Does tech's future lie in 'back to basics' thinking?
The tech industry could be on the verge of an "old-is-new-again" moment
Most things happen in cycles what was in fashion twenty years ago will soon come back around and things thought horribly old-fashioned a week ago will someday be the cutting edge. But tech doesn't tend to follow that same pattern; tech is about innovation and always pushing forwards. The closest thing to "fashion coming back around" in this industry would be reality now catching up with the science fiction of the 70s and 80s.
But that could soon change, with many tech companies adapting technology to more real-world, tactile situations. From Amazon's announcement earlier this year that it would open more than 400 bricks and mortar stores across the US, to the physical arcades that will soon allow consumers to try virtual reality with HTC's Vive and others.
So is tech's future a more 'back to basics' approach to new innovations? Is something akin to the AI-fueled thrills of Westworld a more likely scenario than a completely virtual experience?
"For some time, technology companies have aimed to take aspects of the physical world and make them digital. From things that are now second nature, such as the replacement of mail and paper, to the development of innovative cloud technologies, consumers are now living in a world where things are increasingly intangible," Graham Thomas, senior technologist at Lenovo, tells IT Pro.
"However, the arrival of advanced sensor technology and other innovations are sparking a new generation of features and devices that can effectively integrate with the outside world, replicating its physicality.
Thomas points to the Lenovo Yoga Book as an example of this phenomenon, adding: "Despite there being no physical keys, we have used advanced haptic technology which can mimic the feeling of pressing actual buttons.
"With AR also set to be on the rise in the next year, we can expect to see more devices that interact with the real world to enhance rather than replace it."
The psychology of success
A standout example of this trend in action is the phenomenal success of Pokemon Go in 2016. A simple game based on a property that's last widespread success (on this scale, at least) came in the form of bits of cardboard traded between kids in the playground, it struck gold simply by introducing an augmented reality (AR) element that required players to leave their houses and 'hunt for Pokemon' in various real-world locations.
"Humans are inherently herd animals, which is why there's a trend back to real life and shared experiences," says Peter Veash, CEO at digital transformation firm the BIO Agency. "Virtual Reality is usually a solitary experience but HTC's platform will enable gamers to explore new worlds together.
"There's definitely a trend towards companies embracing real life experiences. I wouldn't call it 'back to basics', but more of a combined approach of marrying online with offline by listening to what consumers want and using technology to offer a seamless experience. Pokemon Go is a perfect example of combining tech with the real life, and although it didn't last that long, the hype around the game was unbelievable."
A sign of an already-existing trend, the size of this short-lived craze will have likely pushed many companies to apply a similar thought-process in the business world.
"Rather than simply assuming that using or adopting a 'back to basics' approach is a step backward, we see this as an ability to leverage old models," Simon Poulton, continuous delivery evangelist for CA Technologies, tells IT Pro. "For example, 'arcade entertainment' is underpinned by new technology mainly VR incorporating a 'retro' sociological phenomenon.
"Here, there is also a component of the importance of social cohesion and interaction people still want the VR experience, but they want to go out and experience with their friends. This is not 'regressing to the past' but ensuring that the new delivery models we create align with the social desires of consumers."
VR and AR recall the same feelings as the new gaming consoles of the past, it could be argued, not least because of high price tags for headsets such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, barring everyone but those with lots of disposable income from the experience without the aid of physical arcades and other avenues to 'pay-to-play'.
GAME was recently criticised for its decision to charge customers for the chance to demo the Playstation VR before splashing out on their own kit.
But this could also be valuable on the business side - the more people a new product is made available to, the greater the chance significant improvements can be made based on their feedback.
Poulton continues: "Businesses should continue to experiment with products until right, and this can sometimes be by re-introducing the social aspect of customer interaction, which can often be missing from digital interactions.
"The key message here is that brands must be able to learn from how their customers consume their digital services and adapt the consumption model to survive and thrive in the app economy. This requires a culture of experimentation and learning, but also an agile and continuous delivery capability in the technology department."
It's the past, but not as you know it
Along with companies such as eBay, Amazon's decision to put itself in the spots left open by physical book stores that its own online model put out of business is the surest sign that things are shifting. If the endeavor is a success, we may be seeing a lot more online retailers try a similar strategy.
Hannah Preston, solution strategist at CA Technologies, compared Amazon stores with currently-available alternatives, and says: "Let's imagine Amazon launches its new stores. Do I think they will ask us to wade through a thousand-page catalogue, ask us to make a note of a six digit reference number with a small pencil and stand in two queues; one to pay and the other to collect our stuff? Not a chance.
"If Amazon launches stores they will surely combine the in-store experience with a smart, slick digital experience; I think it's safe to say we will look back in ten years and consider queuing as crazy as smoking on a plane. If Amazon hits our high streets, I think we'll see much needed innovation to follow."
As the world becomes more digital, it's completely plausible that the average consumer is craving the tangible element to the everyday activities that are slowly being taken over by online and virtual experiences. Experts have long worried that we would disappear into our multi-screen existences, but perhaps the key is to truly marry the digital world with the physical one.
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