Live the Future Now

by Ben Bajarin   |   February 22nd, 2013

Technology in the handsBy nature of what I do for a living, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future. As a part of that exercise I like to employ a tactic I call live the future now. I’ll explain. Part of how I attempt to create a vision for the future and analyze opportunities and weaknesses of solutions is to try to use existing technology to do things I believe we will do in the future. This is why I am currently using tablets in and around my house in ways that seem unorthodox, or “crazy” as some have told me. I’m trying to get a sense of how these devices may evolve. For example I believe someday a tablet computer will exist in every room. They may also be communal and thus may be mounted on walls, refrigerators, in bathrooms, etc. This is why I literally have 15 tablets in some use around my house (or perhaps that is simply how I justify it).

In the early 2000’s, quite a bit of my research focus was the digital home. I spent a lot of time piecing together solutions in an attempt to stream HD videos wirelessly to all my displays in my house (which was 4 at the time) because I knew wireless whole home video would someday be a reality. I used any and all technologies I could get my hands on as I attempted to build the most connected and automated digital home possible. I basically used my own house as a lab. Interestingly, 10 years later and we still aren’t close to mass market commercialization of the digital home I envisioned and tried to create. It was a painful experience trying to create this digital home back then and many man hours were spent connecting DMAs (digital media adapters as they were called), home theatre PCs, 5ghz proprietary line of sight video points, beam antennas, and many more technologies.

This exercise was valuable and it was all based in an attempt to live the future now so I could learn and observe the potential of certain experiences. The point, however, was an attempt at technological ethnography of the mass market of tomorrow.

Understanding the Mass Market of Tomorrow

One of the most critical things any company can do is seek to understand the needs, wants, and desires of their customers of tomorrow. This is generally why RND labs exist. A key component of any RND lab are individuals with a vision of how the mass market may use their innovations based on tomorrow’s customers needs, wants, and desires. This is often done very poorly by many technology companies.

Understanding what the current mass market needs is important for the short term. Understanding the mass market of tomorrow is important for the long term. This practice is at the core of what we do at Creative Strategies, and it is why I engage in the practice of attempting to live our technological future in the present as much as possible.

Different Approaches

There are two approaches a company can take to understand the mass market of tomorrow. One is to do it solely inside the companies walls. Apple does this for example but so does Microsoft and many other technology companies. This model is traditional but as I pointed out above, requires incredible insight and understanding about the future market in order to know what to commercialize and what to scrap. Apple is perhaps one of the only companies who has continually done this well. Some companies may actually test their products with large groups of employees in order to broaden their sample size as well. Palm used to do this, and I am sure many others do this as well.

The other approach, and the one I think is extremely interesting, is Google’s approach. Google does their RND out in public. ChromeBooks and Google Glass are two prime examples of this. These products may have mass market potential, or they may not, but a great way to find out is to test it with people and observe their behaviors and translate that into learnings. Call it market research with the help of the broad public. Things the market likes, keep. Things the market doesn’t like, don’t keep. Testing future products on actual future consumers and learning from their observations is an extremely interesting way to do future use case research. I appreciate that Google does their RND in public. I also applaud their ability to get people to pay for the privilege of doing their homework for them.

Most consumers don’t know what they want until the see it or experience it. It’s extremely hard in internal RND labs to truly understand mass market sentiment. This is why I think Google’s approach is so interesting. Competitors can learn from this and adapt, which is a risk. But I like the direction they are taking. Regardless of your opinion of the products themselves or Google, I like the idea that Google is getting back to its roots.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Full Bio
  • Stephen Gooden

    in a sense public labs is what samsung is doing as well to a certain extent with the various phone and tablet form factor….They have the money and rnd to throw money on the wall and see which product line stick and then refine it to what the public truly wants….

  • jfutral

    “I appreciate that Google does their RND in public. I also applaud their ability to get people to pay for the privilege of doing their homework for them.”

    I can understand that, but this is why I usually stay away from their products. Even as I moved one of my previous employers to Google Apps (still one of the best ways to handle information flow) I was afraid they would pull the plug. They sort of did for a short while, but that was before they moved it all to Google Drive, which I will admit is a better implementation.

    I know I’m a bit old school, and as such mostly in the minority these days, but I hate public betas and I hate being expected to do someone else’s job. Tell me when you are done (enough) and I’ll tell you if I think it is interesting enough to spend time/money by using it.

    Joe

  • http://twitter.com/M_Gauche James King

    I’m more apt to support Jef Raskin’s approach to technology, which was to focus on “cognetics” and ergonomics. He understood that human-technology interaction had to move from “guru-ism” to science. There is a tremendous amount of research related to the optimal methods with which humans interact with their tools, including computing technology. However, many human interface designers still focus on what they consider best rather than on what science considers optimal.

    I generally judge technology based on its inherent ability to enable people to perform tasks in more optimal ways. It has to enable people to work in ways that are truly more efficient and convenient, ways they may not have identified. However, many times, a product or technology doesn’t live up to its potential precisely because the company which develops it focuses too much on current use cases and doesn’t try to extend its thinking beyond the prevalent mindset.

    Before its current focus on moving products, Apple seemed to regularly find ways for people to use technology in ways that they didn’t imagine. In the end, I think that is the key to disruption and innovation. I don’t think that is a perspective a company will reach simply by putting technology into people’s hands and hoping that something unique happens. It takes a particular level of imagination and ingenuity that few people possess to conceptualize new, more optimal methods for performing tasks. One of the main problems is that we are facing a drastic decline in creativity and critical thinking skills. Humans, for whatever reason, resist change and invest a great deal of their egos into believing that they truly understand their world. I don’t know whether it is arrogance or fear-based, but people don’t like to be wrong and are very quick to latch on to “conventional wisdom” and the belief that their way is the “right” way.

    As the general psychology of people deteriorates, using science to clearly identify optimal methods for human-technology interaction is even more important. I really don’t believe in the market’s ability to innovate. By definition, you will only identify an “average” of human behavior. The likely return is simply not proportional to the investment.

    Re: Google, particularly Google Glass… Google knows that Glass is at least 5 years away from being useful enough to overcome the human behavior challenges in people accepting the device. I had a short exchange with a current Microsoft exec about 5 years ago explaining why augmented reality would likely never catch on in gaming but would eventually catch on as a technology to “contextualize” the real world. Jef Raskin was a big fan of personal HUDs and was involved in significant testing of Glass-like devices over a decade ago. The problems with the technology still have not been overcome: no significant leaps in voice controlled user interfaces, only minor advances in the ability to “contextualize” voice commands, limited battery technology and not enough processing power relative to size to allow advanced augmented reality features. Right now, Google is hoping that real-time camera and video functions are compelling enough to allow it to commercialize the technology so that the rest can move forward. But Apple is likely investing heavily in the same technology off-the-radar and will introduce it when it is fully baked and will blow people’s minds. At least, that is what Apple would have done in the past. Google’s methods for introducing new technology are novel but it hasn’t shown that its method is significantly superior to Apple’s method of visualizing and inventing the future. Even Android is more “fast follower” than innovator.

    Just my 2 cents.

    • steve_wildstrom

      Although Jef’s parting with Apple was not particularly happy, his humanistic design philosophy continues to this day to have a strong influence on apple products.

      • http://twitter.com/M_Gauche James King

        I’m a great admirer of Jef. In my opinion, he was highly underrated as a technologist and futurist. I see a lot of what he advocated re: UI design finding its way into new software, particularly operating systems.