Innovation: the next wave

20th April 2017

The pace of technological change has been in sixth gear for a while now. This year, the turbo boost kicks in; accelerated innovation will present a fresh sonic boom of challenges and opportunities for brands and marketers.

The chaps over at Contagious, the research platform, quarterly magazine and creative consultancy, have more intelligence and insight than most into what’s new and next. At a recent talk to PR leaders, the team outlined what the impact of three key trends – machine learning, VR/AR, and voice and image recognition – might be for business.

Let’s start with machine learning, the sub-field of artificial intelligence that involves programming computers to learn, without humans, so software writes software in a continuous feedback loop. These algorithms have already started to achieve things no human could, and massive disruption is just over the horizon.

The first driverless cars have all been programmed by machine, not humans, and the world’s first automated truck shipment is on its way. “Social companion” robots like Pepper, who can learn to recognise and respond to human emotion, are already in thousands of homes and welcoming customers to businesses around the world.

Google’s DeepMind computer is not only defeating humans at the fiendish game of Go, but working with University College London Hospital to develop an algorithm that can differentiate between healthy and cancerous tissue. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai has said the implications of AI are “literally, game changing — and the ultimate winner is humanity”.

In the past six to 12 months, there has been a shift, in that machine learning is now accessible to all companies in all sectors. This has been driven by two smaller trends: the growth of big data and the fact that computing is now the least expensive resource you can throw at a problem.

A year ago, it was all about disruption: everyone was talking about how they could become the “Uber of their industry”. Now, all the most inspiring start-ups that Contagious sees are underpinned by machine learning to make them more efficient.

But what about impact of machine learning on creativity? Well, we just don’t know yet. But during 2016 we started to see the role that it might have in elements of the creative process. 20th Century Fox, for example, partnered with IBM’s “cognitive system” Watson to create a trailer for a new movie. The algorithm started to understand what a good trailer looks like, watched the film, analysed the characters’ emotions, and suggested the best bits to stitch together. The first trailer created by AI is impressive.

And in Japan, McCann gave two teams, one led by a human creative director and one led by an AI “Creative Director” the same advertising brief, and it’s pretty difficult to tell from the resulting ads which is which.

Rather than this being about machines replacing human creative just yet, though, it’s about seeing the tech as another collaborator; an enabler that may well catalyse the creativity of an agency or a brand.

And what of VR? It’s taking its own sweet time going mainstream, but there is real business value in what VR and AR can offer brands: a collective, immersive experience and enhanced interaction. We’ve all gone “ooh!” on a VR rollercoaster, but meaningful VR and AR content is now starting to be produced: convincing, realistic interactions that can help brands create a moment with the humans they want to engage, in a way no other tech can.

According to Contagious managing editor Emily Hare, VR and AR really can “drive footfall, facilitate interactions, product trial and purchase, and can solve real marketing challenges. Brands experimenting in this space are seeing the advantages”.

Really exciting new tools are appearing in this space, too. Magic Leap, for instance, is working on a head-mounted retinal display that superimposes 3D computer-generated imagery over real-world objects, while Google’s Tilt Brush lets you “paint” with virtual reality in 3D space.

And, overcoming the isolating nature of VR headsets and making the experience more social, there are now Oculus Rift rooms where people can get together to chat, game or watch movies.

The third key trend for this year is voice recognition. The Amazon Echo/Alexa and Google Home voice-activated home speakers have taken off because, from a shaky start, voice recognition is now around 95% accurate. Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Chinese search engine Baidu, has said that as accuracy in low-noise environments rises to 99%, voice recognition technology will expand to mass adoption, where we all use voice, all the time.

It’s much faster, for one thing: it’s three times faster to use a microphone to add things to your shopping basket rather than manual searching, scrolling and clicking. But the key thing for brands exploring this space to bear in mind is that voice is not only the method, it’s also the user experience.

Practically, voice recognition can not only speed up but also improve interactions: in another IBM Watson collaboration, Hilton Hotels developed a voice-powered robot concierge called Connie, solving a hospitality business problem and helping its guests.

Voice recognition can also surprise and delight: Warner Bros partnered with Google on a Fantastic Beasts promotion, where wizarding commands could be used with your phone: just saying “lumos” turned your phone into a wand (well, the torch came on, but it was pretty cool).

None of this tech innovation is perfect yet, but as it advances, we’ll see huge changes in the opportunities for brands to engage customers. And because we’re only human, we’re already starting to have emotional reactions to the AI robots around us: apparently 10 million people in China have already said “I love you” to a chatbot…