The Year Ahead For...Digital

Ajaz Ahmed sees the arrival of the self-service airport, the emergence of self-driving vehicles and robots replacing personal trainers in 2013.

Ajaz Ahmed: ‘The wallet is now seriously under threat – soon enough, the last holdouts, bank cards and driving licences, will be on our smartphones too’
Ajaz Ahmed: ‘The wallet is now seriously under threat – soon enough, the last holdouts, bank cards and driving licences, will be on our smartphones too’

There may never be another year quite like the one we’ve just witnessed. From UK one-offs such as the Jubilee, to international moments such as the Olympics, US elections and Euro 2012, to inno­vations and sensations such as self-driving cars, a one-tonne rover landing safely on Mars and a self-powered human breaking through the speed of sound. Stuffed with special occasions, blockbuster movies, fresh music, imaginative video games and all the trimmings, 2012 was a remarkable year that was truly many years in the making.

At a glance, 2013 looks rather shorter on spectacle, but that’s partly why it should be so interesting. After all those one-offs of 2012, 2013 will be a chance to refocus on the amazing in the everyday. It should also be a watershed in the way technology serves us: integrating our services, subscriptions and devices, anticipating our needs and smartly integrating the ways we interact.

Let’s start by getting fitter for the new year. After the inevitable lounging around and stuffing ourselves with fancy foods and other indulgences during the festive period, perhaps you’re considering employing a personal trainer to help get you leaner?

Allow me to introduce a digital alternative, Nike+ Kinect Training – a Nike and AKQA software collaboration that’s just launched after two years in development. Chris Anderson, the author and former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, recently Tweeted: "Speaking of robot replacement, I think Nike+ Kinect Training is as good as real trainer and costs less than one hour’s lesson. Plus 24/7 at home."

Now we’re feeling better about ourselves, let’s think about the annual getaway. It’s the dream of those slogging away in the dark, cold and gloomy working days of Britain in January. But in practical terms, air travel still tends to be a stressful nightmare for many. That’s changing – fast. Last autumn, a Wall Street Journal article heralded the arrival of "the self-service airport", because of the string of new automated systems that have sprung up in North America. We’re used to check-in kiosks, but these new technologies save more time and hassle by allowing passengers to tag their own bags and swipe their own boarding passes for access.

These pilot schemes will go mainstream and global in 2013 and 2014. AKQA’s smartphone app for Delta Airlines not only provides flight booking, seat selection and automated boarding passes that appear as you get closer to the airport, but also enables passengers to track their bags for the entire journey. That’s not so much because bags are likely to go missing (they’re not), it’s a response to the fact that people stress about bags going missing. It’s a digital solution for an emotional reality, not a logistical one.

Talking of emotional realities, one announcement from 2012 that gave me hope that we’ll do things better in 2013 came from Oxfam on Boxing Day. Thirty years after Band Aid, it acknowledged that media campaigns centred on helpless victims leave people feeling "depressed, manipulated and hopeless". The 20 per cent decline in donations reported by UK charities last year might seem another reason to be fearful. But, in truth, there’s every reason to believe new tech will let us tackle these problems in better ways.

Kickstarter’s charity-inspired mo­del for DIY entrepreneurship was one of the talking points of 2012, and this same kind of direct, trackable, emotional connection between donation and recipient, investment and outcome will be taken further in 2013. For instance, I’ve just invested in a start-up called Prizeo, which inspires giving by mobilising the fans of social media stars to donate to causes that matter to them with unique one-off experiences. That’s got to be an improvement on the alienating, wasteful analogue practices of direct mail shots and high-street chugging.

As with the charity sector, many of the healthcare headlines of 2012 were negative ones about pressured budgets. But I expect this year to bring to light more examples of the ways in which digital can bring "efficiencies" that are improvements rather than cuts, making healthcare more economical, but also more effective and empowering. From the remote physiotherapy and cardio self-monitoring services recently pioneered in remote communities in Japan and Spain to the serious experiments in self-driving vehicles that should enable the visually or physically impaired more autonomy, transformative technologies are already round the corner.

The predicted retail launch of memristors – the super-fast computer chips that also learn patterns like humans – has now been put back to 2014, but 2013 should still see plenty of landmark examples of the intersection of big data and human-centric software. Google’s next stage of search is also being built to mimic human neural patterns, as well as giving us the option to have super-personal, hyper-geographically-aware interaction.

Apple’s iPhone app Passbook is already with us, securely integrating your accounts and assets with your purchases, coupons and interacting with retail outlets to your benefit. As The New York Times pointed out in December, the wallet is now seriously under threat – soon enough, the last holdouts, bank cards and driving licences, will be on our smartphones too.

Of course, 2013 is also the year Apple is expected to evolve the small Apple TV set-top box into a large intelligent screen featuring integration of apps and other software such as Siri and FaceTime.

The question of what we’ll be watching will be ever more complicated for broadcasters, but easier for audiences. The old model of network TV will be challenged like never before. Also in TV, the Discovery Channel’s recent purchase of the Pinterest-like visual learning site Learnist was a reminder of how boundaries between broadcast and interactive have blurred and how new interfaces are changing the way we discover the world. The widespread take-up of accessible new mini tablets as retail and educational tools in 2013 will surely bring more.

With a stronger economy, 2013 will be a great moment for those motivated to make their own luck. You might even call it a year of Velocity.

Ajaz Ahmed is the founder and chief executive of AKQA