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Top Tech Predictions for 2016 (Part Two)

Augmented-reality devices offer the most compelling vision of our computing and device future.

Anneka

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.


Last week, I offered five tech predictions for the new year, and today I finish my Top 10 Predictions list with five more:

Prediction 6: Wearables make an impact … on business

Wearables were one of the hottest topics going into 2015, and while they certainly made an impact this past year, they didn’t exactly change the world. The Apple Watch, in particular, had reasonable success, but still lags behind Fitbit’s wearables from a market share perspective — definitely not the outcome that many had predicted at the beginning of 2015.

Part of the challenge is that the vast majority of wearables are seen as accessories for fitness enthusiasts, not as essential devices for mainstream consumers. In addition, the questionable accuracy and limited capabilities of some of the early devices (and the sensors built into them) have led many people to question their long-term value. Toss in the numerous anecdotal stories about people giving up on their wearables after only a few weeks of use and you have the perfect storm of factors to limit the impact of this category.

Wearable devices could prove to be an ideal workplace enhancement.

In order to reach a wider audience, wearables must have a more compelling value equation to attract and hold on to a wider range of people, and instead of the consumer market, I believe there’s a better opportunity to achieve this in the business world. Wearable devices could prove to be an ideal workplace enhancement that could not only replace building security cards with a more secure, biometric form of authentication, but also serve as the means to log in to your work devices, secure websites and more. The savings that could be generated just by eliminating the IT costs associated with resetting passwords alone can easily justify the necessary infrastructure expense to enable this (not to mention the greatly increased security benefits that come with it).

On top of that, some businesses are starting conversations with health-care organizations to collectively track the activity level and health of their employees in order to offer better insurance rates. Yes, there are some potentially scary Big Brother abuses that could be possible here, but a well-implemented program could be a big win all the way around. Plus, it would provide yet another justification to do widespread deployments of wearables in the workplace.

Prediction 7: First products with foldable displays

As a long-time display-industry follower, I’ve been tracking the technology developments in displays for nearly two decades. What I’ve learned is that core display technologies can have an incredibly important impact on the devices that deploy them — think of the high-resolution displays we’ve become accustomed to on our phones, or the ultra high-resolution displays driving today’s 4K TVs. They are one of the key defining factors for successful devices.

The most exciting development going on in displays right now is the effort to create foldable or bendable displays.

The most exciting development going on in displays right now is the effort to create foldable or bendable displays. Truth be told, there have been prototypes of these technologies at display trade shows for over a decade, but as with many things in the display industry, it’s much easier to build single prototypes than it is to mass-produce them.

Nevertheless, it looks like 2016 will be the year when we start to see the first examples of foldable/bendable displays in real products (or at least finished product prototypes). Along with these displays will come some of the most dramatic changes in form factor that any of us have ever seen. A tablet that turns into a smartphone, or vice versa? The possibilities are tantalizing.

The first versions of foldable displays will likely only be able to fold outward, meaning that you could take a flat display and then end up with displays on the outside of the fold. The reason for this is that it’s apparently easier to stretch the materials at the fold than it is to squeeze them together, as you would need to do for an inward-folding display. That will limit product designs to some degree, but expect the evolution of foldable displays to start making the lines separating product categories even less meaningful than they’ve already started to become.

Prediction 8: The biggest innovation in IoT will be business models

The world of IoT has been interesting to watch, and it’s relatively straightforward to imagine that 2016 will be a key year for IoT. However, when you start to dig in to the actual technologies used to drive the Internet of Things, you realize it’s actually pretty simple and, in some cases, pretty old stuff. Basically, we’re talking about using low-power radios to connect together a bunch of devices powered by low-power CPUs or even embedded microcontrollers with some simple sensors. The magic, of course, is in the software and what you can do with the data that these connected devices generate.

The biggest innovations in IoT won’t be on the technology side, but in how companies piece together solutions that make deploying IoT a win-win for all sides.

Even there, however, the analysis is typically straightforward, and sometimes falls into what I call a “one and done” mode, where an insight is made and then all you need to do is monitor the data and react accordingly. To make the results meaningful, you often have to scale the deployment to a very large degree, and that ends up requiring significant capital investment.

This is where business-model innovation will start to kick in, because for many organizations, the capital expenditures for large IoT deployments either don’t really have a great ROI (return on investment) story, or even if they do, they’re just too large to justify versus other pressing projects. That’s why the biggest innovations in IoT won’t be on the technology side in 2016, but in how companies piece together solutions that make deploying IoT a win-win for all sides. Right now, too many of the big IoT concepts (smart cities, anyone?) are really just technology for technology’s sake. While they might sound cool in theory, without a clear business value, they’ll end up staying hypothetical talking points instead of driving real-world benefits.

Prediction 9: Connected homes will continue to underwhelm

While it’s at a much different level, conceptually, some of the exact same issues will also keep the connected-home market from reaching its full potential in 2016, as well. Yes, we’re starting to see a few more interesting products, but for most consumers, the clear value equation for a connected home just isn’t there.

Knowing whether or not one company’s products are going to work with another’s is not going to be simple.

Admittedly, the idea of my lights turning on automatically and the thermostat automatically adjusting the temperature of my house based on when my car pulls into the driveway is cool (especially when you first install it), but really, is it that critical to my life, particularly a year or two later? For the vast majority of people, the answer is a simple no. In fact, after a while, a few of them feel pretty gimmicky. If you can afford them, lots of smart-home products are nice to have, but they’re definitely not in the “need to have” category.

Additionally, 2016 will, unfortunately, likely be a year when stories about home hackings and other security-related issues become commonplace. For example, if you put a security camera on a network in your house, the ability for you to view it also opens up the possibility for others to do so. The benefit/privacy trade-off for smart/connected home products is a question that consumers are going to be wrestling with for some time.

Finally, just on a practical level, the ongoing standards battles at multiple levels of the home-networking “stack” are going to make the process of putting together “solutions” of connected-home products very difficult for even technically savvy consumers. Knowing whether or not one company’s products are going to work with another’s, and whether or not I have to use multiple different applications to control it all (and from what devices), is not going to be simple. Unfortunately, that potential for confusion will likely limit market acceptance for much of the rest of this decade. Yes, I think it’s that bad.

Prediction 10: VR stalls, but AR makes an impact

If there’s any technology that has been overhyped for a long time, it’s virtual reality. Heck, I remembered reading in the 1990s how VR was going to dramatically change our lives in the near future. Well, here we are in 2016, and it has yet to really have a big impact. Yes, we’ll see some interesting new product introductions in the world of VR this year, but nothing I’ve seen suggests it will grow to be much more than a niche, primarily for gaming. Now, gaming continues to be a growing market, so there’s still money to be made here, but the idea that VR will be as widely adopted as even wearables does not seem likely in 2016.

AR offers the potential for entirely new means of interacting with digital data in a way that will appeal to a much wider audience than the closed-loop world of VR ever will.

I also expect augmented-reality products like the Microsoft HoloLens to have a pretty modest impact this year, especially given the expected high price points for these types of products. However, longer-term, I believe AR offers the potential for entirely new means of interacting with digital data in a way that will appeal to a much wider audience than the closed-loop world of VR ever will. In a sense, AR is essentially a new display method for computing, and just as everyone who computes leverages a display (or often multiple displays) of some kind, I can foresee a day when everyone who computes could leverage an AR-type of display.

Now, some may argue that you could make the same case for VR, and in a sense you can. However, every display and technology advancement we’ve enjoyed over the last several decades has been done within the context of the real world around us. AR seems like a much more logical step in that evolution than VR for the vast majority of people.

Of course, in the near term, even AR is likely to be limited to specific professionals or wealthy consumers who want to have the option of using an alternative display for a portion of their computing time. But of all the technologies I’ve seen over the last few years, augmented-reality devices offer the most compelling vision of our computing and device future that I’ve ever come across. I, for one, can’t wait to see how they move us all forward.


Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of Technalysis Research LLC, a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. Reach him @bobodtech.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.