CXO

2015 tech trends to watch: Smartwatches, algorithms, 'glance media,' and more

Alex Howard presents what he thinks might be the most important tech trends in 2015, which includes the hidden power of algorithms, continuous partial attention, and wireless body area networks.

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Pebble Steel smartwatches
Image: Sarah Tew/CNET

History is a continuum, which means that expecting radical changes to occur as we shift from one year to the next is more likely to leave you wanting than not. If 2014 showed the reach and limits of technological imitation, 2015 is likely to be much the same.

Predicting that more humans will be connected to the internet, own faster mobile devices, and generate and use an ever-increasing amount data is a surety. The same big trends that I thought were worth watching in 2013 remain relevant today, particularly networked accountability, algorithmic transparency, automation and artificial intelligence, and predictive analytics. Many of the trends I identified in 2012 continue not only to be relevant but have become entrenched in how we live, work, and play, from social media to data journalism to open source in government. Privacy, security, and identity are perennial issues, and will continue to be so for years to come.

Gartner's "hype cycle," the graphical tool the influential analyst firm developed to represent the development, adoption, and social impact of individual technologies, is one way to think through how relevant these trends are likely to be to the majority of humanity in 2015.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons/Olga Tarkovskiy

The 2014 hype cycle, for instance, puts speech recognition and "consumer telematics" on the far end of the curve, where high-growth adoption of the technologies is occurring. Tens of millions of people using GPS in their cars or dictating text into their computers and smartphones would likely validate this assessment. Quantum computing, 3D bioprinting, speech-to-speech translation, and autonomous vehicles (AKA self-driving cars) are still rising in expectations. The "Internet of things," big data analysis, and gamification are falling. Cloud computing, five years after it was one of the most hyped trends in technology, is making inroads in the enterprise and government. Virtual reality (VR) is enjoying something of a renaissance of expectations in some quarters, with the development of the Oculus VR device and its acquisition by Facebook, but the immersive 3D online environment of Second Life 7 years ago has not become the internet we log onto every day.

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Hype Cycle of Emerging Technologies, 2014
Image: Gartner (August 2014)

In abstract, much of this still reads like science fiction, at least to me, and feels like we're living in the future. More concretely, however, adding sensors and intelligence to more urban infrastructure means increasing data collection, with attendant impacts upon energy and transit efficiency and our dwindling privacy. In 2015, I hope more mayors talk openly about the tradeoffs they're making in building "smart cities."

Another way to think about what trends will matter in 2015 is to turn to Webbmedia Group, which analyzes patent filings, interviews with people at R&D labs, and research on consumer behavior and microeconomic and macroeconomic trends to come up with a "futureprint." I spoke with Amy Webb, a former journalist who founded the company, about some of the 2015 tech trends described in the presentation below. (Listen to her talk on the Kojo Nnamdi Show about the same subject.)

Privacy and ephemeral media

A survey released by the Pew Research Internet and Life Project in November 2014 showed that public perception of privacy, at least in the US, is pretty dismal. 91% of the adults in the survey agreed or strongly agreed with the idea that people have lost control over how personal information is collected. 88% of adults agree or strongly agree that it would be very difficult to remove inaccurate information about them from the internet.

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Image: Pew Research Center

When combined with the leaks from Edward Snowden regarding government surveillance of the internet and reporting on them, people are now shifting their behavior to embrace both encryption and more "ephemeral media" like Snapchat and Whisper. The New York Times technology columnist calls this emerging space the "erasable Internet," and urges people to jump there. My sense it that widespread adoption of these services will diminish collective information creation but might free people to speak more frankly with one another.

"The emergence of these social networks where people shared locations chipped away at our sense of digital privacy," said Webb, in an interview. "Our desire to share some type of photo publicly might wane. There's something satisfying knowing something will go away, removing a psychological and emotional barrier. Snapchat potentially offers an opportunity for digital packrats to get over saving everything."

As detailed in another Pew report released in December 2014, experts aren't particularly hopeful about the future of privacy, either. (Disclosure: I was one of the people surveyed.)

Continuous partial attention and "glance media"

In 2015, I expect a lot more people will be wearing smartwatches made by Apple and other manufacturers; they'll also be using various other wearable computing devices (increasingly, it doesn't look like Google Glass will be one of them). The growth of those new interfaces will drive the evolution of " glance media," where people moving will feel a buzz or hear a beep and look quickly at a device. That, in turn, means that many more of us are likely to be in a state of continuous partial attention, balancing between multiple conversations and activities at any given time.

"This doesn't seem that important, but I think it's really, really important," said Webb. "The idea of continuous partial attention was coined by Linda Stone, a while ago.

What's interesting is that we all recognize most often that we're not focused in on a single medium. It's less and less likely that we're watching a television show and that we don't have a second screen, or that we're talking to someone and have completely put the mobile phone away. What's new is thinking of it as an opportunity, not a problem. Once the ball is rolling on consumer behavior, it's hard to turn around. It's highly unlikely that people will not incorporate screens as they're consuming content or talking to people."

What will need to change, explained Webb, is how we design information and experiences for people wearing these devices.

"People are not conditioned to read stories on watches," she said. "The form factor isn't right. If you know they're glancing, you can leverage differently."

Wireless body area networks and hacking

In 2015, more medical devices will become connected, transforming how we can understand what's happening to our bodies and then sharing this information with our healthcare providers.

"There are all kinds of medical devices that give incredible benefits to people, who otherwise would have to go to a doctor's office or be in a hospital," said Webb. "They may be ingestible or implantable, or on the wearable side, bracelets and watches. Our personal health data is collected and stored on a hub, a third-party network, and then that information is relayed back. The challenge is that the data is not always encrypted, and the device is not always secure. People don't realize, but they're subject to the problems of a home ISP or whatever network they're on. We don't want to incite panic — it's unlikely for a body area network to be hacked, and there's not a lot that they could do, but it's possible."

Given the global headlines that resulted from hackers stealing terabytes of data from Sony Pictures at the end of 2014 and the years of reports of data breaches, much more of the public is aware of these kinds of threats. In 2015, more people will be faced with unfortunate trade-offs between convenience and security. Unfortunately, just choosing better passwords won't be enough.

What do you think?

There are a lot of other trends and ideas in the Webbmedia report, including algorithms.

"It's less important that people understand what an algorithm is and what it does than its implications," said Webb. "We're creating more data in a single day than previous generations did in a lifetime, but we don't own that data, and we don't know the place where the data are stored. The people on the other side, the developers and the programmers, they're creating algorithms, improving processes, and computational process. They can create efficiencies that weren't there before. The challenge is that we go about daily lives, creating data, and we're further distanced from the process."

Will the increasing, hidden power of algorithms be the most important technology trend in 2015? Or will it be something else? As always, comments are welcome.

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About

Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.

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