The year ahead for technology

Tech developments are racing ahead, but 2015 should be the year that brands look to innovate themselves and build a transparent relationship with their customers, Alex Matthews writes.

Alex Matthews
Alex Matthews

If only I could write this after the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where the world’s tech companies are now showing their wares, it would make my job a whole lot easier.

But, in order to make an attempt at reading the future without a crystal ball, what did we learn in 2014 that might inform how 2015 is likely to pan out?

In many ways, we have hit a technology plateau. We are in a holding pattern between a massive expansion and adoption of one set of technologies over the past few years (pervasive internet, mobile devices, apps, HTML5, open frameworks and cloud computing) and, on the other hand, a series of leaps in devices, connectivity and usability – think about the launch of products and platforms such as Samsung Galaxy Gear, Apple Watch and Google Glass.

This plateau is exemplified by the change in the capabilities of mobile browsers over the past few years. HTML5 has been around for three years now and almost all browsers support it but, during that time, not much else has changed. We have had a few additions such as support for access to the device’s location, camera, compass and gyroscope, but nothing revolutionary – which is pretty staggering when you think about it.

But there have been flashes of new technology passing into the hands of the civilian population and becoming the norm. You know this has happened when your plumber tells you he has had ten requests a week to install "that Nest thingy". Which brings me on to the Internet of Things and wearables. We’ve been talking about this for a few years, yet 2014 was when they came of age.

Internet of Things and wearables reach maturity

We’ve seen a whole range of Internet of Things devices such as Nest, Hive and the recently launched Amazon Echo – connected to cloud-computing services, all controlled by mobile devices. On top of this, we’ve seen the first year when wearables were being seriously marketed and freely available at vaguely sensible prices. All a step in the right direction.

Interestingly, though, if you look at Gartner’s predictions for the past three years, you’ll find that the soothsayers have repeatedly been predicting that each year will be the one for these devices. Why is this? Well, it’s probably a reflection of the fact that these technologies are still in many ways up-and-coming, both in their capability and adoption.

For example, fitness trackers, which could be considered the most established of the wearable connected devices, have doubled in US public awareness to 70 per cent in the past year, according to an NPD Group survey. The interesting thing in this study is that, although awareness is high, only 10 per cent of those people surveyed owned a fitness wearable. So although it has been a few years since Nike+ FuelBand came out, fitness wearables are still struggling to get penetration in the market.

This example is also likely to apply, perhaps more so, for Internet of Things devices and smartwatches, where the consumer benefit of having a house you can control from the number 42 bus doesn’t quite yet add up or appeal in the same way as staying fit and living longer. It will probably do so at some point – just not yet.

So will 2015 be more of the same?

The turning point for digital marketing

I think it’s true to say that digital marketing has reached a bit of a turning point. We are under much more scrutiny (and rightly so) to create effective campaigns, not just stunts and PR gimmicks. The boom in digital marketing has paused while we and our clients figure out what’s next.

Just as people crave transparency from politicians, news and brands, shouldn't they expect brands to start to open their internal data up for inspection and use too?

This might all sound a bit depressing, but it isn’t – there is an opportunity. We have a user base that is now largely digitally savvy, permanently hooked up to the internet with a tablet or phone and empowered by established, predictable technology. So what should we do with this opportunity?

In September 2014, we held our annual BBH Expo – a day when we invite speakers and companies to inspire and delight us all with technology and digital insights. One of the speakers, Adam Bracegirdle from Vice, gave a startlingly simple point of view on youth marketing: "No bull­shit… don’t kid yourselves: they can see straight through your cleverly constructed ad campaign." Of course he’s right, and it doesn’t just apply to millennials.

This just cements what we already knew – which is that, in 2015, you need to demonstrate how your brand actually helps to create a product or service that enhances an aspect of people’s lives.

Technology as life-enhancer

Judging the Kinsale Shark Awards last year threw up a gem of an example of this kind of work. Clever Buoy is a project for the Australian mobile network Optus, which created a buoy that detects sharks and sends a message via the Optus network back to coastguards protecting beaches. Started as a test project, it is apparently set to move into full production.

While we wait for the adoption of wearables and virtual-reality headsets to a point where we can use them as part of large-scale campaigns, we should be looking at 2015 as being the year that we innovate the brands. Technology has raced ahead and reached a certain level; it’s now more about behaviour in consumers and brands. Let’s hope to see some changes in behaviour in 2015.

We should create brand utility using the pervasive technologies we already have to make a difference to someone and enhance the brand in return.

Creating a shark-detection system may be a bit extreme, but the principle stands – everyone must think that what Optus has done is a good thing, which demonstrates its technology and forward-thinking nature – and how could this not fail to increase awareness of the brand and purchase intent?

Being open and transparent

Products, services and utility are where it’s at right now and into 2015. We have client labs springing up all over the place to find the next new thing. This is great, and our involvement with them as agencies makes it even more interesting. The really big step for this lab movement will be to radically open up the data or services that a brand has to offer.

No-one wants to be fooled or conned and, just as people crave transparency from politicians, news and brands, shouldn’t they expect brands to start to open their internal data up for inspection and use too?

This might be purely for informational purposes (how many calls per day does brand X’s call centre get and at what times of day are the peaks?). But it could also be the basis of a service through which the brand makes product stock-level data available to developers through an application programming interface. A shift in brand mindset and action like this would be truly revolutionary, even more so than the change in technologies we’ve seen over the past few years – being transparent and connecting with your consumer on a deeper, more useful level.

In 2015, there will be a lot of new technologies that will open up opportunities in the long term, but there’s plenty to be getting on with already. I should mention Apple here and say well done for finally implementing WebGL in browsers in iOS 8 and catching up with Android. This gives us large-scale, cross-platform, 3D capability in mobile browsers, which should now lead to a whole series of first-person and other 3D browser-based games and utilities for a mass market without the need for an app.

But, right now, we can all focus our attention on using the mass technologies we have more effectively.

And create services that have real utility and transparency by opening up data and giving developers access to an open-source brand ecosystem.

If we can achieve that in 2015, I think we’ll all have a very happy new year.

Alex Matthews is the head of creative technology at Bartle Bogle Hegarty