Today’s Tech, Tomorrow’s World

Shutting an economy down was easy. Re-opening it carefully is quite complex.

The gap between the two is where user experience comes in. When you boil down all the discussion around how to create a safer, more virus-aware, world, you’re talking about the experience people will have in different contexts.

This pandemic has created a set of new challenges and opportunities:

  • Working from anywhere: As more people have worked from home, corporations and governments are now starting to think about what this means for the long run: can they save on space by letting people work from home?
  • Reconfiguring Spaces: With social distancing requiring at least 6 feet of space between people, public spaces like restaurants, theaters, arenas all have to be reconfigured; In the same way, open floor plans have to be rethought
  • Reducing Touch: Public touchscreens, registers, door handles, cash are all surfaces that change hands on a regular basis. In a world where shared surfaces are now seen as an increased risk, what can be done to change that?
  • Tracking People: Contact tracing and finding where interactions with a sick person might have happened in order to limit the risk of contagion are increasingly hot topics. Will this mean an end to the discussions around privacy that were the center of technology concerns prior to this crisis?

During an earnings call, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella highlighted that “we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.” While he was focusing on his own products, let’s take a look at how the re-opening of our economies could accelerate a number of technologies.

Mobile at the Center

While the mobile revolution is now in its second decade, the current crisis could help redefine it. In a way, the much-discussed questions of surveillance capitalism may present new opportunities for collective connectivity. I have long pointed out that by accepting to have apps and device IDs uniquely position us in the world, we’ve built an environment where every move we make is visible. But when combined with our health data, that environment is one where precise contact tracing is fairly easy to deploy. So features that were initially designed for advertising could find new life as a way to stop the spread of deadly viruses.

But in the process, they may highlight one of the most interesting facets of this debate: While there have been many concerns about how trackable people are, the reality is that the current infrastructure is actually not that good at it. Only the largest companies (Apple and Google) have enough of a footprint to be able to get precise data on where individuals are and where the people they have overlapped with are. So claims of data precision may actually find themselves challenged by an environment where such information needs to be minutely accurate.

Meanwhile, the high level of personalization that exists as a result of mobile devices being highly individual tools could lead to interactions where our phones (or watches) are increasingly how we interface with the world. After all, who wants to touch a credit card scanner or tablet that has been used by someone else when it would be much easier to share the information from one’s device without touching. With NFC and Bluetooth sensors already widely available, we may see an uptick in the use of mobile wallets, mobile boarding passes, mobile ticketing, etc… Basically, if there is a public screen or keyboard that is being used today (I’m looking at you pin-pad on credit card machines or ATMs), assume that it will be replaced by a wireless payment interface. It will become common for people to either use their watch or phone for contactless payments to ensure a higher level of social distancing.

Going one step further is the concept of frictionless payment that has been driven by the likes of Amazon Go stores and Uber/Lyft payment systems. The sheer presence of your device in a location where you have initiated a transaction by picking up a product or asking for a service could be enough to initiate a transaction that could either happen transparently or require your approval on the device itself.

Bottom line: expect an acceleration in the death of cash as a payment instrument (in some countries, it was already in the single digits) and a quickening of the move away from physical cards (credit cards, payment cards, loyalty cards, subway tokens or cards) to digital one requiring just some near proximity instead of actual touch.

A boost for the Internet of Things

Another challenge in the new world of suspicious surfaces is how to keep high traffic areas still relatively safe. Let’s say you are trying to get into a store or up an elevator: to do so, you might have to pull or push a door open or press a button or buzzer to be let in. Here again, we are presented with a world where technology has potential solutions. The near proximity to a door could be automated to allow for your phone to communicate your intended direction.

If you’re talking about an office or apartment building, you are probably heading to one particular area (your office, your home, or a friend’s place). Access to those areas can be managed through a combination of geo-location (via GPS), near-field connectivity (via Bluetooth or Wifi) and some AI in the back. Your traffic pattern could dictate whether the door opens automatically (without need to push or pull), or what floor the elevator takes you too. If you wanted to override that, you could have an app on your device that would offer the equivalent of buttons to decide on which floor or place you’re going to (alternately, if you are visiting someone, the access could be granted to your device for a limited period of time).

When it comes to retail or other public spaces, sensors could let people in using such automated fashion but also start restricting access if certain thresholds (eg. too many people) are being met, thus ensuring that social distancing can continue in public spaces without too much interruption. A simple buzz could alert you to the fact that you are not allowed in the space and a later prompt could make you aware of access conditions having improved. The info could easily be sent to the cloud in real-time if you want to check before you go out and make available in your driving or mapping app (For example, Google Maps already does track when some places are busier than other so adding realtime data is a natural next step).

Sitting behind all this, of course, is an array of sensors that are consistently analyzing traffic patterns and reporting back on that data. The technology has been tested for a few years but never truly had a killer app until now.

UI and AI

The last few months have been a global experiment in the power of the cloud to support our economy. And the internet has, for the most part, passed the test. White-collar office dwellers all over the world have gotten a taste of work from home and students have experienced the power of remote learning. In the process, conversations around the need for office space have shifted from “we must have every employee clock every minute in the office” to “what is the cost of those buildings to us.” As a vendor of SaaS software, I’ve been a big believer in the cloud for a very long time but once thing that has surprised me in the past few weeks is the speed at which objections to cloud and mobile technologies have fallen.

The first important takeaway is that the internet can support a large migration. From early March to now, we’ve seen one of the largest migration of people from offline process to online workflows. Zoom has become a verb and interactions that were once only the province of technology startup have turned mainstream. At the same time, businesses have had to adapt traditional models to online ones in order to survive. For example, millions of restaurants and retail stores moved from physical spaces only to substantial delivery businesses. This has allowed the middlemen to make a killing (Uber Eats, Instacarts, Postmates have all turned into essential services while Amazon and Shopify have worked on dealing with such increases in their business that their spare operational capacity was eaten up overnight).

But what happens next? In the world of the modern office, we’re already seeing businesses wondering how they can track their employees only to ensure they are doing the work they are supposed to (some things never change: large corporations and government still fundamentally have trust issues when it comes to the people working for them) so expect a number of solutions to pop up that will solve that type of question (including some fairly intrusive and shady offerings around the way). Between contact tracing the real world and employee tracking in the business world, the setback to individual privacy is going to be even more extensive than what we saw after 9/11.

At the local level, we may see a decrease in physical business and an increased migration to digital models. For example, your local restaurant may not be able to survive as a physical location in a social distancing world (keep tables 6 feet apart and deep cleaning may turn out to be so costly that it would destroy the low margins that require tight use of space and quick turnover) but its kitchen turnover may be good enough to send you food at home. The last few years saw the rise of ghost kitchens (restaurants without a physical location that cater to the delivery world) and we may see an increase in such places in the future, with online reputation and rating systems as an increasingly important driver: your next date night could be in your own living room.

In the retail space, your local store is going to have a challenge staying in business. This is where customer service is going to be increasingly important. To differentiate itself from the commodity business that a big box store offers, your local retailer will have to either provide something that is so specific that you can’t find it online easily, provide something that allows you to get instant gratification (ie. you need that one thing NOW), or provide you such high touch service in terms of selecting what you need that it will require specialized skills to offer that service. Expect to pay substantially more for the “experience” that will come with the local retail stores that survive.

Key to all this will be data and analyzing that data will require increased support from augmented intelligence. AI will turn out not to be just about artificial (or fake) intelligence but rather about getting the right data in the right hands at the right time. And in doing so, it will allow to unleash greater efficiencies that will allow for businesses to maintain their financial margins off slightly lower physical flows. When a business that relied on 10-15% to survive sees its traffic cut by half, the only way for it to survive is either to fundamentally change business model or drive greater margins from the decreased traffic. Deployment of smart data combined with greater customer service will be the only way for business to survive.

Entertainment: Alone Together or High-Risk Experience

Would you be willing to go to a concert or sport event if I told you that you had up to a 10% chance of getting sick and dying? For some people, the answer could still be yes. But for the vast majority of the people, the answer will be no. So theater, stadiums, movie theaters, festivals are all doomed, right?

Well, not quite. They will have to reconfigure themselves in a way that allows for more social distancing (think the price of a sports event or concert was high before this crisis? Well, think again as physical presence is going to come at an even higher premium). That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if a portion of such events were to come up with a virtual offering. A few years ago, I was able to attend a live VR music show and just last year attended some basketball games from the first row, all in the comfort of my VR headset. So virtual presence is bound to get a boost from this crisis, with avatars initially representing your friends in seats at sport and music events. Grab an Oculus Quest and download apps like to get a sense of what it may look like Oculus Venue or the Under Presents to get a sense of what the future could look like. It may turn out that Oculus is one of the most important investments Facebook ever made.

On the movie side, the recent direct to streaming releases will become the new norm: after all, why pay to go into a movie theater when you can experience the same movie in the comfort of your own home in 4k and with a decent sound system (note that Vizio is starting to sell cheap Dolby Atmos components, upgrading your home setup to an audio environment that is not too far from the movie theater’s).

Interestingly, the recent announcement by AMC, the largest movie chain in the US, that they will ban Universal movies from their theaters (because Universal had the audacity of releasing a $100M hit online first) will only hasten this. If you read the tea leaves, the studios are getting wiser to this.

Look no further than the recent appointment of Jason Kilar (founder of Hulu and at Amazon before that) to become the CEO of WarnerMedia as proof that another studio is betting its future on online distribution. Meanwhile, Disney+ has been the saving grace of the Disney empire and may push for more direct to consumer integration as their park and cruise business falls apart.

Movie chains are fooling themselves if they believe they can reverse that tide and will have to think about the value add they provide beyond being mere distributors of content. Here again, the experience (maybe a combination of properly socially distant local-chef cooked food might be a solution for them) will matter and we will see a return to more high-value cinemas (again, expect this to be a luxury, not a mass-market offering) and the death of the multiplex.

Change Everything

The week before 9/11, the New York Times ran a piece about the collaboration the United States had with the Taliban in fighting opium growers in Pakistan. A few days later, the Taliban became US Enemy #1 and the country went from seeing terrorism as something that happened overseas to turning infrastructure security into the top issue that would dominate most of the following decade (the situation only changed when it was interrupted by the financial crisis of 2008).

Crisis tends to fundamentally change the fabric of a society. Just as 9/11 reorganized our security apparatus and made people more scared, this pandemic will reverberate for years to come. “You know, this feels different than 9/11,” mentioned a millenial in a recent discussion. “Back then, it was something that happened to New York but this feels like it has happened to everyone and is truly a global shared experience.” In other discussions, that topic of global shared experience has come up again and again.  Whether you are sitting in New Delhi, London, Paris, New York, Nairobi, or Guatemala City, your experience of the last few weeks has been relatively similar: stuck at home, unsure of what the future holds, and hoping that collective action will save us all.

In a way, this has been a reset: it has highlighted the value of collective action, the importance of government, and the way in which technology is our new backbone. It has prepared us to deal with this crisis and hopefully laid down the groundwork for dealing with the next big crisis to come, whether it is the challenge of global warming or some other unknown threat.

Humanity has a way to dig itself out of tough spots. In New York, for example, the last 20 years have seen a major terrorist attack (and some smaller ones), a hurricane, the near-destruction of two of our key industries (finance and media) in the financial crisis and now this. Times are tough right now and I have no doubt that they will get tougher. One thing that gives me hope is that through every one of those past crisis, we sat there wondering if our world was at an end and came out with a better, more equitable, and stronger world. We will get through this, just as our grandparents got through a couple of world wars and a great depression and technology will be key to making this happen.

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