR remains large­ly unchanged: it has prob­lems that are insur­mount­able to its reach­ing the main­stream. I still think it can work for loca­tion-based expe­ri­ences, gam­ing, and enter­prise.

Smart Assistants & Smart Homes

It’s esti­mat­ed that between a fifth and a quar­ter of UK house­holds owns a smart speak­er, and many more have smart assis­tants on their phones. But it seems that while the use of core func­tions like music, weath­er, alarms and reminders con­tin­ues to grow, oth­er uses (like shop­ping and enter­tain­ment) are declin­ing. Dis­cov­ery of third-par­ty skills remains a major prob­lem, and in-Skill pur­chase rev­enue on Alexa devices is said to be far below expec­ta­tion. Ama­zon is try­ing to com­bat this through ser­vices that let Alexa Skills talk to each oth­er, per­mit­ting more com­plex work­flows. Google Assis­tant gained few new tools for app devel­op­ers this year, with much more focus on the ways Google ser­vices can help its 500 mil­lion users; this feels like a sign that they may not con­sid­er third-par­ty brand­ed apps to be the way for­ward. A num­ber of recent acqui­si­tions (like Matchbox.io buy­ing Opearlo) indi­cates that the inde­pen­dent voice app mar­ket is con­sol­i­dat­ing. Per­haps voice is more suit­able as an input mech­a­nism than an app plat­form.

The use of assis­tants in the smart home, where Echo and Home/Nest speak­ers act as hubs for con­nect­ed devices, is increas­ing. Lead­ers in the smart home mar­ket, includ­ing Ama­zon, Apple, Google, and IKEA, have part­nered on Project Con­nect­ed Home by IP (CHIP) to make smart home devices eas­i­er to set up and more inter­op­er­a­ble with voice assis­tants. There are moves away from the cloud in the con­nect­ed home; Amazon’s Gad­get Toolk­it and Google’s Local Home SDK direct­ly con­trol or mon­i­tor con­nect­ed devices. Many appli­ances don’t need gen­er­alised ser­vices like Alexa or Assis­tant to oper­ate, so there’s also growth in pro­pri­etary, niche voice con­trol sys­tems like Sensory’s Tru­ly­Nat­ur­al that are domain-spe­cif­ic and run entire­ly on the device. This is gen­er­al­ly a win for pri­va­cy.

5G

5G’s on a wave of hype right now, but nation­al roll­out is still in the very ear­ly stages and very few phones cur­rent­ly sup­port it—it’s not expect­ed on iPhone until the next release in 2020 at the ear­li­est. It’ll like­ly have low dou­ble-dig­it mar­ket share by the end of this year, and will take some time to build a mar­ket that’s suf­fi­cient­ly-sized to dri­ve inno­va­tion. This is an area where Asia will be ahead of the curve as there are many home-grown 5G-ready Android devices already in-mar­ket.

Even when a sub­stan­tial num­ber of peo­ple get access to 5G, data con­nec­tiv­i­ty is going to be at about the lev­el of fast 4G or decent WiFi in the short term; the promised ben­e­fits of super­fast mobile broad­band come with high­er fre­quen­cy ranges that aren’t yet in oper­a­tion in many coun­tries (includ­ing the UK). Also, many of the real­ly inter­est­ing use cas­es are yet to be dis­cov­ered; edge com­put­ing could be a big­ger dri­ver of inno­va­tion than high-speed data alone, but it relies on a major infra­struc­ture upgrade. And per­haps it won’t be phones that ben­e­fit the most but oth­er con­nect­ed devices, like XR head­sets. I think 5G will be a trans­for­ma­tive tech­nol­o­gy, but it won’t hap­pen immi­nent­ly or obvi­ous­ly.

Social Splintering & Social Selling

Inter­net users are mov­ing from shar­ing as a method of broad­cast­ing them­selves, into a way of shar­ing that has com­mu­ni­ty at its heart.

Chris Beer, Glob­al­We­bIndex

In last year’s pre­view I men­tioned the decline of Facebook’s News Feed, and there’s an increas­ing aware­ness that shar­ing online spaces with hun­dreds or thou­sands of oth­er peo­ple is an unhealthy cause of con­flict. Instead we’re see­ing a ‘social splin­ter­ing’ into inter­est-based net­works and com­mu­ni­ties; promi­nent exam­ples include Facebook’s new empha­sis on Groups and Events, Twitter’s focus on Lists and Top­ics, and Instagram’s Close Friends fea­ture which spun out into the Threads app at the end of last year.

Short video clips are the future of ecom­merce. Think of them as com­pul­sive­ly watch­able commercials—with a direct link to buy

Con­nie Chan and Avery Segal, Andreesen Horowitz

Social net­works in gen­er­al are becom­ing more trans­ac­tion­al. Insta­gram, Tik­Tok, and What­sApp have all added tools for dif­fer­ent stages of the direct-to-con­sumer ecom­merce process, from prod­uct cat­a­logues to pay­ments to ful­fil­ment. This is direct­ly fol­low­ing the social sell­ing boom in Chi­na, where brand spon­sor­ships of influ­encers and ‘key opin­ion lead­ers’ (KOLs) is giv­ing way to direct sell­ing in inter­est-based com­mu­ni­ties, increas­ing­ly through short-form and live-streamed video. Tik­Tok and Insta­gram are ide­al­ly-placed for social sell­ing, but Ama­zon and YouTube are also increas­ing their video sell­ing capa­bil­i­ties to take on the com­pe­ti­tion.

Gaming & e‑sports

Gam­ing is much big­ger than sim­ply play­ing, and it has an out­sized impact on pop­u­lar cul­ture which goes large­ly unrecog­nised. Huge audi­ences watch e‑sports, and many more peo­ple watch streamed games on social video plat­forms like YouTube, Twitch, and Caf­feine. The most pop­u­lar game stream­ers are sign­ing big-mon­ey exclu­siv­i­ty deals through tal­ent agency rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The suc­cess of social gam­ing is like­ly part of the moti­va­tion behind Google’s move into gam­ing with Sta­dia; while stream­ing games is tech­ni­cal­ly impres­sive, and play­ing tru­ly mas­sive­ly-mul­ti­play­er with spec­ta­tor-par­tic­i­pants promis­es to be inter­est­ing, the real com­pet­i­tive advan­tage for Google is inte­gra­tion with the con­ver­sa­tion hap­pen­ing on YouTube.

Fort­nite has become a dai­ly social square – a dig­i­tal mall or vir­tu­al after­school meet­up that spans neigh­bor­hoods, cities, coun­tries and con­ti­nents.

Matthew Ball, REDEF

Fort­nite is inno­vat­ing sto­ry­telling, turn­ing sched­uled serv­er down­time into a major plot point. But its real achieve­ment may be in becom­ing a ‘third place’ for hang­ing out with friends and shar­ing live expe­ri­ences. This  pro­vides oppor­tu­ni­ty for brands to reach an engaged audi­ence; Dis­ney used it to announce the return of a major Star Wars char­ac­ter in the lat­est film.

Fort­nite is far from the only game in town, or the only oppor­tu­ni­ty for brands; Louis Vuit­ton part­nered with Ten­cent-owned League of Leg­ends to design cos­tumes for in-game char­ac­ters, with a phys­i­cal tro­phy case for win­ning tour­na­ment play­ers, and an accom­pa­ny­ing con­sumer col­lec­tion. It’s per­haps the first high-fash­ion brand to asso­ciate with gam­ing culture—or, if not, almost cer­tain­ly the most high-pro­file brand.

Synthetic Media

Advances in deep learn­ing are enabling mag­ic: neur­al net­works can increas­ing­ly repro­duce media con­tent at such a high fideli­ty that it is almost impos­si­ble to tell apart from con­tent cre­at­ed by humans.

Vic­tor Ripar­bel­li, Syn­the­sia

Syn­thet­ic media is images, audio, or video that are cre­at­ed or manip­u­lat­ed by machine algo­rithms. Any­one can paint impos­si­ble land­scapes. Atten­tion cor­rec­tion in Face­Time means you always seem to make eye con­tact, even when you don’t. You can clone your voice. Synthesia’s tech­nol­o­gy makes peo­ple speak dif­fer­ent lan­guages. Jig­gy enables every­one to be a dancer. Why invest in stock pho­tog­ra­phy when you can gen­er­ate por­traits of non-exis­tent peo­ple whose eth­nic­i­ty can be mod­i­fied on the fly? Syn­thet­ic media has the poten­tial to shake every­thing up.

AR began the democ­ra­ti­sa­tion of visu­al effects, and syn­thet­ic media takes the next step. It rais­es new ques­tions of truth, dis­clo­sure, and con­sent. So-called deep­fakes are the first and most pub­lic man­i­fes­ta­tion of an age where any­one can appear to do or say any­thing.

Identity

Ani­mo­ji, Bit­mo­ji, are the ker­nel of big ideas: they are masks that let you be more expres­sive than texts but also low­er the res­o­lu­tion of how much you’re shar­ing about your­self.

Dan­ny Trinh

Since the ear­ly chat forums and bul­letin boards of online social spaces we’ve tend­ed to use avatars to express our iden­ti­ty. As we spend more time in immer­sive spaces, from the third place of social gam­ing to the emerg­ing mir­ror­world, the way we rep­re­sent our­selves is becom­ing more rich­ly expres­sive. Apple’s Mem­o­ji can be used as a face mask in video calls in Face­Time and Mes­sages. Snap’s Bit­mo­ji can now be used as char­ac­ters in games and as the stars of short ani­mat­ed films.

Gamers cus­tomise their char­ac­ters with earned or pur­chased skins, which are a soft rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a player’s per­son­al­i­ty, progress, and pow­er. Fort­nite, which is free to play, earned a report­ed £1.4 bil­lion in rev­enue in 2019, due in no small part to sales of skins. Brands like Guc­ci and Supreme are exper­i­ment­ing with offi­cial acces­sories for avatars, and the emer­gence of dig­i­tal fash­ion is an indi­ca­tor of the future of online and phys­i­cal visu­al iden­ti­ty.


Thanks for read­ing to the end. I’m excit­ed about the new pos­si­bil­i­ties emerg­ing in immer­sive tech­nol­o­gy, and hope I’ve done enough to get you excit­ed too. I’d love to have your feed­back on this arti­cle; if you have some­thing to say, please add a com­ment below or DM me on Twit­ter or Insta­gram with your thoughts. And please share this with any­one you think would ben­e­fit from read­ing it.


Also pub­lished on Medi­um.

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