Opinion

Why now-tech matters more than next-tech

There was no breakout technology at South by Southwest Interactive this year, writes Nigel Vaz, global chief strategy officer and CEO Europe, SapientNitro.

The "Sky Canvas" project paints the night sky with shooting stars
The "Sky Canvas" project paints the night sky with shooting stars

If you have had even a remote interest in following what went on in Austin last week, it’s likely you will have come across that sentiment expressed somewhere.

Even the SXSW organisers were, grudgingly, admitting that there was no new tech or app grabbing the headlines. In 2015, Meerkat stole the show, possibly forcing Twitter to accelerate the launch of Periscope, its own live-streaming video app.

In 2009, there was Foursquare and SXSW 2007 saw the explosion of Twitter. But 2016? Nada.

Hiroshi Ishiguro brought his personal clone Geminoid android, while Hanson Robotics had their ‘Sophia’ join the panel discussion on extreme robotics.

And a start-up from ALE/Sky Canvas was offering ‘Shooting Stars On Demand’ – quite literally they will, for $10,000 per star, make a shooting star drop from the sky when you want.

These certainly have the quality of being ‘out there’, but none promise the immediate scale of being able to point at it and say, ‘look son, it’s the future’.

VR is worth paying attention to 

Early this year I was asked to contribute my predictions for what would be big in technology in 2016 "but please don’t say VR". I was stumped, and still am. Not so very long ago, marketers might not have been sacked (and may even have been promoted) for dragging their heels on that latest technology until it revealed itself as fad or otherwise.

When Apple unveiled the iPad, there were more than a few commentators who didn’t rate its chances – wrong size, closed platform, no killer app. As it approaches its 6th anniversary, it’s sold in excess of 300m units.

The reason it matters that there is no new breakout technology is…that it doesn’t. We seem to have sprinted blindly away from scepticism, tripped over consumer uptake and opportunity and are now in a horizontal, grasping dive for the next big thing.

Conversely, it does matter that Sony has just revealed the public pricing for its PlayStation VR units.

It matters that the first pre-order of Occulus Rift headsets sold out in minutes. At SXSW, brands including McDonald’s, The North Face, Hasbro, NASA and Lufthansa were showcasing or defining their respective approaches to VR experiences.

It matters that those actually were experiences, as opposed to just implementation of VR as a sales channel.

AI's near future

Away from VR, the aggregate victory of AlphaGo, Google Deepmind’s AI unit, shows us how effective (and not dystopian) the application of AI to task-specific procedures can be.

This is boring, in an industrial sense, but exciting when you consider the near-future of AI, as author and Wired founder editor Kevin Kelly put it at SXSW, as "many kinds of minds and many kinds of thinking".

Social messaging platforms are powering more and more interactions between brands and consumers, from money transfers to travel booking; social messaging is not new, but this use form matters, too.

A readjustment in the way we think about technology – moving back from anticipation phase to better consider its application – would serve both brands and their customers well.

We are safely past the phase where we need worry about consumer adoption of technology; in many instances, it is consumers’ rapid uptake and use of technology that has revealed a digital lag within many companies.

Even here, it is not about the technology in isolation. Customer expectations, from one industry category to another, are increasingly liquid – to the extent that Uber’s checkout process can lead to consumers’ detrimental perception of interacting with a brand in an entirely different category. Your experiential competitor has just reset your customers’ expectations of service and experience.

Putting digital at the centre

The solution to this predicament is not the adoption of one shiny new technology, or even digitisation by increment, but for businesses to become digital at their core.

Technology is the basis for transformation within an organisation, focused on experience for a digital world.

Viewed in this way, the explosive arrival of a breakout technology, and the rush by brands to use it, is less significant than witnessing existing technologies gain traction among consumers and brands, and where the technology becomes no more than the supporting actor to the main experience.

Even as you read this there are businesses, with speed and agility but without fanfare that are transforming for a digital world. And that matters.