Trends in digital media for 2017

Alright, stand back everyone: I’m about to have some opinions about technology in 2017. Because obviously there’s been a shortage of those.

As part of my Technologist role at +rehabstudio I put together internal briefings about digital media, consumer technology, where the digital marketing industry could go in the near future, and what we should be communicating to our clients. Not trying to make predictions, but to follow trends.

This article is based on my latest briefing. It’s somewhat informed, purposely skimpy on detail, and very incomplete: I have some thoughts on advertising and publishing that I can’t quite distil yet, and machine learning is a vast surface that I can barely scratch.

If for nothing more than press coverage, 2016 was the year of messaging, and the explosion of the messaging bot. The biggest player in the game, Facebook’s Messenger, launched its bot platform in April, and by November some 33,000 bots had been released. Recent tools added to the platform include embedded webviews, HTML5 games, and in-app payments.

The first six months of bots were largely the ‘fart app’ stage, but there are signs that brands and services are finally starting to see the real opportunities in messaging: removing friction from their users’ interactions with them. Friction in app management and UI complexity, for example.

The same removal of friction is also a key driver behind the growth of home assistants and voice interaction, like Alexa. Removing the UI abstraction between users and tasks is a clear trend. As an illustration, compare two user flows for watching Stranger Things on Netflix on your TV; first using a smartphone:

  1. Unlock phone.
  2. Find and open Netflix app.
  3. Press the ‘cast’ button.
  4. Find ‘Stranger Things’.
  5. Play.

Now using Google Home:

  1. “OK Google, play Stranger Things from Netflix on My TV.”

Home assistants make the smart home easier to manage. No more separate apps for Wemo, Hue, Nest, etc; a single voice interface (perhaps glued together with a cloud service like IFTT) controls all the different devices in your home.

Messaging and voice are visible aspects of the trend towards the interface on demand:

The app only appears in a particular context when necessary and in the format which is most convenient for the user.

Matt Hartman

Improvements in the capabilities of web apps (especially on Chrome for Android) suggest an alternative to native apps in some cases. This has been demonstrated by the success of new web apps from major retail brands like Flipkart and Ali Baba in developing economies where an official app store may not be available, or network costs may make app downloads undesirable.

Web apps require no installation, avoiding the app store problem. They’re starting to get important features like push notifications and payment APIs. And messaging platforms, with their large installed user base, provide the web with a social and distribution layer that the browser never did:

Messaging apps and social networks [are] wrappers for the mobile web. They’re actually browsers… [and] give us the social context and connections we crave, something traditional browsers do not.


So it may be that for some brands, a website optimised for performance, engagement, and sharing, along with a decent messaging and social strategy, will offer a better investment than native apps and app store marketing. Patagonia already closed its native app. Gartner predict that some 20% of brands will follow by 2019:

Many brands are finding that their mobile apps are not paying off.


The most important app on your phone could be the camera, which will be increasingly important this year. First, by revealing the ‘dark matter’ of the internet: images, video and sound. So much of this data is uploaded every day, but without the semantic value of text, its meaning is lost to non-humans — like search engines, for example. But machine learning is becoming very good at understanding the content of this opaque data, meaning the role of the camera changes:

It’s not really a camera, taking pictures; it’s an eye, that can see.

Benedict Evans

It can see faces, landmarks, logos, objects; hear background chat and music. That’s understanding context, location, purchase history, and behaviour, without being explicitly told anything. This is why Facebook, through Messenger and Instagram, is furiously copying Snapchat’s best features: it wants their young audience and the data they bring.

Will it be intrusive? Yes. Will it happen? Yes. I’ve tried to avoid making hard predictions in this piece, but I am as confident as I can be that our image and video history will be used for marketing data.

Cameras will also be important in altering the images that are shown to the users. Augmented reality is an exciting technology, although good-enough dedicated hardware is still a while away. But there’s a definite market drift in that direction, and leading it is Snapchat: it’s stealthily introducing AR through modifying the base layer of reality—first, by altering faces using their lenses. This isn’t frivolous; it’s expanding the range of digital communication, like emoji do for text.

If people are talking in pictures, they need those pictures to be capable of expressing the whole range of human emotion.

Alexis Madrigal

Recent Snapchat lenses have started altering voices, and your environment. Snapchat recently bought a company that specialises in adding 3D objects into real environments. With Spectacles it’s not only removing friction from the process of taking a photo, it’s prototyping hardware at scale. This is the road to AR. Snap Inc. wants to be the camera company — not in the way that Nikon was, but in the way that Facebook is the social company.

The companion to an augmented reality is a virtual one, but I don’t believe we’ll see VR going mainstream in 2017—and I say that as a proponent. It’s static, isolating, and it requires people to form a new behaviour. It’s interesting to see creators experiment with the form, and I’ve no doubt that we’ll see some very interesting experiences launched this year. But domestic sales aren’t huge, and high-end units are too expensive, and low-end not quite up to scratch yet. Still think it will be big for gamers, though.

I have more. A lot more. But I think it will all be better explained in a series of subsequent blog posts, so I’ll aim to do that. In the meantime, would love to hear your thoughts, arguments, objections, and conclusions.


The reality of virtual reality

In Oslo airport last month I saw this table display in an electronics shop. “Virtual Reality starts here”, it says. Two VR devices were offered for sale: the Samsung Gear VR, and a smartphone-based unit by Homido, which was selling for 699 NOK (about £63, although it would have been cheaper then, pre-Brexit referendum).

The previous month in Greenwich Market, here in London, I saw a stall selling robust, own-branded Google Cardboard units. They were about £12, I recall. I saw a few people try them and look quite impressed.

These are two small signs of virtual reality breaking into the mainstream. Or, at least, trying to; because right now it’s uncertain whether VR can fully make that step.

I should state up front that I’m a fan of VR. I’m excited to see it become commoditised, to visualise the possibilities inherent in what Kevin Kelly calls the “internet of experiences”. It’s really exciting to watch people’s reactions as they try VR for the first time.

But there’s a real possibility that VR doesn’t have lasting value beyond that initial reaction. The risk is that VR headsets follow the pattern of the Nintendo Wii: hailed as a breakthrough mainstream device, huge initial public impact, then slowly abandoned over time as interest wanes, left to only the hardcore gamers.

It’s hard to gauge the public interest in VR. In tech and advertising circles it’s receiving a lot of attention, we know it’s an area that the major players are into: Google, Facebook, Samsung, HTC, and Twitter all have VR teams, and you can bet that Apple are investigating it secretly too. But in terms of consumer demand?

We should know more about sales by the end of the year: between now and Christmas we should see the Oculus Rift start to ship at scale, as well as the cheaper and more accessible Sony Playstation VR. The first devices to meet Google’s Daydream standard should also become available in that time. What we know for now is that a recent estimate puts Vive sales at around 100,000; not bad, but not stunning. The Gear VR could ship an estimated 10 million units by the end of 2016, as they’re giving away the headset with their new phones in many markets.

But even if the non-gaming public have access to a headset, will they want to use it? Or re-use it? We don’t know. We can be sure it won’t be for lack of effort from manufacturers and content producers; there are some really smart people and teams out there considering VR as a distinct art form and experimenting to find new ways to tell stories in it.

But I have one major problem with VR: it isolates. It’s typical of the ‘software above the level of a single person’ problem: it’s not built for people who live in groups. For me to use VR at home I have to block out my wife entirely. In any other leisure activity we do at home, even when reading, watching or playing different things, we’re only separate, not isolated.

And I can’t use a VR headset out of my home, because I’ll lose awareness of my surroundings (not to mention the bulk of carrying it around). So it becomes something I can only use in very limited, occasional moments, and then it becomes much harder to justify the expense. Perhaps this isn’t a universal problem, but I suspect it will be common.

Headsets need to become lighter, cheaper, and more easily allow access to the external world. I’m sure the technology will get there. But I’m less certain there will be sufficient audience to sustain it until that point. We’ll find out in 2017.