The last few years have seen a rapid rise in the awareness of several new, game-changing technologies in the commercial space. Virtual reality, augmented reality, the Internet of Things, and conversational interfaces are all quickly becoming part of our everyday lives.
While the bulk of these technologies are mostly consumer-facing, they also provide amazing opportunities in the B2B realm. What we’re seeing is a general trend that is untethering computer-based interactions from the screen/keyboard/mouse paradigm — a change that will manifest itself in ways that make interactions with digital devices more natural, intuitive, and location-independent. This means smarter and more productive tools for a vast range of business applications. Let’s take a look at where some of these technologies are coming from and have a think about where they might be headed.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Not so long ago, augmented reality became a bit of a buzzword when Nintendo released Pokémon Go. The game, however, relied heavily on the novelty of AR technology. It was fresh enough to be exciting, but was not powerful enough to be anything more than an overlay of your phone’s live camera feed. Because of this, players could barely interact with the Pokémon monsters. The game enjoyed the spotlight for a moment, but the novelty soon wore off.
While games might be a good testing ground for AR, that platform will probably serve more as vehicle to normalize the use of AR in general. Where AR will really come to shine is in applications which, for lack of a better word, augment the real world with virtual information. You could even think about it as the future of how we will interact with information in the real world. A few areas we can expect to see development include interface design, 3D content development, spatial processing, and data visualization.
Already there are major manufacturers that are developing tools for their products with AR. For example, automotive companies like BMW and Hyundai are experimenting with AR user manuals for their cars, as well as assistive display systems–like Microsoft’s HoloLens–for mechanics. Caterpillar is experimenting with AR as a virtual showroom to demonstrate life-size virtual machinery to potential customers in any location.
Expect to see heavy equipment manufacturers leverage AR in heads-up displays for field technicians on service calls, helping them navigate complex wiring diagrams or mechanical linkages through real-time graphic overlays. Soon enough, electricians will be able to locate junction boxes just by looking at walls, and emergency responders will be able to see floor plans in smoke-filled rooms, all with portable AR technology.
Virtual Reality (VR)
We’ve been watching VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive compete for market space over the last year or so, but content offerings for VR have mostly been geared toward gaming experiences. Unfortunately, that will likely remain its primary use for the foreseeable future. One of the major limitations hindering advancement of VR as a business technology is the lack of natural haptic feedback. On top of that, it’s still no easy task to get users comfortable with a bulky headset, hand controls, and the nausea that often accompanies a fully immersive VR experience. But once these technologies become less obtrusive and more naturally responsive, VR will no doubt become a platform of choice for tasks requiring simulation training or the visualization of complex systems at work.
Consider the wide range of medical applications possible with VR: surgical training, immersive anatomy education, and MRI-like analysis, all with virtual organs and patients. As an extension of biomedical visualization, content demand for these types of medical training applications will increase significantly.
Even without haptic feedback, VR developments will be seen in areas like crime scene reconstruction, architecture, city planning, and perhaps even psychotherapy. One Chicago startup is using VR to prototype and test-run potential department store layouts as a service. The possibilities of VR are broad, but the opportunities are probably a little further down the road than what we’ll see with AR.
Conversational Interfaces and the Internet of Things (IoT)
Emerging communication technologies are elevating casual conversation and voice commands into primary methods of interaction with our computers and smart devices. While Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana have been hanging out on our smartphones for a few years now, Google Home and Amazon Alexa are extending--if not on their way to replacing--mobile operating systems, all the while turning our homes into networks of smart devices and nodes on the Internet of Things. Voice controlled devices will only become more capable and pervasive.
The Internet of Things will see significant development in the near future and well beyond. In the shipping and logistics industry, DHL and Cisco are doing extensive research on the implications and use case scenarios for IoT technologies. As everything from ships and planes to warehouse equipment and packages become instantly traceable, the efficiency and speed at which the logistics industry operates will quicken. Anywhere a large number of ‘things’ need to be tracked, managed, or coordinated, there will be advancements in the IoT.
Enhanced further by developments in machine learning and swarm technology, the potential of self-organized logistics networks quickly becomes amazing, and there’s opportunity everywhere. In the medical industry, IoT will be used for wellness tracking of patients, organs, donors, and equipment. Viral outbreaks will be quickly countered by redistribution networks of delivery drones bringing vaccines and medicine to affected areas.
In the construction industry, swarms of construction drones will make buildings and bridges, pour concrete for roads, and lay train rails. Need a new house? Ask Siri to book an appointment and make the down-payment—the drones will build it next week. The possibilities are truly staggering.
At a more personal level we will see the benefits of the IoT. We can already control the heat and lights in our homes with our phones, but we’ll also be able to keep track of our loved ones. Did Grandma take her medicine this morning? Doe she need a reminder refill her prescription? Check the app that her pillbox communicates with.
Where do we go from here?
The takeaway here is that things are changing--in big ways--and that means there are amazing opportunities everywhere. These technologies are not just bullet points in a list, they are components of a larger evolution in consumable technology that will inevitably become more connected and more natural to interact with. Prepare yourself for a voice controlled, screenless future full of near-sentient devices that provide self-optimizing services. It may sound like an impossible future, but it’s likely to arrive sooner than you think. So dream a little and dig in—it’s going to be wild!