Consumer Digital Technology: Things to Watch in 2020

From AR to Synthetic Media, via Smart Assistants and 5G; a few things I think are worth keeping an eye on in the year ahead.

Peter Gasston
Jan 9 · 10 min read

At the start of each new year I like to clarify my thoughts by writing about a few things I think are worth keeping an eye on in the year ahead. They’re not predictions; I’m not a futurist. In previous years I’ve described these as trends, but they’re better thought of as signals. Or, even better, just some things I think are interesting.

Extended Reality (AR & VR)

The first big technology platform was the web, which digitized information. The second great platform was social media; it digitized people. We are now at the dawn of the third platform, which will digitize the rest of the world.

Kevin Kelley, Wired

The use of augmented reality today — in face lenses for expressing identity, makeup try-ons, product previews, and more — is only a fraction of its potential; the smallest sliver of the possibility space. Extended reality, or immersive technology, or spatial computing, or whatever you want to call it, promises to be the next great technology platform. However, while the scope of the opportunity is (partly) visible, the technology isn’t ready to achieve it yet. Before XR becomes ready for the mainstream there’s still a number of things to be figured out, which we can broadly categorise as: the hardware, the software, and the product.

A pair of Nreal augmented reality glasses
A pair of Nreal augmented reality glasses
Nreal Light

Hardware includes the optics (lenses), the battery, and the sensors (cameras, LiDAR/infrared). Of these, the sensors are in the most advanced state, and the optics are the hardest problem to crack. Most of the currently available XR headsets, like the HoloLens 2 or Magic Leap, are aimed at business users as they aren’t close to being consumer-ready yet (the nReal Light looks the part but is largely an unknown quantity). I thought 2020 might have been the year that kickstarted XR headsets, but after learning more about the technical challenges I’ve pushed the date I expect them to hit the mainstream back by a few years.

The software is advancing pretty well: smartphone AR that can place digital objects on faces and flat surfaces is in daily use on many apps, giving users a new creative canvas of visual effects. Systems to track objects, including hand gestures and the human body, are constantly improving and will be used more commonly this year.

A hand holding up a smartphone, on which a digital character is seen in augmented reality
A hand holding up a smartphone, on which a digital character is seen in augmented reality
Depth API

The most exciting space that’s emerging is the interaction of AR with the physical world. Building a map of the immediate area, with an idea of depth and dimensions, lets digital objects believably appear to interact with physical ones, providing a sense of reality and placeness. Current XR headsets map spaces with multiple or specialist cameras, but it’s becoming possible to do it with smartphone cameras using technology from startups including 6D.ai and Ubiquity6, and Google’s recently-announced Depth API.

Our relationship with technology is still largely based around an interaction between a human and a computer. Mirrorworlds form new connections with the world around you.

Keiichi Matsuda, Leap Motion

The bigger goal is to share and combine all these small maps to build a 1:1 scale digital map of the world around us, where physical reality itself becomes ‘clickable’ and searchable. Some people call this the AR Cloud, or the Metaverse; I prefer the Mirrorworld. Early signifiers of this are in Snapchat’s Landmarker Lenses and, more practically, in Google Maps’ Live View. Tech companies of all sizes are racing to build this map, from Facebook, Microsoft, and Huawei to Niantic and Scape, and the Open AR Cloud consortium.

The least defined category of challenge is the product itself. Will there be an app store, or an ‘XR web’? Will experiences be triggered by user prompts or environmental queues? Will devices be self-contained or tethered to processors? Will we control them with hand gestures, voice, or a physical device? What will be the social acceptability of wearing glasses that can record the environment and may distract the user? There’s a lot of scope for experimentation here, but it’s far from being settled.

It may be two or three years until hardware advances sufficiently to be comfortably usable, a year or two more until the platform is properly defined, and a few years further until creators really understand its possibilities. In the meantime we’re going to see more glimpses of the potential in smartphone AR and in controlled location-based experiences. A lot of it’s going to be dismissed as a gimmick; some of it actually will be.

Aside: The Oculus Quest is the closest I’ve yet seen to a breakthrough consumer VR device for ease of use and onboarding, but despite it my position on VR remains largely unchanged: it has problems that are insurmountable to its reaching the mainstream. I still think it can work for location-based experiences, gaming, and enterprise.

Smart Assistants & Smart Homes

It’s estimated that between a fifth and a quarter of UK households owns a smart speaker, and many more have smart assistants on their phones. But it seems that while the use of core functions like music, weather, alarms and reminders continues to grow, other uses (like shopping and entertainment) are declining. Discovery of third-party skills remains a major problem, and in-Skill purchase revenue on Alexa devices is said to be far below expectation. Amazon is trying to combat this through services that let Alexa Skills talk to each other, permitting more complex workflows. Google Assistant gained few new tools for app developers this year, with much more focus on the ways Google services can help its 500 million users; this feels like a sign that they may not consider third-party branded apps to be the way forward. A number of recent acquisitions (like Matchbox.io buying Opearlo) indicates that the independent voice app market is consolidating. Perhaps voice is more suitable as an input mechanism than an app platform.

Column chart showing differences in smart assistant use cases, 2018 vs 2019
Column chart showing differences in smart assistant use cases, 2018 vs 2019
Dashbot.io

The use of assistants in the smart home, where Echo and Home/Nest speakers act as hubs for connected devices, is increasing. Leaders in the smart home market, including Amazon, Apple, Google, and IKEA, have partnered on Project Connected Home by IP (CHIP) to make smart home devices easier to set up and more interoperable with voice assistants. There are moves away from the cloud in the connected home; Amazon’s Gadget Toolkit and Google’s Local Home SDK directly control or monitor connected devices. Many appliances don’t need generalised services like Alexa or Assistant to operate, so there’s also growth in proprietary, niche voice control systems like Sensory’s TrulyNatural that are domain-specific and run entirely on the device. This is generally a win for privacy.

5G

5G’s on a wave of hype right now, but national rollout is still in the very early stages and very few phones currently support it — it’s not expected on iPhone until the next release in 2020 at the earliest. It’ll likely have low double-digit market share by the end of this year, and will take some time to build a market that’s sufficiently-sized to drive innovation. This is an area where Asia will be ahead of the curve as there are many home-grown 5G-ready Android devices already in-market.

Even when a substantial number of people get access to 5G, data connectivity is going to be at about the level of fast 4G or decent WiFi in the short term; the promised benefits of superfast mobile broadband come with higher frequency ranges that aren’t yet in operation in many countries (including the UK). Also, many of the really interesting use cases are yet to be discovered; edge computing could be a bigger driver of innovation than high-speed data alone, but it relies on a major infrastructure upgrade. And perhaps it won’t be phones that benefit the most but other connected devices, like XR headsets. I think 5G will be a transformative technology, but it won’t happen imminently or obviously.

Social Splintering & Social Selling

Internet users are moving from sharing as a method of broadcasting themselves, into a way of sharing that has community at its heart.

Chris Beer, GlobalWebIndex

In last year’s preview I mentioned the decline of Facebook’s News Feed, and there’s an increasing awareness that sharing online spaces with hundreds or thousands of other people is an unhealthy cause of conflict. Instead we’re seeing a ‘social splintering’ into interest-based networks and communities; prominent examples include Facebook’s new emphasis on Groups and Events, Twitter’s focus on Lists and Topics, and Instagram’s Close Friends feature which spun out into the Threads app at the end of last year.

Short video clips are the future of ecommerce. Think of them as compulsively watchable commercials — with a direct link to buy

Connie Chan and Avery Segal, Andreesen Horowitz

Social networks in general are becoming more transactional. Instagram, TikTok, and WhatsApp have all added tools for different stages of the direct-to-consumer ecommerce process, from product catalogues to payments to fulfilment. This is directly following the social selling boom in China, where brand sponsorships of influencers and ‘key opinion leaders’ (KOLs) is giving way to direct selling in interest-based communities, increasingly through short-form and live-streamed video. TikTok and Instagram are ideally-placed for social selling, but Amazon and YouTube are also increasing their video selling capabilities to take on the competition.

Gaming & e-sports

Gaming is much bigger than simply playing, and it has an outsized impact on popular culture which goes largely unrecognised. Huge audiences watch e-sports, and many more people watch streamed games on social video platforms like YouTube, Twitch, and Caffeine. The most popular game streamers are signing big-money exclusivity deals through talent agency representation. The success of social gaming is likely part of the motivation behind Google’s move into gaming with Stadia; while streaming games is technically impressive, and playing truly massively-multiplayer with spectator-participants promises to be interesting, the real competitive advantage for Google is integration with the conversation happening on YouTube.

Fortnite has become a daily social square — a digital mall or virtual afterschool meetup that spans neighborhoods, cities, countries and continents.

Matthew Ball, REDEF

Fortnite is innovating storytelling, turning scheduled server downtime into a major plot point. But its real achievement may be in becoming a ‘third place’ for hanging out with friends and sharing live experiences. This provides opportunity for brands to reach an engaged audience; Disney used it to announce the return of a major Star Wars character in the latest film.

Louis Vuitton, League of Legends

Fortnite is far from the only game in town, or the only opportunity for brands; Louis Vuitton partnered with Tencent-owned League of Legends to design costumes for in-game characters, with a physical trophy case for winning tournament players, and an accompanying consumer collection. It’s perhaps the first high-fashion brand to associate with gaming culture — or, if not, almost certainly the most high-profile brand.

Synthetic Media

Advances in deep learning are enabling magic: neural networks can increasingly reproduce media content at such a high fidelity that it is almost impossible to tell apart from content created by humans.

Victor Riparbelli, Synthesia

Synthetic media is images, audio, or video that are created or manipulated by machine algorithms. Anyone can paint impossible landscapes. Attention correction in FaceTime means you always seem to make eye contact, even when you don’t. You can clone your voice. Synthesia’s technology makes people speak different languages. Jiggy enables everyone to be a dancer. Why invest in stock photography when you can generate portraits of non-existent people whose ethnicity can be modified on the fly? Synthetic media has the potential to shake everything up.

Photorealistic headshots of six people generated by a machine learning algorithm
Photorealistic headshots of six people generated by a machine learning algorithm
Generated Photos

AR began the democratisation of visual effects, and synthetic media takes the next step. It raises new questions of truth, disclosure, and consent. So-called deepfakes are the first and most public manifestation of an age where anyone can appear to do or say anything.

Identity

Animoji, Bitmoji, are the kernel of big ideas: they are masks that let you be more expressive than texts but also lower the resolution of how much you’re sharing about yourself.

Danny Trinh

Since the early chat forums and bulletin boards of online social spaces we’ve tended to use avatars to express our identity. As we spend more time in immersive spaces, from the third place of social gaming to the emerging mirrorworld, the way we represent ourselves is becoming more richly expressive. Apple’s Memoji can be used as a face mask in video calls in FaceTime and Messages. Snap’s Bitmoji can now be used as characters in games and as the stars of short animated films.

Four digitally generated fashion outfits
Four digitally generated fashion outfits
Marques Almeida and The Fabricant

Gamers customise their characters with earned or purchased skins, which are a soft representation of a player’s personality, progress, and power. Fortnite, which is free to play, earned a reported £1.4 billion in revenue in 2019, due in no small part to sales of skins. Brands like Gucci and Supreme are experimenting with official accessories for avatars, and the emergence of digital fashion is an indicator of the future of online and physical visual identity.


Thanks for reading to the end. I’m excited about the new possibilities emerging in immersive technology, and hope I’ve done enough to get you excited too.

If you’re looking for more news and insight about digital technology you should subscribe to my email newsletter, The Tech Landscape.

I’d love to have your feedback on this article; if you have something to say, please add a comment below or DM me on Twitter or Instagram with your thoughts. And please share this with anyone you think would benefit from reading it.


Originally published at Peter Gasston.

Peter Gasston

Written by

Innovation Lead. Technologist. Author. Speaker. Historian. Londoner. Husband. Person.

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