Pulling the web out of the screen – Looking forward to 2018’s tech breakthroughs


Voice Control, Spatial Computing, Machine Teachers, Nano-yolk batteries and of course Blockchain, or something like it.

In December 2016 we looked forward to what might change and happen in technology in 2017 (A billion possibilities in your pocket) and it’s interesting to see what we got right, almost right and what is still a way off.  In the not quite right column we’d admit that the tenth iPhone wasn’t another game changer, Snap’s spectacles weren’t a huge hit, and no-one has yet made a (see-through) AR device to rock the world.  

More Zero UI

We didn’t predict that your keyboard would be totally obsolete this year, but there’s no doubt that 2017 was indeed the year that voice control came of age, and that voice for search and command went mainstream.  That’ll continue to grow and speed-up in 2018. Pitty any young child named Alexa.

A year ago we said that “if you’re designing an app that can’t be controlled by gestures or voice, you’re designing for the past” and whilst gesture hasn’t made the giant leap forward yet, voice most certainly has. Touch has almost entirely replaced the physical mouse, and voice control (Zero UI) will increasingly dominate the way we design mobile and IoT user experiences.  We’ll see the continued increase in quality of established Machine Learning applications like translation and voice synthesis, and we’ll start to forget how we lived without them.

Several of our team, however, predict that it won’t be long before there’s a major security breach with a large Alexa/Google/Siri type service, and designers and developers should be increasingly watchful for potential exploitations. “Hello fridge, please order more milk”…. “I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave, but I will order you more beer. I think you’re going to need it.” Maybe we watch too much Black Mirror.

For companies:  the business cases, and health and safety necessity to be able to perform command and control handsfree, means that planning to develop and deploy voice activated UIs are ever-more pressing.  As the technology becomes ever-more stable and accurate you should be thinking of how to now, not if and when.

Augmented Reality

This is a prime example of how the public perception of a great, functioning technology is hijacked by Silicon Valley’s grand ambitions. Pokemon Go proved that AR can be compelling on a normal smartphone without the need for a Borg-like set of goggles, a beltpack and hand controller (see Magic Leap’s huge letdown). We’ll always take a new, better phone, but we detect no widespread desire to buy, carry, wear and be consumed by any additional new hardware.

We’re still stuck with oblong screens for a while, but in this realm our prediction for a buzzword of 2018 will be “Spatial Computing.”  Everyone will be busy ‘pulling the web out of the screen’ and this year’s phones will make this easier and more usable.

For companies: the technology to develop and deploy applications that use Augmented Reality to deliver more efficient tools is here and ready. Forget chasing Pokemon; would your teams be more effective if they could point their phones at a machine, pipe, product or building and see all the relevant information and instructions they needed to fix, unblock, check or secure them? That can be done now.

Let’s say ML, not AI

As one wag put it, “Artificial Intelligence is what you call it when you’re talking to clients and  management, and Machine Learning is what you say when talking to developers.”

We had our own small breakthrough using ML in 2017 to build a successful prediction prototype, but what became clear to everyone is that any and all advances in this field are not only reliant on human expertise to teach and refine the models with real world experience, but also that useful ML requires more and more varied data.  As the demand for Machine Learning powered applications snowballs, so too will the demand for better and wider data-sharing between and within industries and sectors. We suspect that, rightly, this will face a lot of resistance, and it’ll probably become a big political issue too.  How do we safely share important data, without compromising personal and commercial security?

Our team are pretty much agreed that chatbots, certainly as we know them now, will die out in 2018. It’s not just that they don’t work very well yet (it’s still too easy to spot automation), it’s more that we don’t like them. We want technology that genuinely makes life better and easier, and we’re tired of systems that block rather than empower real human interactions.

For companies the opportunities will be driven by how well your teams can collaborate between real world expertise and data expertise. The men that dig the holes in the roads will probably be able to tell you more about why and when water mains will leak, than gigabytes of data, so we need them to teach us, how to teach the machines.

Shall we talk about Bitcoin and Blockchain then?

No, not Bitcoin, but let’s talk about identity and trust.

Blockchain was indisputably the most talked-about technology last year, with ‘cryptocurrencies’ making a late run for the most over-hyped award, even though virtually no one could explain the difference between them or even how they work.  Today, Blockchain feels a lot like the web did at the turn of the last century, just before the dot-com crash.  

The vast potential of distributed computing power, to build new financial and security platforms that will radically change the world, is clear and will be the foundations of what comes next.   We suspect, however, that these futures will be built out of the rubble of what is now standing. You won’t get long odds from a bookie for betting that the current Cryptocurrency bubble will burst soon.

So we’ll hold judgement on Bitcoin and the myriad other new ‘currencies’ screaming for attention with the advice to keep the contents of your wallet were they are until the smoke clears.  It’s likely, however, that new blockchain based systems and platforms will start to work and gain real-world traction this year, and the key to that is ‘trust’ or even ‘trustless…’

Governments, health organisations, financial services and technology giants now hold vast swathes of personal and behavioural data on all of us that we can neither use nor access, and our dislike of that fact is rising. Who ‘owns’ this data of ours and why should they be able to use it to track our spending, and to make judgements and decisions when we can’t?

Blockchain’s central promise is that it could be a new equitable foundation of trust, because no trust is needed. The maths protects all.  As one of the Dootrix team put it “I think the excitement (about Blockchain’s potential) in the industry is more about disrupting big, central stores of truth, like banks, credit agencies etc.  It’s about trusting the database (they call it the ledger in blockchain speak) without having to trust anyone or anything else.”

Trusted systems without the need for trust is a difficult thing to get your head around, but we predict that in 2018 you’ll see the rise of blockchain-based solutions like Civic that aim to give businesses and individuals the tools to control and protect identities, but are we all ready to cede such an essential human concept like trust (and our valuable cash) to conceptual mathematics we don’t understand?

For companies: This provoked a long and wide-ranging discussion among the Dootrix team, but the consensus was that 2018 *might* yet herald the arrival of a killer app from a major retailer or tech giant (Apple or Amazon?) that uses a stable cryptocurrency and makes it ubiquitous for small transactions.  Apple & Android Pay are not yet mainstream and are founded on ‘normal’ banking, so maybe this will be a repeated prediction for 2019.

In more achievable terms, any company that relies on any form of ledger or database to track transactions, movements, activities and exchanges of information, should be looking carefully at how blockchain could empower or break their business. Like the dot-com crash at the turn of the century, the industry is a bit over excited at the moment, but make no mistake; it’s the future, and it’s coming right soon.

And finally… “Never mind autonomous driving, we need better batteries first, and fast.”

The most pressing issue for virtually every mobile technology sector – from drones and cars to phones and IoT – is batteries. It’s a fervent hope as much as a solid prediction, but we’ll have a (small) wager that 2018 will see the first steps towards new batteries that charge quicker, last longer and are smaller/lighter/more flexible.

There’s a huge demand for the ‘idea’ of electric cars, but nearly everyone is holding back because of ‘range anxiety’ – the fear of running out of power on a dark country lane or the middle lane of the M25 at rush hour. We take it for granted that we can pop into a garage and refuel in minutes, but unless you’re on a major motorway with time to kill while your Tesla recharges, they’re not yet truly viable. It’s enough of a pain trying to find a public plug to charge your phone when you’re out and about.

Solid-state, Gold nanowire, Graphene and Nano-yolks.

Last year saw plenty of promising stories from research labs across the globe that hint at some plausible breakthroughs in what better batteries could be made from (Salt, Graphene, Stainless Steel), and maybe less plausible ways that they could be charged (plants, moisture and our skin). We suspect that first of all, new structures and manufacturing techniques for microsupercapacitors and nanowires will start to give us the efficiency improvements that nearly every other advance in mobile tech requires.

Widespread car-charging infrastructure will become a bit more apparent this year, but the tipping point won’t come until car batteries can last for more than 48 hours of driving without charge. That’s unlikely this year, but we think that first of all we’ll see big improvements in efficiency of small, low power batteries for things like watches and IoT devices, and maybe (please Lord) phones.

Nobody saw it coming….

All crystal ball gazing should come with the reminder that there’s always some mad genius working on something in a garage or university lab, that will just march in and take over. iPods, iPhones, Teslas…. All these were secret products we had no idea we needed until they arrived all bright and shiny, and within five minutes they were everywhere.

So our final prediction comes verbatim from our man Paul who pithily predicts that there will be, “Endless talk about Autonomous Vehicles with nothing of value to a consumer delivered this year (or maybe ever).  My hunch is that Autonomous Vehicles will be completely sidestepped by something nobody saw coming.”

How exciting. We can’t wait to see what it could be.

If you want help planning for your organisation’s intelligent mobile future, please do get in touch.

Pictures Credit: Pexels.com

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