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Few events can boast a speaker list that included Tony Blair, Andy Serkis and Charlie Brooker alongside physics professors, VP of Amazon Alexa Experience, Digital artists, Microsoft’s “chief story teller”, CTO for Barcelona city. But that was just part of the line-up at the Wired Live conference.

Wired magazine’s annual event brings together thinkers, designers, scientists and entrepreneurs who are interested in how technology is driving meaningful change in the world. There is also a huge room full of cutting edge tech demos which will affect the consumer products of tomorrow.

The value of truth and trust in consumer product services

Why is trust important for consumer products? The value of truth is being enhanced through ever growing awareness of how ‘fake’ is everywhere. Think of the threats and the opportunities that this creates.

On the ‘counter the threats’ side, you have counterfeit products and just like on social media where more sophisticated tools enable trust-toppling content generation like deep fake videos, counterfeiters have access to ever improving physical-faking technology too.

On the ‘capitalise on the opportunities’ side there is the value of truth, if your ingredients are ethically sourced, you look after your growers, your supply chain is optimised for sustainability, there is increasing value in using technology such as track & trace, and blockchain to back your claims and provide validation and transparency of truth to the consumer.

Integrating the human in the loop

‘Trust in technology’ and ‘connecting with people via technology’ was a theme that ran across a few of the speakers at Wired Live. At the Berlin IFA consumer electronics show I saw more releases of consumer products that have a service element to them whereby the user is connected to a human professional via the product – for example Philips had a toothbrush that sensed your brushing profile, recorded data to your smartphone (both of which have been around for a few years) but also connected you to a dental professional to give you some tailored advice. Why does anyone need a human in this loop – well for one, users are more likely to implement change in their life if advised by a qualified human than a machine. However, reminders to implement advice (e.g. nagging), are more favourably received from a robot than a loved one.

Philips also had a connected blender that connected users to nutritionists who could help you get the most out of the product based on what your health and lifestyle goals were. There are plenty of apps that do this too, one I thought was interesting is a botany app where you pay a micro transaction of 50p to send a picture of a plant you’re struggling to identify, and it will crowd-source an appraisal from a few approved botanists from around the world – providing expert knowledge.

As this trend continues – real humans interacting with users via connected products, trust in those people is key particularly as early moves in this space are in the health and wellbeing space, so advice from a falsely qualified individual could have alarming consequences.

Fake news creation is being driven and spurred on by the model that traditional media adopts today, which, at the Wired Live, Tony Blair described as taking a group of people with left or right political leanings and keeping them permanently angry. One of the counters to this that a couple of the Wired Live speakers covered, was providing the consumer with greater visibility of the person they are receiving information from – past posts, legitimacy and potential motivations of this person – data from which they can make a personal judgement, enabling freedom of speech and not allowing an algorithm to judge legitimacy.

So, as more consumer products connect us to ‘experts’ then this conversation about legitimacy of humans connected to your product ecosystem will shift into the physical world, and providing transparency is a challenge it will need to address. Brand trust is key, digital trust, security of personal details of course, and the physical and visual language of trust communicated through product design.

The future of product experience in the home – Immersive AR

At Wired Live, Andy Serkis was talking about the future of storytelling using technology. Known for his motion capture work and the actor behind Gollum, King Kong, Snope from Star Wars, Caesar from planet of the apes and many more. His company The Imaginarium provides motion capture acting services to Hollywood, computer games and theatre. Their latest project is in collaboration with Magic Leap – the VR system we’ve all seen the videos of over the last few years and continues to generate excitement. Andy is working on immersive theatre in AR, he cites trends in immersive theatre like the huge popularity of secret cinema (I’ve been to 5 of their experiences, back to the future being my absolute favourite!) which are leading to the next step of bringing that immersion into the home. Most of us have seen the Magic Leap video where the foot-high elephant walks under a real table in AR – Imaginarium are creating virtual avatars which act, play out a story in your living room where the characters interact with your own furniture and room layout – so everyone will get a different experience tailored to their own environment. It’s another great example of the deepening ‘personalisation’ trend and here, technology is enabling this AR system to take data from its surroundings and modify the delivery of content and experience to the user.

As the cost falls of sensor systems that can map environments, understand use-scenarios and its users, we will see more consumer devices providing tailored benefits to users – to the level where in the sub £10 category, a connected air freshener could piggy-back a virtual map of the user’s room created by a smarthub like Alexa, triangulate its location and modify its fragrance release profile / direction / frequency according to inferred airflow from doors and the layout and size of the room. It is also an opportunity for the creation of new product categories that did not exist before.

Zero-UI everywhere

Amazon want to help enable this, as Toni Reid, VP of Alexa Experience, described in her ‘Future of talk’ presentation. She explained Amazon’s goals of developing a robust set of APIs to make it as simple as possible for products to have Alexa integrated in them to create new product experiences down to very low cost-points. The trend of the speech interaction capability on smarthubs is towards instant human-like responses, reducing friction for the user, and providing more natural interaction. If Alexa is doing the heavy lifting for processing in the cloud and off the consumer product’s PCB, then this lowers the cost barrier to consumer products to integrate exciting new functionalities far beyond turn on and off X. Of particular note were the benefits of this seamless voice-connected ecosystem of products to people in care, with limited physical capabilities, poor vision and poor mental health.

The more we get used to Zero UI that works well, the more frustrated we become when we actually have to navigate a menu to achieve something. That will become an important detractor for consumer products that do not enable this level of interaction in a surprisingly short length of time. What will our grandchildren think of drop down menus? Probably the same as we would think today if we were presented with a black screen with the symbols C:\> at the bottom of it.

Inspiring innovation – why it’s important to get out of the office and take a look around

It has been fascinating to hear the views of these leading influencers from different industries and an insight into concerns as well as opportunities. Keeping abreast of these trends helps us in our day-to-day projects ensuring that we stay at the leading edge of current thinking.

Iain Smith

Iain is a facilitation expert and chartered engineer with 15 years experience in the field of user centred design & research, systematic innovation process, mechanical engineering design and user requirements capture/elicitation.