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Altered consciousness: How tech will seamlessly blend the physical and digital worlds in 2019

Like craft beer, streetwear collaborations (see: Vans x Nasa) and reality TV baking shows, we are probably reaching peak saturation for innovation articles. Indeed, you could argue that Moore’s Law probably applies here as much as it does to transistor density in chips.

However, as someone who works within the realm of understanding human behaviour and how insight into this can inspire the delivery of better experiences by organisations, I have a particular interest in what innovation will mean for how we go about our lives. Not the actual technology innovation itself, but what new technologies can unlock in terms of ‘behaviour innovation’ – new ways of acting that can change the way we experience things for the better.

I was lucky enough to recently visit New York to attend the Fast Company Festival of Innovation, where there were many opportunities to understand more about the technology that will change our life in the near future, and the behavioural innovation this could unlock.

The themes were very consistent: whether you were talking to big tech, start-ups, agencies or our more well-known consumer brands, the same technological enablers of innovation emerged, and similar directional outcomes for our lives emerged as a result.

Some of these won’t feel that new, as they’ve been on the radar for a while. But when stitched together and the shortness of timeframes to deployment are understood, it can feel nothing short of fantastical in the shifts this can potentially make to our lives.

So, let’s start by outlining a couple of the key technologies that are going to underpin behavioural innovation in our lives, and why they are so transformative in their potential.

Probably the single most universally important near-future enabler of innovation will likely be the deployment of 5G networks.

From the perspective Jonathan Wood, GM of development and partnerships for 5G at Intel, this next iteration of wireless networking promises to utterly redefine connectivity in the world.

With incredibly low latency, speeds of up to 20Gbps and the ability to connect over 1000 times the number of devices per square km of 4G, this is the technology that will make it possible to really enact a connected world of smart devices on a truly massive scale – not just an internet of things, but the internet of everything.

Any object suddenly has the potential to be made smart, because the bandwidth to connect is present. Further, because latency is so low and speeds so fast, the device doesn’t need to contain expensive processing capability to be ‘smart’, it can simply connect with the cloud for all its computing needs on the fly.

What this means is it suddenly becomes feasible for even your coffee cup to know when its empty and to signal a waitress to come and fill it back up, for lampposts to read light conditions and decide when to turn on, golf balls that provide feedback on velocity, spin, wind and strike accuracy.

It means you can operate fleets of driverless drones and cars that can make their own decisions in real-time, communicating with each other and with other objects in the environment to ensure safe, efficient operation. You can have medical equipment like defibrillators automatically connecting with nearby first responders to speed up response to emergency heart attack calls logged by wearable biometric device on a person. All this information whizzing around sounds overwhelming, but the fascinating part of this is that we as humans won’t experience most of it. It will happen via communication and cognition between objects. We will simply access the benefits of this.

In essence, what 5G unlocks is the sudden ability for us to very rapidly ‘cognitise’ our environment – imbuing everyday objects with the ability to sense their environment and respond in some kind of what to this.

Take this further and it’s easy to imagine how I might choose to experience reality as 18th Century England, while you opt for the set of Blade Runner. It quite quickly starts to generate quite fuzzy questions as to what reality actually is.

To me, this is where the truly fascinating canvas emerges for behavioural innovation, because what a responsive environment suggests is the potential for an adaptive environment – one that changes because you are present and acting or even feeling a certain way, and one that can therefore be asked to adapt to your individual requirements.

Let’s hold that thought while we introduce another really hot technology into the mix that was getting a lot of interest in New York: mixed and augmented reality (MR and AR). The general consensus present – from the likes of Nike right through to Fox Entertainment – is that virtual reality is a kind of limited application technology, primarily because of its lack of connection to the actual physical environment we inhabit.

It ties you to some kind of rig, or a physical space. It’s disconnected in this sense, and therefore its ability to impact us is also limited and tied to specific moments in our life.

But augmenting our physical world with digital elements has potential to be much more transformative in how go about the process of actively living. It offers the potential to build immersive experiences that, in conjunction with what 5G unlocks, adapt to our environment.

We walk into a store, and our experienced reality alters to accommodate our individual needs – it could be directions to help us find the product we seek, or the ability to ‘try on’ clothes without actually changing. Or it could be a complete change in the visualisation of the environment to reflect our more individual tastes or needs.

It also offers us the opportunity to develop a narrative in our experience. As I walk around a new university, information unlocks and overlays, building on what I have or haven’t already experienced. It takes our ability to tailor experience from just point in time to constantly unravelling.

Add into this the idea of connected biometric devices and AR/MR also offers the potential to create experiences that are connected much more directly to our emotions. Feeling sad? Maybe our environment can respond by becoming ‘happier’.  

Things can get even more crazy when we start to abstract things even further. Visual arts meets technology specialist Rama Allen, executive creative director at The Mill, poses a really interesting idea about ‘shared hallucinations’ that this combination of technology can enable us: that you and I could choose to share a visualisation of the world that’s different to how other people are engaging with it. Take this further and it’s easy to imagine how I might choose to experience reality as 18th Century England, while you opt for the set of Blade Runner. It quite quickly starts to generate quite fuzzy questions as to what reality actually is.

In essence, what AR/MR is powering is a merging of the physical and digital worlds, and the outcome of this is that it shifts the balance of importance back to the physical world, because this becomes our canvas for the digital world to operate. Indeed, if you go forward in what’s expected from voice and AI technology in replacing old keyboard and screen interfaces, where you end up is that there is no digital world outside of what we experience in our merged physical world.

At this point you are probably going, ‘Well, yeah, that’s all great, but surely this is a long way away, right?’ No. In fact, it’s scarily close. 2020 is when many providers are expecting to start widespread 5G rollouts. Commercial MR goggles like Magic Leap are already on the market, and biometric wearables and emotion-reading AI are already well and truly immersed into the population.

So where does all this leave us? What change can we expect to be wrought on us by technologies like 5G and mixed reality, and what can we expect this might initiate in terms of behavioural innovation in the near term?

Well, we should expect our environment will become connected and smart, and as a result, we should expect that it will become adaptive. In conjunction with this, we should also expect there to be a major merging of the digital and physical worlds via AR and MR.

Our reality will be enhanced and altered by seamlessly-included digital elements, and it will adapt in real time to our presence, our moods and our desires. This is a major shift in the innovation canvas and we can look to creativity taking hold in how we act within this.

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