Tech & Innovation Trends To Watch Out For In 2017

Asian Companies

This is a guest blog about 2017 tech & innovation trends by Lucie Greene, Director of The Innovation Group, JWT.

Augmented reality evolves

In January 2016, the BBC heralded the new year as the one where “VR goes from virtual to reality.” But it’s another technology, often discussed in the same breath, which has truly gone viral: the surprise success of Pokémon Go has put augmented reality (AR), in the pockets of millions.

Apple is rumored to be planning a major AR push. The company’s new iPhone 7 Plus has two cameras, which would allow the device to intelligently sense depth and vastly improve its capacity for AR applications. Without announcing specific plans, CEO Tim Cook gushed about AR in a July earnings call: “We are high on AR for the long run, we think there’s great things for customers and a great commercial opportunity.” Meanwhile, Alibaba created a location-based AR mobile game to promote its Singles’ Day shopping event.

“The geolocative technology has been around since 2010, but people haven’t really found a use case for it until Pokémon Go,” says new-media artist Tamiko Thiel. “The question is, what will they find that really makes use of it?”

Brands are trying to use AR to enhance online commerce. For 2016’s September London Fashion Week, online retail platform Lyst created “Humannequins,” a window installation featuring scantily clad models who could be “clothed” with the help of an AR app.

Why it’s interesting: AR is more accessible than VR and offers a less totalizing sensory experience. By definition, it blends with the real world. Now that consumers have a sense of what it’s like, brands can explore new ways to use it at scale in retail and beyond.

Digital India

In 2015, the Government of India launched Digital India, a nationwide project to connect rural areas with broadband internet. The plan has received the backing of Silicon Valley bigwigs including Mark Zuckerberg, who changed his Facebook profile picture in support. Microsoft, meanwhile, pledged to provide broadband connectivity to 500,000 villages in the country.

With access to reliable connections for the first time, these millions of Indian people represent a huge potential growth market for online retail, and in 2017 the competition is expected to become intense. Amazon has pledged to invest $3bn in the country, while home-grown e-commerce company Flipkart is determined not to cede territory to the global behemoth. (In a move reminiscent of Amazon’s physical bookstores in the United States, Flipkart is building physical stores to offer “assisted commerce,” though specifics are unclear at the time of writing.)

On the B2B side, there’s Amazon and another claimant to the coming gold-rush: Alibaba is signing up Indian partners including Kotak Mahindra Bank, IDFC Bank, DHL and Aditya Birla Finance, according to a report from Quartz. Stakes are high: India’s potentially lucrative B2B e-commerce market is expected to grow by 2.5 times through 2020.

Why it’s interesting: With its geographic, logistical and regulatory hurdles, India is a tough nut to crack for e-commerce. Whether an American, Chinese or Indian company ultimately corners the market, the winners in the next year may have a broad impact.

Civic data 

Municipal services like water and traffic management rarely provoke flights of passion, unless your name happens to be Leslie Knope. But now, cities are taking a page from the Wikipedia playbook and open-sourcing data for curious hackers who just might discover the next innovation in urbanism. City planning is gaining some of the sheen and cool factor of high tech.

Los Angeles is a case in point. Early in 2016 the city launched GeoHub, a map-based portal for city data. One application developed with GeoHub is Street Wize, which helps make sure roadwork and upkeep projects are scheduled in the most efficient way, and coordinated across departments. “GeoHub serves as a foundation to do the work of making smarter cities. It pulls data from many different places and weaves various perspectives to create the most compelling maps and apps,” Lilian Coral, chief data officer of Los Angeles, told the Data-Smart City Solutions site.

A version of this idea is happening in many cities, large and small. In fall 2016, Syracuse, New York hosted a “civic data hackathon” aimed at using data to discover solutions to improve the city’s roads. “It’s a way of bringing new resources and new ideas to a very traditional problem,” mayor Stephanie Miner told digital news operation Route Fifty, adding that the hackathon helped to “make people feel like they have a role in their government.” In Mississippi, the Open Jackson Data Portal launched in early 2016, helping to find ways to increase city revenues and decrease duplicate 311 tickets.

The concept has also reached Pune, India where an open data portal launched in late 2016. “Anyone—citizen, business owner, researcher or developer—can access data relating to the city,” Pune’s municipal commissioner Kunal Kumar tells the Indian Express.

Why it’s interesting: What uses could brands and retailers find for open city data? Perhaps a better understanding of footfall and the patterns that drive shopping behavior, or maybe a sponsorship opportunity to show their investment in local communities?

Wifi disruptors

While omnipresent wifi has been a boon for public spaces and individuals alike, one group that’s less than thrilled by the trend is parents.

In 2015, pasta sauce brand Dolmio surveyed Australian households and found that 38% of them felt they had no way to limit tech use during family dinners, and a whopping 63% of arguments at the table were found to be related to technology. In response, Dolmio proposed the Pepper Hacker, a pepper grinder with a disguised wifi blocker. After what the company called “unprecedented feedback,” the grinder went on sale in 2016.

Mainstream companies also began to offer a wifi switch for families looking to unplug. Google Wifi, launched in October 2016, offers a “family pause” switch that suspends wifi access at dinner or bedtime. And Eero, a similar home wifi system, launched its Family Profiles system in June 2016, allowing parents to adjust wifi access for younger or older children on different devices.

“The options on the market today feel a bit punitive by design and over-complicate device management,” wrote Nick Weaver, Eero CEO, in a company blog post. “We’re taking a different approach—simplifying the process by focusing on what’s most important: time together.”

Why it’s interesting: Research suggests that too much screen time affects children’s sleep and emotional management, among other effects. Despite the push for seamless and constant connection, some consumers are equally interested in the occasional tech-aided unplug.

Tech vs the trolls 

Online abuse is more visible than ever. In summer 2016, Twitter trolls subjected comedian Leslie Jones to so much racist and sexist abuse that she quit the platform, and later went offline altogether, for several months. Parents of young children are aware that digital taunts can quickly get dangerously ugly. And in the United States and the United Kingdom, the most divisive political year in recent memory was marked by harsh recriminations on all sides, and, not infrequently, hate speech.

Aware of their role in distributing these messages (and the potential damage to public perceptions of their brands), tech companies are creating tools to consistently crack down on abusive speech. Yahoo has created an abuse-detecting algorithm that the company says can accurately identify whether online comments contain hate speech in 90% of test cases.

Through a division called Jigsaw, Google is releasing Conversation AI, which aims to use machine learning to more accurately filter out abusive speech. “I want to use the best technology we have at our disposal to begin to take on trolling and other nefarious tactics that give hostile voices disproportionate weight,” Jigsaw founder and president Jared Cohen told Wired.

Such efforts are not without their critics. Technology news network The Verge calls Conversation AI “censorious overreach,” warning that the effort could backfire and block important information on, for example, sexual health. But in a vitriolic online world, it may be a first step toward restoring civility.

Why it’s interesting: Consumers are looking for comfort and reassurance in divided times, and looking to brands to help reduce their anxieties. How could AI help achieve this in your industry?

Silicon soup

Technology companies at the top of the Silicon Valley hierarchy are looking outside their original mission as they strive for innovation and growth, often borrowing from their neighbor’s playbook, collapsing the lines between brands.

Consider the red-hot delivery sector. In October 2016, Facebook added an option to order food from a business page. UberEats, which evolved from the company’s Santa Monica based delivery service UberFresh, launched in 2015 and has expanded steadily since. Once ruled by dedicated delivery platforms like GrubHub or Seamless, food delivery is now facing challenges from a social media platform and a ride-sharing app.

Facebook’s Facebook at Work is a LinkedIn-like service that represents its expansion into professional tools. And Google looks suspiciously like Apple with its first phone, the Pixel, a major step for the company into hardware production. Google and Amazon are both angling to control the home Internet of Things, with Google’s new Home smart speaker, and Amazon’s Echo. And of course, nearly every giant company in the Valley is trying to develop a self-driving car.

The relaunch of Facebook’s Marketplace feature and Instagram’s upgraded click-to-shop ads position both as potentially significant players in e-commerce. Google’s Express delivery service debuted in 2013 and by the end of 2016, the same-day delivery service was expected to cover the entire United States, encroaching into the territory of Amazon Prime.

Why it’s interesting: It’s no surprise that tech companies want to compete in profitable markets. What is surprising is the degree to which all technology companies seem to be encroaching on each other’s area of specialization. As consumers get used to Silicon Valley brands blurring their own lines, tech companies will be left to sort out the competition—provided they haven’t already been cannibalized.

Security in the IoT 

In October 2016, a massive national cyberattack took down popular sites for nearly an entire day. Hackers used home devices such as routers, security cameras and DVRs connected to the Internet of Things.

For consumers, the attack was one of the greatest security fears around new technology brought to life. More than 20 billion devices are expected to be connected to the Internet of Things by 2020, according to technology research firm Gartner, meaning that more than five million devices will be brought online per day. This deluge of smart appliances means that, without proper security measures, hackers could have more access points to a consumer’s home network than ever.

“If we want to put networked technologies into more and more things, we also have to find a way to make them safer,” Michael Walker, a computer security expert at DARPA, the Pentagon’s advanced research arm, tells the New York Times. “It’s a challenge for civilization.”

The results can be far more nefarious than a frozen web. In 2015, a pair of hackers carrying out car-jacking research successfully hijacked a Jeep’s digital system, cutting the brakes and causing the car to come to a standstill in the middle of the highway. The experiment prompted an extensive security review (and a 1.4 million vehicle recall) from Chrysler. And in November 2016, researchers at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science and Canada’s Dalhousie University hacked a set of Philips smart lightbulbs through a drone, proving the feasibility of remote attacks. And with the Internet of Things encroaching everywhere from the office to the nursery, consumer privacy is also in play.

Why it’s interesting: In the United States and the United Kingdom, consumers care more about brands’ management of their personal data than about price, according to a survey conducted by J. Walter Thompson’s SONAR™ division. Future Internet of Things companies will have to work much harder than their predecessors to convince consumers that products are safe.

Social virtual reality

At the 2014 Web Summit, Oculus Rift CEO Brendan Iribe pointed to revolutionized communication as the biggest opportunity in VR. Next, Facebook promised to enable teleporting by 2025.

VR has thus far been a relatively isolated experience, enjoyed in a personal headset, but this needs to change for it to reach mass adoption, says Rowland Manthorpe, associate editor at Wired UK. “The thing about virtual reality currently is that it is not very social or limited to gaming, and that, ultimately, will stop it from reaching mass adoption. Until you make it social, it won’t have as big an impact.”

Gaming companies such as The Void have sought to socialize it with interactive multiplayer games. Augmented reality has also demonstrated the benefits of combining digital landscapes with physical and social surrounds. But this is just the beginning. Companies such as High Fidelity, founded by Philip Rosedale, who also founded virtual world Second Life, is experimenting with VR to create limitless 3D social landscapes. And with giants such as Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Alibaba investing heavily in VR, making the technology more social is a logical way forward.

Why it’s interesting: Social networks have had a transformative impact on how consumers interact, network, and discover content and new experiences. As VR emerges, providing rich landscapes for storytelling and immersion, it could further be enhanced by allowing consumers to interact in virtual worlds, fictional or real.

By Lucie Greene

Lucie Green is Director of The Innovation Group. The Innovation Group is J. Walter Thompson’s in-house creative think tank for the future. The practice produces groundbreaking thought leadership, consumer insight and sector innovation content.

It offers a range of consultancy services that help clients not only understand what’s happening now and next, but how to action this in the framework of their brand.

The Innovation Group also offers creative innovation labs, ideating and rapid prototyping concepts based on future change with its team of futurists, creative directors, strategists and researchers.