The year ahead for technology

Nick Shay: This year consumers will be able to experience what was once regarded as the tech of science fiction
Nick Shay: This year consumers will be able to experience what was once regarded as the tech of science fiction

Improving the consumer experience is top of the agenda - enhanced by innovations from virtual reality to 'madtech', Nick Shay writes.

Clarke’s third law states: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." This year, much of the magic will evaporate into consumer entitlement as we see many long-promised technologies go mainstream.

Space tourism, virtual reality, connected cars and homes – 2016 will be the year when consumers will genuinely be able to experience what were not so very long ago regarded as the technologies of science fiction.

ACT I: The set-up
By far the most exciting thing to happen over the coming months has to be the arrival of space tourism. With the Virgin Galactic programme suffering a setback in 2014, another contender, World View, has emerged. World View plans to send tourists to near space using a balloon that will inflate to the size of a football stadium. Just over three years ago, Felix Baumgartner sparked our imaginations by jumping from space. Now, the opportunity to see our planet from afar will be available to all of us – or at least to those who can afford it. 

The world’s biggest consumer electronics show, CES, is taking place right now and the two big themes are virtual reality and the connected car. 

It feels like a lifetime since Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014 and, this year, consumers will finally get their hands on the Rift virtual-reality headset, with the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR sets also launching. 

Google’s Project Tango, announced in 2014, enables 3D mapping of indoor and outdoor spaces using a tablet in real time. A tablet capable of knowing where it is relative to physical objects in the real world presents all kinds of possibilities. Imagine enabling the visually impaired to find their way around unfamiliar places, or helping Amazon delivery drones avoid power lines, or augmented-reality games that interact with their environments. 

As hugely exciting as VR and AR are for the gaming industry, what is more intriguing is the potential they offer brands to create truly immersive and intimate experiences for consumers. 

In 2014, car-makers announced that they would be supporting Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Nearly two years on, manufacturers such as Volkswagen, Audi, Chrysler, GMC, Honda and Mercedes-Benz are finally launching models with built-in support. While fully autonomous cars on our roads are still a few years away, these advances will open up opportunities for advertisers. For example, if I were to ask Google to navigate me to a petrol station, which one will it offer me and why?

Consumers’ appetite for new and better experiences is as insatiable as ever, and there is no shortage of companies willing to innovate to satisfy them. The change in which we now find ourselves is that many of those experiences will be physical manifestations of digital. In 2016, it seems, all eyes may not be on smartphones.

ACT II: The twist
What implications will this new emphasis on consumer experience have for brands and advertisers? Invariably, ad-blockers – with in-built support from mobile platforms such as iOS 9 – will have a greater impact. Whether they are truly enabling modern-day piracy or improving the advertising experience, ad-blockers are going to cost the advertising industry billions of dollars this year. It’s a real concern and yet there is a bigger problem to solve. 

"I need more advertising" – said no consumer ever. This is the reality of our world and yet, year on year, digital adspend continues to rise in double-digit growth rates. This year promises to be another bumper one, with worldwide mobile ad expenditure predicted to top $100 billion for the first time and digital establishing itself as the dominant form of media in spending terms in markets such as the UK, Canada and Australia. 

Yet consumers have more opportunities than ever to opt out – not just through ad-blockers but by paying for premium ad-free content or,
simply, by ignoring digital ads. 

It seems that the industry’s answer to this challenge is simple – throw money at the problem. Predictions are that global digital adspend will exceed $200 billion this year.

ACT III: The pay-off
In 2016, brands need to align their communications better with transformative experiences. Coherence has never been more important. 

This is a subtle but hugely important shift in perspective and, for many companies, it will require embracing a fundamental digital transformation at their core. Creating experiences is no longer about building for the web or mobile web or even apps; it’s about service design from the inside out and enablement across all touchpoints, whether physical or digital. 

Of course, we have been talking about this for years – so why now? 

Early in 2015, the marketing technology consultant David Raab coined the term "madtech" to describe the convergence of marketing technology and advertising technology. In 2016, we will see this come to life as the major marketing cloud players truly integrate their products to deliver next-generation marketing clouds, or perhaps "madtech" clouds. As the recent flurry of marketing and advertising technology acquisitions subsides, we are finally starting to see comprehensive marketing platforms that can enable consistent, connected communications and experiences across owned, earned and paid media. 

Who will fund this? Gartner once famously predicted that, by 2017, chief marketing officers would spend more money on technology than chief innovation officers. If the debate was once about who would win the battle for IT budget, then perhaps the more important question now is how the chief innovation officer and chief marketing officer will collaborate to deliver experience-based digital transformation. 

2016 will be the year that the technologies we have been enticed by for so long will finally arrive and "madtech" becomes mainstream. Connecting these two worlds will offer brands the opportunity to create transformative experiences for consumers but, to do so, they will first need to transform themselves. 

Nick Shay is the chief technology officer at SapientNitro

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