The Next Thing After Mobile? It Won’t be VR or The IoT, It’ll Be Cyborgs

The always there, always on smartphone has become our core computing device. Benedict Evans from Andreessen Horowitz described it succinctly; “Smartphones are the sun and everything else now orbits around it.” I would identify the tipping point as June 2010, the launch of the iPhone 4. The power of that phone and the other devices that followed was greater than a Cray 2 Supercomputer from the 1980s. The machine cost the equivalent of $32 million and filled a room. Fast forward 20 years, and when users have a supercomputer in their pocket, everything changes. Before 2010, the most powerful consumer device was generally the one on the office desk. With the advent of high-power mobile computing it was people, not businesses, that took control. Now we can search the web, download apps, connect on social media, or take pictures of our dinner anywhere and at anytime we like.

Where do we go after mobile? I would suggest that the next big thing is … mobile, still. There’s been plenty over debate on how new devices might replace smartphones. It’s been suggested that the Internet of Things (IoT), such as wearables and contected devices might the next thing after mobile. I’m less convinced. Consider how we use the IoT. Whether it’s a smartwatch, a Fitbit or a Nest, they still need a mobile device to drive them. Smartphones are typically used to provide input and output information in audio or visual formats. These emerging technologies are essentially satellite devices to a core mobile computer. IoT devices enhance the experience, but I would suggest our phones will remain largely the same for now. Sure, phones are going to get faster, the screens will be brighter and maybe bigger, and the camera will get better (but battery life will still be poor). Fundamentally, though, mobile devices will not change significantly.

A development that I find interesting are voice controlled intelligent assistants. Amazon’s Echo has caught people’s imagination, Google Home was launched with much interest and there’s been talk that Apple will have a similar offering soon. These devices are essentially speakers with ever-listening microphones (scary) that use cloud-based artificial intelligence. There’s even an attempt in Japan to make them into a virtual girlfriend. Potential love interest aside, are these the next big thing after mobile? Probably not. Whilst they are proving popular right now, I would argue they are little more than a fancy egg timer (a report suggested this was the most used function of the Echo). These speakers are stop-gap technologies that are waiting for the likes of Siri, on mobile devices, to catch up. With better speakers on phones, the Echo will be redundant.

Some commentators are hoping that mixed realities, such as virtual or augmented reality are the logical next step for devices. Will our phone be replaced by a pair of glasses? Benedict Evans, in a recent article, raised a number of challenges that augmented glasses will need to address before they become mass market. AR and VR are interesting technologies, but as I’ve previously blogged, I believe they have specific uses that makes them niche devices.

Right now, there’s nothing that replaces the computing power and audio-visual interface that a mobile phone has. It leads me to one conclusion, mobile devices will only be replaced when we no longer need that interface, and computing is embedded in people. Yup, cyborgs. Elon Musk has stated that if we want to beat the robots we need to become part of them. He spoke about “neuroprosthetics”, which would tap into the neural activity to communicate complex ideas telepathically. Once you can do that, the mobile interface becomes less necessary. The Space X/Tesla Boss is not the only person thinking about embeded computing as a future device. In Sweden a company is offering employees the option of a rice-grain sized implant, instead of an ID card. More ambitiously, Cyborg Nest has developed an implant called North Sense that acts as a compass and direction finder.

It is conceivable that technologically enhanced bodies will become the core computing devices, replacing mobile phones. That will move us into a world in which the distinction between on and offline will all but disappear. A few technology outliers, such as Neil Harbisson are already embracing the idea of cyborgs. Understandably, most of us are worried or even repelled by the idea. Yet Neil Harbisson uses his implant to address his colour blindness. And what if computer implants could improve the lives of people suffering from a stroke or dealing with dementia? The cyborg question raises many ethical and philosophical issues that society hasn’t addressed yet. Maybe the concept of cyborgs isn’t that far fetched afterall. We are already attached to our smartphones. They are right next to us all of the time, and we are utterly reliant on them for communications and information. Maybe we have already become cyborgs by proxy?

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The Trouble With VR

I was watching, yet another a virtual reality (VR) experience at an ad agency the other day. Before it began, our demo guy said to the assembled group ‘stand well back, as last week I punched someone’. It demonstrates both the benefits and challenges of VR. It’s a highly immersive experience, something that many brands strive for, however it is also a closed experience that removes the user from the real world.

Sensorama - early VRVR isn’t that new. In the early 1960s, Morton Heilig came up with the Sensorama. It had vision, it had sound, it had movement. It even had smell … now why didn’t Oculus think of that? The next iterations were in the late 90s. It was a time of optimism in technology, and companies such as Atari were creating expensive futuristic-looking headsets. The problem was not just the price, the technology also struggled to deliver a convincing virtual experience. In the last couple of years we’ve seen the launch of numerous new headsets – Oculus, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear and even Google’s Cardboard. The technology has caught up with the concept. We have retina screens, we have gyroscopes and above all, we have sufficient computing power to reduce that lag that made the 90s versions somewhat vomit inducing.

With the new generation of devices, we’re beginning to discover applications for VR. Naturally there is strong appeal in gaming. The immersive nature makes it ideal for driving, shooting or fantasy formats. Outside of the gamer world, useful VR applications are being developed in medicine, engineering and architecture. It’s also becoming a useful research tool in retail. Virtual stores can be easily built and different configurations tested on shopper focus groups.

Not to be outdone, advertising agencies are also jumping on the VR bandwagon aiming to deliver that illusive, immersive brand experience. And therein lies the problem. They’re replicating existing experiences without creating true audience engagement. So far, brands have built some well produced, mildly interesting, yet obvious applications. From Audi to Volvo, a number of brands have created virtual driving experiences. Fine, but really, I’d just like to test-drive the car. Getting a feel of the vehicle on real highways is far more important than looking out on simulated mountain road. Occasionally, there are some nice executions, such as Merrill’s VR trek. However, I would argue that all of these are just stunts.

I see two main problems with VR in the brand context. Firstly, consumer adoptions rate is low. Though much cheaper than the 90s versions, current devices are still pricey. Although people were happy to splash out similar sums on smartphones and iPads, the limited application of VR makes purchasing less appealing. Brands therefore need to deliver high-end VR experiences in-situ, for example in a store. Unlike other in-store experiences, such as digital billboards, VR offers fewer possibilities for the consumer to interact with their own mobile device, or connect to social media. For brands, interaction is often key to creating scale through sharing with a wider audience. VR doesn’t easily lend itself to scale.

The second, greater challenge I see is that brands are struggling to understand VR as a medium. The problem comes from the immersive nature of these new devices. It’s making a connection in the first person. That naturally works in gaming, but brands think of their engagement in the third person, delivering a message to a remote viewer. Digital and particularly social media, are making brands more two-way, more intereactive. However the ‘share your selfie/like this hashtag’ approach is still very third person thinking. It’s an interaction that aims to create scale through sharing to be viewed in the third person. Because VR is immersive and first person, it requires a re-think of how brands approach their audience. For now, though, VR is a tactic for brands – essential for delivering stunts with a short hit of interest.

It’s All in The Wrist Action … Apple Pay and The Apple Watch

apple_pay_watch-580x387I was excited by the thought of Apple Pay on my Watch. There’s a (childish) appeal that I can pay for stuff just using the device on my wrist. And it looks as if I’m not the only one. In June, mobile analyst,  Benedict Evans (@benedictevans) Tweeted: ‘Apple Pay with a phone is still just taking something out of your pocket. Not transformative. With a watch it’s amazing. End of friction’. A report released in August from Writstly found that 80% of Watch users have paid with the system and 78% do so at least once a week. With such a high uptake, does that make Apple Pay a rip-roaring success? The answer is, probably not.

I am one of the 80% who have used Apple Pay on the Watch and it has been far from life changing. It is good enough, but far from the great experience that Apple has delivered elsewhere. Double clicking to ‘prime’ the card is fairly easy, although it’s effectively a two-handed operation. Tapping in to pay can be tricky at times. The biggest challenge is getting the angle right on the reader. They are generally set up on the right hand side and this is especially a problem on London’s transport network. If you wear your watch on your left then tapping in can be somewhat hit and miss. That’s not great on TfL where a nanosecond’s pause will cause havoc and loud tutting from other commuters. Another challenge is the availability in retailers. My UK experience is that very few outlets advertise Apple Pay. So for many shops it’s a case of tapping to see if it works. So even on the Watch there is still some friction.

In spite of the Wristly study, its difficult to know the true uptake of the payment system – we don’t know how many Apple Watches have been sold and there have only been a couple of broader studies in the US. One survey from InfoScout covering all Apple devices pointed towards a drop in payment adoption rates – from 15% in March 2015 to 13% in June. The second study was a Gallup Poll, which found that 65% of iPhone 6 users were aware of the payment system, but only 21% had used it. None of these show a comparison in take up with contactless cards, so there’s no baseline to gauge the success.

The Wristly study was a self-selecting sample of Watch users. It’s reasonable to assume that these are early adopters of the device who are likely to try out Apple Pay regardless of the experience. When it comes to a broader audience an experience that’s ‘good enough’ is probably not good enough to drive mass adoption. At the end of the day, Apple Pay is good attempt at mobile payment but it’s hard to see how it will achieve real scale. That said, I’m going to keep using Apple Pay on my Watch. Not because it’s any easier, but just because I can.

If Mobile is Contextual, then Smartwatches are Hyper-Contextual

apple-watch-review-heroI’ve previously blogged about the challenges for the Apple Watch. Right now though, nobody can agree on the success of the device. Data from Slice Intelligence, reported by MacRumours  suggested that sales fell by 90% in the second week of July. However, Recode countered that the data only accounted for US online sales and didn’t factor in the launch in physical stores during the same period. Regardless of the ‘sales’ stats, Business Insider has predicted a 35% annual compound growth of the smartwatch market. The Apple Watch is therefore an interesting device in which to understand the direction and benefits of wearable computing.

Having used my device for nearly two months (yes, I have an Apple Watch), it’s been a good way to understand what works and what doesn’t. For example, I find the notifications are more useful than I expected. Whilst getting my phone out my bag or pocket is not a major hassle, there are benefits with notifications on the Watch. For a start, it’s discreet. I have been in a few meetings where my Watch quietly buzzed and I could quickly glance down to see what it wanted. That’s less of a disruption than pulling my phone out my bag. One commentator claimed that all the notifications do is to tell you to pick up your phone. I haven’t found that. Some of the notifications are reminders of another next meeting. I also use it to check the weather, transport and currency rates. None of these require me to look at my smartphone.

One of the unexpected benefits has been for travel. I can set an arrival time for a journey in Citymapper and it will alert me when I need to leave, based on the current speed of the transport network. The turn by turn navigation is also useful. I was in a less savoury part of the city the other week and it was more discreet to use my Watch than get out my phone to check the route (if only Apple Maps were a bit more reliable). The navigation is also useful when it’s raining or I have my hands full.

What’s interesting about all these benefits is that they are all very specific, or contextual. There is a parallel with the contextual nature of smartphones. I have been banging on for years about the need of brands to understand context in mobile to deliver the right engagement. For example, context is not simply knowing the user’s location. Understanding that I’m in-store is useful, but it doesn’t tell me if I’m browsing, ready to buy or just can’t find the product I’m looking for. Context also includes the time of day, my intent and even functions such as the battery life (when people’s batteries are low, the save their usage for basic tasks like messaging their loved ones).

I’ve asked a number of people how they are finding their Watch. Although each person uses it differently, everyone said it was useful, but not essential. Maybe that will change if Apple Pay gains traction. However, the non-essential nature is the key point here. Whilst smartphones are now an essential core device, smartwatches are not. They are useful for very specific tasks. If brands want to develop their engagement on these devices then they will need to understand the very specific contexts in which they are useful. It’s hyper-contextual. Of course the challenge for brands is how to understand or identify that hyper-context.

Five Good Examples of Brand Innovation from Cannes Lions

Cannes Lions, the Oscars of advertising, will kick off later this week with innovation at the heart of their approach. Increasingly, the deployment of technology has been a strong element of the awards. In 2012, Nike’s Fuel Band won the Grand Prix Prize and last year, it went to Nivea’s beacon-based Bracelet . This year’s nominees contain a strong smattering of connected objects. Here are some of the stronger contenders:

Nike RISE LED Court

This is the kind of experiential campaign that you would expect from the sports giant. Big, flashy and well-executed:

Clever Buoy

Arguably this isn’t brand advertising but simply a good concept from Australia. Sharks emit a unique sonar signature and buoys strategically located near the coastline can be used to alert lifeguards of the proximity of sharks:

Hammerhead

From sharks to cycles, R/GA (the company that developed Nike’s Fuel) is a T shaped device that clips to a bike’s handlebars. It connects to a smartphone and uses lights to guide the cyclist around their route – thus mitigating the need to become distracted by their phone.

Samsung Safety Truck

This is a simple and effective concepts that the tech manufacturer developed in Argentina. The country suffers particularly high road fatalities, not helped by the large number of single-lane roads. Their truck simply used a wireless camera at the front and projected the road ahead onto a screen behind so that drivers could easily see if the road ahead was clear. Maybe all trucks will have something like this one day?

The Dancing Traffic Light

This campaign superbly solves the problem of over-eager pedestrians in an engaging way. Instead of a static red person, they dance! Simple enough, but the dancing pedestrian is actually a member of the public in a nearby booth. Their movements are translated into a simple red LEDs that keeps pedestrians entertained instead of trying to cross in front of the traffic:

Depop’s Becoming the AirBnB for Vintage Clothes

Depop vintage appIf you haven’t come across Depop yet, think of this app as Etsy meets Instagram. The UK business first launched in 2013 and gained nearly 2 million users in its first year. While that growth may not be stunning compared to say, Snapchat, it’s gained considerable traction with millennials – the demographic that typically drives new channel adoption. Depop is chock full of vintage stuff (100,000 items at the last count). Mostly clothes, but plenty of shoes and a smattering of vinyl records.

It works because the app does everything a contemporary mobile experience should do. The Instagram-style layout is easy and familiar. It has a useful set of search tools that add to the product relevance. There are neat little buttons to comment, like and most importantly, to buy the items. It’s almost as simple to sell on Depop. Take a picture, upload it, add a price and off you go. The success of the app comes from this combination of an immediate, frictionless experience and a collaborative approach. Or as their CEO says, ‘it’s designed with the mobile in mind and is social at its very core’.

Depop has the opportunity to be distruptive in the retail space. However, collaborative apps are not without criticism. AirBnB rents more rooms the The Hilton Group, but they are not subject to the same taxes or regulations that a traditional hotel chain has (and I won’t even mention the controversies associated with Uber). They’ve also attracted not just those with a spare room for the night, but people investing and making a living from AirBnB properties.

Depop also appears to have commercial traders, but thanks to the strong social element, it retains a homely feel. When it comes to vintage retail, the market isn’t dominated by large businesses (unless you count Oxfam), nor does it have many of the regulatory issues that hotels or taxis endure. In fact, the opportunity for Depop is by bringing the vintage market into one neat place, right where their audience is.

There’s plenty of optimism for the app. They’ve already ironed out a few complaints about buginess. At the start of the year they gained £5m in VC funding, opened a New York office and hired Ex-Reddit GM, Erik Martin. Whilst Depop are not the only player in the vintage market, it looks as though they have the right UX for the right audience to succeed.

Are Smartwatches The New Sandwich Toaster?

There is a theory that most sandwich toasters lie in the cupboard unused (I suspect that you could also include ice cream makers). A sandwich toaster is exciting (ish) for the first few months as you discover all of the random things you can shove between two bits of cooked bread. After that, it largely takes up space in the cupboard.

It looks like smartwatches could go the way of the sandwich toaster. Someone recently told me that he had a Motorola smartwatch but didn’t bother wearing it. The watch was decent enough, but after a few months of use, he realised that there was little need for it. He wasn’t alone. A study in 2014 found that 50% of fitness trackers were left in the drawer.

If smartwatches want to remain on people’s wrists they have a number of challenges to overcome:

  • The devices can be very buggy – in some watches, the software has simply not been up to the job. Apple’s Watch will work superbly, but the predicted 18 hour battery life is going to make constant usage tricky
  • Fashions change – unlike a phone, the look of a smartwatch is absolutely key to its adoption. They are firmly in the accessories market and the technology companies are competing against the likes of Fossil, Swatch and Tag Hauer. And all of them are competing with the fickleness of fashion
  • Smartwatches are not essential, core devices – whilst I can’t imagine leaving home without my phone, I don’t see any real inconvenience if I forget to wear my smartwatch. Sure, some people get addicted to them but a combination of the small screen size and limited functionality puts them in danger of being novelty items.

Many commentators have pointed out that it’s the apps that will make or break adoption. Simply reducing phone apps to a mini screen is not going to hack it. Developers need to think differently for a more personal, wearable channel. Without some killer apps, there’s a possibility that smartwatches will become a short-lived fad. With the impending delivery of Apple’s Watch, it’s certainly exciting times in the world of wearables. The company has been a game-changer with their phones and tablet devices. However, it remains to be seen whether they can make the smartwatch enough of a necessity that it doesn’t end up languishing in the cupboard next to the sandwich maker.