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 their 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.

While native mobile apps are still a growth area, it’s becom­ing much hard­er to get users to down­load and engage with apps out­side of a small pop­u­lar core. This is espe­cial­ly true for retail, where con­sumers are more omniv­o­rous and like to browse wide­ly.

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 their 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, it’s 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.

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, are furi­ous­ly copy­ing Snapchat’s best fea­tures: they want 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: they’re 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.

Recent Snapchat lens­es have start­ed alter­ing voic­es, and your envi­ron­ment. They’ve recent­ly bought a com­pa­ny that spe­cialis­es in adding 3D objects into real envi­ron­ments. With Spec­ta­cles they’re not only remov­ing fric­tion from the process of tak­ing a pho­to, they’re pro­to­typ­ing hard­ware at scale. This is the road to AR. Snap Inc. want 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.