Five Tech Companies to Watch in 2017

17/01/2017

After an unprecedented year of predictions gone wrong, I’m steering clear of prophecies and divination for 2017. The eminent neo-classical economist Paul Samuelson once joked that Wall Street analysts had predicted nine of the past five recessions and were he still alive today he may well have said the same about media forecasters and the year of Big Data. Instead, I bring you my five tech companies to watch. They are innovators and game changers, they may not ultimately be successful but in challenging the current thinking around commerce and consumer tech, they are well worth watching in 2017.

Dan Watson Dan Watson Digital Director London tech 2017
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Mixed Reality - Magic Leap

You may have seen an online video of a blue whale breaching the floor of a school gymnasium before crashing down, sending plumes of water into the air. That’s Magic Leap, and what is known as mixed reality (MR), the intersection of virtual and augmented worlds.

Virtual reality (VR), despite the hype, is struggling with the immersive headset that isolates the user from the rest of the world and limited consumer sales reflect that realism. Augmented reality (AR) has gained more traction (Pokemon Go being the most quoted example) as it utilises the mobiles in our pockets, but the resulting graphics aren’t entirely convincing.

The breakthrough with MR is that it will be delivered through glasses meaning the virtual images will be overlaid on to the real world. Microsoft’s HoloLens is already commercially available but the Magic Leap technology goes a step further by projecting the image directly onto the retina replicating the way we naturally see. The images it delivers are as real as anything else in front of us. They also react to the surrounding environment; the glasses continuously gather information about the wearer’s movements and the objects, obstacles and lighting in the room.

Why it’s worth watching

Magic Leap has yet to release a product, or even publicly demonstrate one, but if the promise is real we will enter a digital world where we literally won’t be able to believe our eyes. But more significantly, with retina projection, the TV screens and mobile displays that fill our world would be redundant. The revolution may not be televised after all.

 

First Mile Commerce - NearSt

Innovation in eCommerce has most recently focused on last mile delivery, that final journey from the warehouse to our door. The desire to drive efficiencies in that last section of the road has spawned Deliveroo, Uber RUSH and a squadron of pizza delivery drones. And yet most of us live within a walk-able distance to local shops where we could get what we need much quicker. The problem we face however is that the products in those shops are largely invisible to Google, we don’t know what’s on our doorstep.

Enter UK start-up NearSt whose app directs you to the nearest shop that sells what you are looking for. You then have the choice to collect it yourself or have it delivered within the hour. Starting in London with books, the range of products will soon expand to include DIY, Health and Beauty and Cards and Gifts. Further cities are likely to follow too.

Why it’s worth watching

The idea goes completely against the central distribution warehouse model in last mile delivery infrastructure, and yet it is completely intuitive. Why order something online that’s available ten minutes from your door from a local business that needs your support? If NearSt can overcome the logistical nightmare of tracking inventory across millions of local shops this could be transformational for eCommerce and the High St.

 

Connected Devices – If This Then That (IFTTT)

IFTTT aren’t new but usage of their applets is set to explode as our homes and lives become more and more connected. Put very simplistically, they are the sergeant major/ relationship counsellor of the Internet of Things, co-ordinating the various connected devices and their multiple manufacturers.

The applets allow automation beyond standard requests like play music or buy washing powder. They work around ‘if statements’ allowing multiple devices to activate in a chain of command. If this happens, then do that, hence the name. For example, if the morning alarm on my mobile activates, then turn on the lights and switch on the coffee maker.

Many household names have already developed applets; electronic manufactures, home hub devices and fitness, music and weather apps are all there. BMW Labs even has an applet that will automatically open your connected garage door when your car enters the driveway.

In fact, so good is IFTTT at team work, they even manage to make Google and Facebook co-operate. One particular applet looks for birthday events in your Google calendar and automatically, and in no way impersonally, wishes that person Happy Birthday on Facebook.

Why it’s worth watching

The recent launches of Amazon Alexa and Google Home will drive adoption of smart assistants and, in turn, increase purchases of the smart home devices they are able to control. IFTTT hugely expands the capabilities of those devices making connected homes more effective and desirable even if birthday wishes may no longer be all they seem.

 

Artificial Intelligence in Retail - Stitch Fix

Stitch Fix is a clothing subscription service who have embraced AI technology to assist, rather than replace, its human stylists.

Stitch Fix isn’t a traditional online retailer; visitors to its website won’t find any clothes to buy. Instead subscribers are sent five items every month selected specifically for them according to a style survey and the measurements they provide when they sign up. Any of those five items that don’t suit or fit can be returned adding further data to their profile. The AI component manages much of that data, making recommendations based on what people with similar profiles and sizes kept and returned, but if your business relies on minimising returned goods, human involvement is critical.

To better match clothes to individuals, Stitch Fix subscribers are encouraged to provide personal notes with their returns and stylists also trawl their social media accounts for clues. These additional data points, the personal notes and any previous interactions with the customer, help the stylists make the final decision on which items are to be shipped.

Why it’s worth watching

The marriage of AI and human input is certainly one we will see increasingly more of next year. It has long been predicted that the balance of that relationship would shift decisively towards AI as the technology becomes smart enough to understand nuance and style. Stitch Fix is betting otherwise and they are not alone in coming round to the conclusion that Big Data needs a human hand to guide it. Listening to customers should never go out of fashion.

 

Voice Assistants - LingLong DingDong

The gloriously named LingLong DingDong is a Chinese voice assistant similar to Amazon Echo and Google Home. DingDong though has the added advantage of being able to understand Mandarin and Cantonese, a skill neither Amazon Alexa or Google’s Assistant have yet mastered.

Globally Amazon Echo and Google Home may have been in more stockings on Christmas morning but neither is available in China yet, a country where chatbots are already common. Well used to ordering pizza and taxis with bots and emojis, adoption of voice assistants is likely to be high amongst Chinese consumers.

DingDong is part owned by JD.com, China’s second largest online retailer and a key competitor to Amazon’s ambitions in China just as they launch Prime in the market.

Why it’s worth watching

If chatbots are the new apps then China is already ahead of the game with over 10 million bots already in use on the WeChat platform. DingDong may ultimately be dangled bait for Amazon to snap up, the device itself is remarkably similar to Amazon Echo, but the adoption of voice assistants in China will certainly be worth watching as a harbinger of how they will change the way we interact with our homes and shop and search elsewhere in the world. Xīnnián kuàilè as only DingDong was able to say on 1st January.

Dan Watson Dan Watson Digital Director London tech 2017
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