Monday, August 05, 2013

the way of the future

Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend InfoTrends - for those of you outside Brazil, it's an event organised by Info magazine (a sort of Brazilian Wired) which has speakers both national and foreign to discuss, as its name indicates, market trends, particularly in the technology field. Previous speakers include big names like Jimmy Wales and Julian Assange. This is the first time I've been to such an event and, while there were some improvements to be made specially in the organisation side, it was overall a quite interesting experience.

Hugo Barra, one of Google's VPs, talks about the DIY gadget movement

The first speaker of the day was Hugo Barra, one Google's global VPs, responsible for the Android platform, which he didn't talk about (in fact, he kept the Google advertisement to a minimum, which I was quite thankful for - he only gave it up at the Q&A session, in which he focused heavily on El Goog's products). His speech was about the future of mobile computing, which makes it all the more remarkable that he almost didn't mention Android.

According to Barra, the future of mobile computing rests in five pillars.

- The law of accelerated return: I won't bore you with all the mathematical theories behind this, as it all boils down to: we are advancing at a progressive speed, not a linear one, which means we'll make more progress every year than we did the year before, instead of maintaining the same pace (according to Hugo, we progress twice as much every year as we did the year before). He cited the new Nexus 7: while keeping (almost) the same price as the original,  in one year it doubled all of its capabilities (screen resolution, processing power, etc). All of this to say that computing is walking at an ever faster pace and this pace is taking us into a mobile world, leaving the traditional PC behind (I raise an eyebrow to this statement but I'm also not one to resist change, so if this must be, let it).

- Pattern recognition: this pillar has to do with the machine's "intelligence". Computers have enormous processing power, being able to solve any mathematical problem and comb through enormous amounts of data. That, however, doesn't make them more intelligent than men because they suck at what Hugo calls pattern recognition, which, according to him, is the key to an intelligent machine. Pattern recognition is what allows us to see a man, then see another and say "hey, he is also a man", and not, say, a cat, or parrot. He talked about an experiment in which one machine was given stills of millions of YouTube videos and asked to find a pattern. The machine, based solely on the image's pixels, found the logical pattern anyone who knows YouTube could find: cats. It was also able to draw its own version of a cat, which was strikingly similar to a real one. The human brain does this quite easily; machines, however, require enormous processing power to do so. Yet Google is making advancements in this field: he showed us his Google+ account with all his photos and made searches in it: "cats", "dogs", "cars", and even more abstract searches like "wedding" or "kiss". The system consistently returned the searches with photos that (most of the time) matched the words. So what, big deal, Images search in Google does the same, right? Wrong. Hugo's photos weren't tagged - the processors were returning the queries solely based on the image's content - which was creepy and scary, but also impressive (when displaying photos for "car", the system included some pictures of car's interiors, which means that, at some level, it knows that cars have an outside and an inside). Even with this advancements, says Hugo, pattern recognition is a slow process. How to accelerate it? Quantom computing - computers that don`t work based on bytes but on enormous amounts of information. He didn't elaborate on it, because he admits he doesn't quite understand it, and so neither will I.

- Wearable computing: I came into this pillar knowing what to expect and Barra didn't disappoint. Yes, we're talking about Google Glass. We saw cute videos of it and he wore one on stage, but then he stopped and went on to Pebble and other smartwatches. All of this to say, we're walking away from a model in which machines require our full attention and commitment to one in which devices follow us around and allow us to perform tasks ever more quickly (I can answer this e-mail that just came in by talking into Google Glass - I don't need to sit down on the desktop or take my phone out of my pocket). He then elaborated on a somewhat related topic: the hardware revolution of DYI gadgets. With the advent of 3D printers and small components like Arduino and Raspberry Pi, people can create their own gadgets at home - similar to how the App Store stimulated the growth of the independent developer community. Hardware does, however, require more money to build, a challenge to which initiatives like Kickstarter have risen. Wearable computing, then, doesn't rest on the hands of giants like Apple or Google - you could build the next big thing at home.

- Ambient computing: the wearable computing's better half, ambient computing refers to the technology that doesn't follow us around, but rather surrounds us. He gave some examples like intelligent locks, wi-fi controlled lamps and Chromecast (again a bit of G's marketing) - all technology which we can control with our mobile devices, making the world around us one big interface meant to serve us.

- Process reinvention: This is simply the substitution of a process that happens on the real world for one that goes on in the digital one - things like taxi hailing apps, digital credit card payments, web flight check ins, etc. Mobile computing is taking every aspect of our life to the digital plane, which in turn requires ever more advanced hardware and software, which allow us to make more things digitally, in a vicious circle of process reinvention.

All this pillars are connected by the cloud - the process in which all information is uploaded to servers and then made available to a wider audience, available from any device. The cloud is the central idea of Hugo's vision in the future of mobile computing - which, according to him, is the ever growing process of building portals to the cloud. All the information will be collected by this devices, sent to the cloud, processed and then accessed by the devices - the future of mobile computing is thus, the future of all computing, and in a way, the future of our lifestyle.

The future is in the cloud - and in creating portals to access it

The other talks about technology weren't as interesting. Gerd Leonhard, a self called "futurist", gave us his vision of the future as well. He stated many truths, chief amongst them the fact that those who refuse to evolve will perish (but saying thinks like "if you're a taxi driver, you'll be out of a job in ten years", statements I've never been too fond of, specially when the person says it with a smile and you can see they feel good about themselves for saying it). All in all interesting but with too much content - I would have rather heard something more focused, not a general vision of the future.

Another panel, which I was looking forward to, was Everaldo Coelho's (a former Apple designer responsible for many important apps such as Calendar, Photos or Notes) talk about designing for "different screens" (which, according to him, its not the same as designing for different devices - it's people, and not specs, that matter here). It started well enough, with him painting a picture of a typical user ecosystem (a constant transition between desktop, phone, tablet, TV, etc) and how the different sceens interact, and the four ingredients for creating an experience that will follow users around seamlessly: context (an app that takes into account the context of the user's interaction with any given screen), consistency (creating a visual and functional consistency of the app regardless of where it's being used), continuity (the user's activity in the app carries on to the various screens) and complementarity (the app can interact with its other versions in other screens). He gave some examples of apps that follow this guidelines, like Xbox Smartglass or Apple's Notes (which he personally oversaw at the time - he called it "beautiful", but I personally consider it horrendous, a terrible combination of skeumorphism and bad font). It was, however, a disappointing talk - perhaps because he wasn't given enough talk time, but it was very shallow, never thoroughly exploring this concepts, limiting himself to examples of what he meant and not true explanations, or how to apply this concepts to an app. There's was literally a surprised sigh from the audience when he said "that's it, thank you all". It felt incomplete.

The new, different types of audience targeting, according to Aegis Media

On the marketing side, we watched a very interesting talk about media purchase, by Aegis Media's Digital Action VP, Erica Smith. Basically, she talked about a shift in paradigm. Traditionally, buying media is about buying large packages (spots in TV, Radio, pages in magazines, etc) to hit something around 0.1% of those channel's audience. Nowadays, in the digital era, users are giving out more and more information about themselves, whether willingly (Facebook, Google+, etc) or not (cookies, Internet history, etc). This allows advertisers to use different methods of segmentation and choose a much more accurate target audience, making smaller media investments and getting a much better return percentage. For someone like me, who has deep interaction with CRM (Costumer Relations Management) in my daily work, it wasn't anything revolutionary, but it does point at a trend: information is becoming ever more valuable. It doesn't matter anymore how many people watch your show or reading your magazine, but what kind of people are doing it (what's their gender, age, interests, income, etc).

Audiences will be measured in quality, not in quantity

Other marketing talks weren't that interesting - most were self promoting, focusing too much on the agency or company giving the talk and not in the reasoning or trend behind the work being presented. One of them is worth mentioning, though, just because the campaign is so interesting. Many of you may have heard or seen Dove's ads focusing on "real beauty" - the concept that women don't need to measure themselves by fashion magazine standards, but rather by what they have that's most beautiful. The culmination of this work is the following ad, which won its creator, speaker Hugo Veiga, all lions and all other possible felines in the latest Cannes festival:

When Hugo started speaking, I thought he was Finnish or something and immediately regretted not getting simultaneous translation headphones (as all other talks had been either in Portuguese or English, I had no need). Then, slowly, I realised he was speaking in Portugal Portuguese (for those of you who aren't aware, the difference between Brazilian and Portugal Portuguese is nothing like British and American English - they are really different; Portuguese accent sounds like someone trying to speak French with Portuguese words) and began to understand what he was saying.

 Veiga introduced us to the concept of "real beauty" and how, in previous ads, they realised how women expressed each other's beauty by talking, which is when they came up with the idea of a sketch artist to represent beauty. The crew went to the US not knowing if the idea would work - maybe all women would look the same regardless of who described them. Dove, how ever, decided to bet on the idea and it payed off: this is one of YouTube's most watched videos and the buzz around it exploded. Veiga also noted how this wouldn't have been possible without YouTube - were this a traditional TV campaign, the discussion would have been more muted. All in all, a very interesting case.

YouTube, and social media in general, have allowed immediate costumer feedback and a richer, two way discussion of the concepts proposed in ad campaigns, such as Dove's "real beauty"

Beside the talks area, the event had two other spaces: the sponsors lounge, a very dull area with stands from the sponsors (I did manage to get a cute toy from the Bradesco - which is the biggest competitor of the bank I work in, Ita├║ - stand, which I gave away), and the Info Lab, with many notable gadgets on display and their corresponding reviews on the magazine printed above them (or they should be - some were reviews about other, unrelated products).

I was lucky to be able to test the JBL Play Up, which is one of my planned New York buys.

All in all, a very interesting event, which pointed the trends for the foreseeable future. I wished we had more chances to interact with the other participants outside awkward coffee breaks, but I quite enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to assisting next year.