Brands, Mobile and The Future

Predicting the future is never easy, but I gave it a go at a TEDxUCL talk in the spring …

The future is …

By 2045 we will have reached the point of singularity when the devices that are now smartphones will become the size of a grain of sand and 1 billion times more powerful. At that point the computers become sentient and run the world in a Matrix style.

So what happens between now and then? Read the synopsis below, or you can simply watch the video!

Well the first problem is that largely speaking, consumers just don’t care about brands that much. Pointless apps, or social media campaigns fail to ‘engage’ the audiences. The solution is around service. Brands should do what they do, and use channels such as mobile to simply do it better. Some brands understand this. Look at someone like Gatwick Airport who use Twitter as a service channel. They encourage their visitors to Tweet any problems and a small team sets about putting it right. Similarly car companies such as Mercedes are using QR codes in a useful way, by embedding them in cars to help emergency services know how to get access quickly in case of an accident. Or an augmented reality app that shows you how to change car parts.

When it comes to the future of smartphones themselves then we’ve pretty much reached the conclusion. They’ll become faster, brighter etc, but the functions that we have will remain large the same. People were surprised when Apple launched the 5S and 5C that there was nothing radically different. But that’s not the point. The radical change was the introduction of the device itself. From then on, changes are simply incremental. So the next generation are the ‘connecteds and wearables’. Google Glass is seen as a major innovation. It probably won’t be the device that everyone adopts, but it is a good indication of where things are going. However, there are many issues particularly around privacy. Where is the place for brand engagement.

A good brand example of a connected device is the Nike Fuel wristband. Although millions of $s were spent on its development, innovation is not about money, or spending, it’s about ideas. There are many good examples, such as Red Tomato Pizza’s fridge magnet. Simply press the button and it connects to your phone and orders your favourite pizza. A simple idea, well executed. Even more interesting are developments in the world of health. In Kenya they have been using it to track the spread of malaria, for example. Or in Switzerland they have hooked sensors up to the brains of sheep. When a wolf is in the area, it can sense their distress and send a text to the farmer. A simple, effective use of mobile.

The Trouble With Glass

 A few months ago, Google released their Project Glass  in beta form. Even though there are just a few thousand devices in circulation, some commentators have hailed Glass as a major technological leap forward. It is far from being a mass-market product, and its unusual looks may simply consign it to a niche techie device, such as the Segway. However, through Glass, Google are showing what is possible with next generation of computing; the wearable technologies and connected devices.

For those that have tried the device, it delivers an engaging immersive experience. However, detractors have pointed to issues around the short battery life (about two hours), failures in functionality and above all, the way that people look rather stupid whilst wearing them (see the Tumblr, White Men Wearing Google Glass). Significantly though, Glass has raised some major concerns around privacy. These concerns are two fold: privacy of those in proximity to the wearer and privacy of around data generated by the user themselves.

Within a week of launch, a photo app called ‘Winky’ was released, which allowed Glass wearers to take photos or video simply with the blink of an eye. Soon after, newspapers highlighted the privacy issue from surreptitious recording. This is a justified concern, but with the ubiquity of camera phones and CCTV, it is not a new one. However, with Glass the problem extends beyond just surreptitious photos. At the start of July a Congress Committee asked Google about the impact of facial recognition through Glass. Imagine, that as a wearer, I could use the camera to identify anyone who I passed on the street, and immediately search online or view their social media profile. So far, Google has not clarified if this is possible to do, suffice to say that the US committee described their response as ‘inadequate’.

The second issue, and one that has been discussed less, is the privacy of the user. The device is constantly tracking data such as location, searches or eye movements.  Put these together and you have a powerful set of data that is more personal than ever seen before. If that includes involuntary eye tracking, it effectively means that unconscious actions will also be stored. And it is data that is stored in The Cloud. With the recent NSA/Prism revelations, it is reasonable to assume that no data stored in this way is truly private. It creates something of a scary scenario.

But what of brands and Glass? As a highly immersive experience, the potential for marketing engagement might be considerable. Yet tools such as facial recognition, especially in the brand context, are controversial to say the least, and largely unacceptable to consumers. Generating vast amounts of data could considerably help understand user behaviours. What happens eye tracking in Glass is used when researching or purchasing goods? Marketers are already aware of the power of location for mobile marketing. But what could these eye movements tell them about their user? The reality is though, that this will prove unacceptable to users. If brands push the data boundaries too far, will they create a consumer backlash?

At this stage, Google Glass has no advertising channel, although some brands such as The New York Times have created content-based apps. However as more brands start to get on board with these devices, they are likely to consider how they can exploit the possibilities. Marketers love data, and as technologies proliferate into wearable and connected devices, more of it will be generated. It is important that brands both understand the potential privacy impact, and engage with users to make them aware of it. If marketers fail to do this, we may simply see consumers refusing to let brands into the space. So, with technology comes great responsibility.

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