FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, July 30, 2004

Is TV Advertising Dead?

Whenever a news item appears that discusses the future of advertising, I immediately zero in on it. Not just because I'm a former ad copywriter, but because advertising is, like it or not, a major factor in our lives, and a barometer of where we're going economically, socially and technologically.

This month, Wired has a piece on how males aged 18 to 34 -- for years considered the prime demographic for advertisers -- no longer pay attention to traditional TV advertising. Anyone who follows advertising and marketing trends realizes that this is not news, but it shows that a lot of predictions that were made in the '80's and '90's are coming to pass.

Today's young people (and I include women here as well) are far more media savvy than either the baby boomers or Generation X. They have a mental filter that subconsciously "zaps" TV ads. Plus, they have a lot of media to distract them that people my age (late boomer / early Gen X) didn't have: the Internet, video games, downloading MP3s, DVDs, text messaging, whatever. They multitask because they have to.

The Wired article predicts that TV advertising will become increasingly loud and obnoxious to attract the attention of these young viewers (witness the Quiznos "spongemonkey" ads that ran earlier this year), and will involve more interactivity (as did Burger King's "subservient chicken" ads). Look for guerilla marketing -- a concept that arose in the '80's from small businesses who couldn't afford traditional advertising -- to become the advertising vehicle of choice for even the largest companies. "Viral marketing" and the continued use of the Internet to create buzz around products will increase in prominence as well. However, even these tactics will wear thin after awhile, and marketers will have to be constantly on the lookout for new approaches and angles to capture the attention of an elusive market.

Hotel Living: The Newest Trend in Real Estate?

Trendspotting.com, a site that tracks marketing trends, has an item in its August 2004 newsletter about what it calls "5 Star Living." It's an interesting concept, and if it takes off, it could heavily affect the future of real estate.

Many upscale hotel chains are launching "residence hotels" that are something of a cross between a condominium and a traditional hotel. In other words, a hotel room that's your permanent home. The appeals of such an arrangement are obvious to anyone who's stayed at a fine hotel: all the services you could possibly need (concierge, valet, laundry, room service, housekeeping) in elegant surroundings. Currently, chains such as Starwood, Marriott and W are opening residence hotels in the hearts of major cities, but if the trend takes off, expect to see residence hotels to pop up in upscale suburban and rural locations as well.

Residence hotels could be an ideal living arrangement for people who appreciate fine living and like being pampered (yet aren't rich enough to afford their own personal staffs), and who don't want the upkeep of a house or even a traditional apartment. They would seem to be particularly appealing to those who travel frequently, and who have grown to appreciate hotel amenities. Young, affluent professionals and "empty nesters" are two potential customer groups here.

Of course, residence hotels aren't for everyone. As mentioned before, they are mainly concentrated in large cities... so if your heart is in the suburbs or the country, you may have to wait awhile. Plus, despite offering babysitting services, residence hotels don't appear to be terribly child-friendly (and certainly not large-family-friendly). And if you're a pet lover, well, the limitations are obvious...

Residence hotels could grow to become a key housing alternative for aging baby boomers who are looking to trade in their large suburban homes for something smaller and lower maintenance, yet stylish and luxurious. If that happens, residence hotels could become a hot market nationwide.

Monday, July 26, 2004

9/11 Commission Report Has Technology Implications

Anyone who hasn't been living on the moon for the past two weeks is aware of the release of the final report from the 9/11 Commission, attempting to explain how the events of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred, and (more importantly) how to prevent them from happening again. As you might expect, technology is recommended as a solution, albeit a tiny part of a comprehensive anti-terror strategy.

The technical discussion of the report covers biometric identification systems -- how to standadarize them, and how to use them more effectively. The report also discusses profiling and command-and-control systems. However, this is likely stratching the surface of the ways in which technology can be used to combat terrorists. Lots of process work needs to happen as well before anything can be deployed effectively. And to its credit, the report also noted privacy concerns, and the need to hold authorities accountable for the way in which surveillance technology is used.

Expect to hear more discussion of security technology as Congress begins responding to the 9/11 Commission Report.

Friday, July 23, 2004

How ATMs Changed Our Lives

FORTUNE magazine has an interesting article in its most recent issue on the history of the automated teller machine (ATM). In addition to being historically valuable, it says a lot about how technology is adopted, and how the rate of technological change has accelerated. For instance, ATMs were first developed in the early 1960s, but were largely rejected by bank customers, and didn't become commonplace for 20 years after. In New York City, it took an emergency (the blizzard of 1977) to make customers realize the unique advantages of ATMs.

Contrast the 20-year adoption process for ATMs versus the adoption rates for today's technologies... which can often be measured in months or even weeks!

Friday, July 09, 2004

Building a better alarm clock

I'm not sure what really got me thinking about this. It's probably when my alarm clock had the audacity to go off this morning and wake me from a sound sleep...

Earlier this year, the alarm clock came in second in an MIT poll of most hated inventions (cell phones were number one). "Hate" is a strong word here, as gadgets like nerve gas and various implements of torture are far more deserving of that epithet. The poll, however, pinpointed inventions that we can't live without yet still annoy the hell out of us, like that adorable puppy who poops on the rug.

To that end, any invention that makes this list is a candidate for some serious upgrading. As with the puppy, we don't want to take him back to the pound, so we housebreak him.

What to do about alarm clocks? The bell or buzzer that goes off to wake us up does its job admirably. If mine didn't go off, I'd sleep till noon at the earliest! Radio alarm clocks add more functionality by allowing us to wake up to news or music. But typically, the alarm goes off in a middle of a song or news story... which is even more disconcerting than a bell or buzzer.

I love the new generation of alarm clocks that update themselves based on broadcasts from the U.S. Atomic Clock, and can even display the current outdoor temperature via an external radio sensor. Now, let's take that clock to the next level, giving it more functionality and designing an alarm that will announce all this information to wake you up...

Why can't a clock get feeds not only for the time, but also for weather, breaking news, stock quotes, traffic reports, or even your calendar, so that instead of waking to an annoying sound, you get something like this:

"Good morning, the time is now 6:00. The current temperature is 70 degrees, with an expected high of 80 degrees. Sunshine is expected today, followed by scattered showers in the afternoon and early evening. Dow futures are up 14 points. On your schedule today, you have a meeting with John Doe at 10 AM and a meeting with Jane Doe at 3 PM. In the news this morning..."

Of course, what the clock announces will be highly customizable. The clock could also be used throughout the day to announce important information such as breaking news alerts, Amber Alerts and sever weather information.

Or, you could just train your puppy to wake you up at the same time for his morning walk...

Do we really want "killer devices"?

Nova Spivack writes in his emerging technology blog Minding the Planet that he would like to see a device that combines (as he puts it):

- Cell phone
- Email (Blackberry pager style) & PIM (Palm Desktop)
- iPod MP3 player
- Digital camera (stills or short videos)
- e-Wallet (all my credit/debit cards on a chip, securely protected)
- LCD for video/still images and text
- Broadband wireless Internet
- Bluetooth, and Bluetooth earbud/mic
- Java OS so I can download and run stuff
- Laser gun (OK, OK, had to throw that in)
- AM/FM radio receiver
- Retinal or fingerprint scanner or some other built-in biometric security so only I can use it
- Bar code reader (would be useful to have -- would enable me to scan items that I want to price compare or remember for later)

This begs the question of how exactly people use devices, and whether they really want "uber-devices" that can do anything and everything. With signs that PDA sales are declining, perhaps consumers are opting for simplicity. They'd rather have a cell phone that's nothing more or less than a damned good cell phone, and a calendar that's the best calendar they can get for their needs. Can a single device do everything as well as consumers will demand?

A one-size-fits-all approach to devices ignores the reality that different people use applications in different ways; an address book that's ideal for one person may be positively awful for another. Context is also important. For instance, during my normal workday, I use only the basic functions of my PDA. But when I travel, I use web browsing, applications for tracking expenses, and so forth.

Then, of course, there's the doomsday scenario: what if the all-in-one device is lost, damaged, malfunctioning or stolen?

Perhaps, with the growth in interconnectivity, we won't necessarily need a single, all-powerful device. Rather, our critical information will be device-independent. We can maintain one "virtal" phone book that our cell phone or home phone could access. Our MP3 files (all legally downloaded, of course) could be played through our laptops, home stereos, or car stereos.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

What are the top future trends?

One of the first things I've done as an aspiring futuristic is to research and analyze what others feel are the top future trends -- social, political, and technical. To that end, I've developed my own matrix to help me sift through and make sense of all the disparate trends. Here are the top "megatrends" that have come to light (in no particular order):

* Obesity will become a global epidemic as the developing world adopts Western eating habits. The health consequences will have a serious impact on healthcare and economic productivity worldwide.

* At the same time, the world's population is aging as families in both developed and developing countries have fewer children. The burden of supporting a large elderly population will fall on a dwindling youth workforce. It will also have as-yet-unforeseen implications in politics and marketing. The consequences of a large retired population may be twofold: It may lead to a large new leisure class, or we may see a demographic that's financially unprepared for retirement.

* The economies of China and India will continue to evolve and grow, presenting the U.S. and Europe with continuing challenges... but also opportunities. With its traditions of democracy and free enterprise, combined with a large English-speaking population, India appears to be well in the lead here. But China is rapidly upgrading its infrastructure, though its continued suppression of freedoms will hamper the progress it makes in other areas.

* The world will continue to become more Westernized as global populations have the freedom and incomes to choose Western consumer products, and as Western capitalism proves itself to be the most effective and stable (if not perfect) economic solution available. But not everyone will embrace a McWorld, as evidenced in our current war with Muslim Jihadists (a.k.a. the "war on terror"). Not only will we see a backlash from traditional cultures, but perhaps even an embracing of socialism and even communism in areas where capitalism is not working, and by populations too young to remember the Soviet Union. Much of this backlash will be symptomatic of...

* Religion as the source of much of the world's conflict in the 21st Century. America's war with radical Islam may only be the opening salvo in a bloody and prolonged struggle with no end in sight. The pitting of Islam vs. the West is only the most obvious flashpoint; on a cooler level, the gap between conservative Christians and others (liberals, moderate Christians and the non-religious) in America is continually widening. Traditional Christian churches are losing influence in America, and are replaced by a collection of institutions, many of which border on the radical. Look for major divisions -- and perhaps even a major schism -- in the Catholic Church once the current Pope passes from the scene. These divisions will be further fueled by those who reject this divisiveness by turning away from organized religion altogether.

* The continuing spread of AIDS, particularly in Africa, will mandate aggressive safe-sex campaigns worldwide, potentially bringing healthcare and science in conflict with traditional cultures and religions. Many sociologists believe that the response to AIDS in America led directly to deeper understanding and openness on a host of sexual matters (rape, sexual abuse, sexual dysfunction, etc.) as well as a greater acceptance of the gay/lesbian lifestyle (the current debate over gay marriage is possible only because society has accepted the basic right of gays to live as they wish). However...

* Genetic therapies have the promise of curing most any imaginable disease and greatly increasing lifespans. The issue here is not in the therapy itself, but in the ethical debates that are sure to follow. Is reshaping DNA morally correct? At what age should people "ought" to die? Who will benefit... everyone, or just those wealthy enough to afford "designer" healthcare?

* Information systems will become increasingly interconnected, particularly with the rise of Web services and RFID tags that can track individual items via radio transmitters. While initially good for business, privacy concerns are sure to be raised. This also has the potential to change the nature of employment -- particularly in the tech arena -- dramatically.

* Robots -- in the way we see them in science fiction -- will become a reality as models are developed that are "smarter" and more mobile than anything before. This will lead to all kinds of creative applications for robots... some good, some bad. Look for the upcoming movie I, Robot to inspire some interesting discussion on the future of robotics.

* Increased urbanization worldwide will have a number of unintended consequences. One that we may have already seen is "urban warming," in which cities retain heat at dangerous levels. The deadly heat wave the struck Paris in the summer of 2003 may be a sign of things to come.

* The need for alternative energy sources will reach a crisis point sometime in the next decade. For years, cheap oil has made the search for alternative fuels cost-prohibitive and a low priority. But at some point within the next 10 years, our oil supply will be severely disrupted, whether by political turmoil, the exhausting of known supplies, or demand outstripping supply. And when that happens, we probably will not be ready.

This essay is hardly comprehensive, and I'm sure I left some things out that are key. But it's a first stab, and I plan to elaborate on some of these musings in future posts.

What is FutureWire?

FutureWire is my attempt to make sense of and share the information I'm accruing on emerging technologies and trends. In my new job, I look at emerging technologies, especially their impact on healthcare. But on a personal level, I am interested in a holisic look at the future, and in exploring how the social, political as well as technical aspects of futurism converge.

I don't have time to post to this blog that frequently, but when I do, I promise to make my posts count. I welcome constructive feedback as well as topic ideas. Thank you in advance for your interest and support.