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Brave New World, as Foreseen by Forrester

Howard Tiersky, founder, president, and CEO of digital transformation agency FROM, reports from Forrester’s recent Digital Transformation and Innovation Summit, held in Chicago.


Over the past 10 years, mobile commerce has grown from a blip on the radar to over $200bn (£159bn) per year in retail sales, and smartphone ownership penetration in the US has now reached 106 per cent, indicating that while there are still some people without smartphones, there are enough people with two or more to bring the average to more than one per person. Imagine what will happen in the coming decade.

At Forrester's recent Digital Transformation and Innovation Summit in Chicago, principal analyst Julie Ask provided attendees with a sneak preview of the analyst’s forthcoming research publication that predicts the state of mobile commerce between now and the year 2030. The comprehensive report was based on insights from over 100 executives at leading mobile technology, retail, consumer products and financial services companies.

Forrester’s interview subjects included people like Kris Miller, chief strategy officer at eBay; Chieh Huang, CEO of Boxed; Denis Maloney, chief digital officer at Domino's Pizza; Carl Perry, CEO of Square; Nathan Carelton, director of global communication at Walmart, and more than 95 others.

The key takeaway of the Forrester report is that big changes are coming, specifically in terms of how consumers pay, where they buy, and what goods and services they consume. According to Forrester, these changes will be driven by four key technology trends – conversations, immersion, computer vision, and sensors – each of which will create groundbreaking capabilities, while also collectively creating truly transformational experiences.


Trend 1: Conversations
According to Forrester’s Ask, although consumers have grown accustomed to speaking to their devices, the current state of maturity amounts to simply issuing generic commands or, "barking orders." But her research suggests the future will offer far more complex conversations.

"We will have much more natural language that takes into account context, mood, past behaviour, preferences, and an understanding of intent," said Ask. This could mean a request to ‘check my 401k’ would know what institution holds the user’s 401k, and even who is speaking to determine who’s 401k account to check. Context also means that follow-up questions take into account the prior steps of a conversation; so once a 401k is "checked", a subsequent request like ‘transfer $2,000’ will be aware of the context that the money is meant to be moved into or out of that account.

Studies have shown that only 7 per cent of human communication is verbal, while 38 per cent is inferred from tone of voice, setting up an interesting challenge for conversational commerce. According to Forrester, future mobile interfaces will become more sophisticated at recognizing the emotional content of human communication, using that information to deliver more empathic communication, as a human customer service representative might do. But as voice analysis becomes more sophisticated, it may be able to exceed what a human ear could pick up.

Ask points to startup Visenze, which is working on algorithms that can listen to human speech and detect issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or even heart disease. Amazon recently announced Alexa Guard Mode that can ‘listen’ to the noises in your home and react if it hears sounds that suggest an emergency situation, such as breaking glass or a smoke alarm As this type of technology evolves, it could be used to detect far more nuanced situations.

Does Ask's research suggest that voice is going to take over the world? "No way!" she insisted. "Graphical user interfaces and text will often be more convenient. It's about finding the right use cases [for voice]" such as re-ordering replenishment goods like paper towels or laundry detergent.

But ‘conversations’ are not only about voice in any case. Ask's research suggests that the ability for technology to engage in sophisticated conversations will create whole new products and services. She points to Woebot, an early implementation of AI-driven, text-based cognitive-behavioural therapy as a potential entirely new services-based business model.


Trend 2: Immersion
Technologies to enable immersive 360-degree virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) experiences are widely available. However, Ask believes they are still too clunky and inconvenient to take off in a big way. Furthermore, some of the potential is hampered by the limitations of today's tech. Her research shows that industry leaders are expecting major growth in these categories because “the cameras are getting better, storage is getting better, processors are getting faster and the tools to create these experiences continue to mature."

Ask’s research suggests that the largest segment of applications for AR/VR will be in entertainment, however there is also substantial potential in training, such as getting a ‘virtual’ tennis lesson from Roger Federer, or in healthcare, such as using VR for physical therapy sessions.


Trend 3: Computer Vision
The state of the art of computer vision today consists of artificial intelligence looking at an image and telling us ‘what's there’ with a reasonable degree of accuracy. It can tell if a photo is of a boy or a girl, a bottle of wine or a mountain. But in the future, Ask predicts that computer vision will be able to interpret ‘what is happening’ in an image, what emotions the people in the image are expressing, or even anticipate what is about to happen.

Amazon's new Amazon Go stores are able to use computer vision to see what products customers take off the shelves and charge them for those products as they leave the store, without the need for any kind of traditional checkout or use of sensors or barcodes. The use case is impressive, but it’s still focused on a limited set of a few thousand SKUs (Stock Keeping Units) carried by the Amazon Go convenience stores.

In the future, comprehensive image databases will identify unique products, no matter where they are. Today, computer vison can tell us that an image is of a woman wearing a black and white dress, but in the future, it will be commonplace to take a photo and have immediate information about any products in the photo, their brand, model and even size, linked to commerce opportunities.

Ask also described a scenario where micro-services will analyze your "pre-hot-date" selfie to advise you as to whether the outfit you've chosen is fashion-forward. Vogue and Cosmopolitan may finally have a way to replace that lost subscription revenue.

Consumers today love to photograph food, as millions of Instagram images prove. In the future, those smart-photos will ‘understand’ what dish is being photographed and will offer information about nearby restaurants that serve the dish, recipes to make the dish, and ways to buy the ingredients.

Applying these same capabilities to healthcare will mean a consumer can take a photo of an injury or rash and get access to an immediate diagnosis. According to Ask, the combination of conversational interfaces and computer vision will be "a great equalizer" for healthcare and other services.


Trend 4: Sensors
Sensors have already transformed many domains, from paying tolls to tracking palettes to corporate security. In fact, at the Forrester conference, all attendee badges had RFID chips embedded in them, which were being used to collect data about which sessions attendees visited, and other aspects of their traffic patterns through the event.

Sensors also enable mobile payments services such as Apple Pay (used by about 10 per cent of Americans according to Forrester). Ask’s research suggests that mobile payments will continue to grow, and that applications using sensors will proliferate, enabled in part by the plummeting cost of sensors which will be printed on paper. Additionally, she predicts the development of increasingly sophisticated sensors will generate even more types of data which, when combined with AI to analyze it, will create many new services and business opportunities.

Some of the new use cases predicted by Forrester's research are sensors that can ‘smell’ food to determine if it is safe to eat; disposable sensors embedded in baby diapers that can alert parents when diapers are ready to be changed and potentially detect the health of the baby by analyzing it's diaper contents.
Similarly, Ask described indigestible sensors the size of a grain of salt, being developed by Proteus Digital Health, that are attached to pills or capsules.

These sensors can detect the presence of stomach acids that indicate the pill has been consumed and then transmit data to sensors in a patch worn on the patient's skin, that in turn sends the data via Bluetooth to a mobile device which can then transmit it to the cloud. In this manner, patient compliance with drug schedules can be monitored. Ask speculated that, in the future, insurance companies might switch to reimbursing expensive medicines only if the patient actually takes them as intended. All these use cases imply micro-services that mean new business models for startups and large enterprises alike.


How accurate are these predictions?
Any vision of the future is subject to some margin of error. Forrester's report is based on the perspectives of over 100 industry leaders who work every day to build that future. Ask pointed out, however, that there are some threats to this vision of the future that could slow it down or changes its course. Since the combination of these trends and technology, such as sensors feeding AI, are so critical to potential future use cases, fragmentation and problems with interoperability of the technology could hamper the realization of these visions.

We have also seen an upturn in regulation focused on personal data, such as GDPR, which is likely to proliferate in the current backlash against big tech, leading to laws such as San Francisco's recent ban on facial recognition technology. While these regulations are undoubtedly well-intended and beneficial from a privacy perspective, they could also impede the speed and depth of the future that Forrester's panel of experts are anticipating.

Forrester's report on the Future of Mobile Commerce should be published soon and will be available to Forrester subscribers.