David Eden from Tata Communications asks what technologies will shape the way people live, work and experience the world around us in 2017 and beyond.
The article will also examine what barriers are standing in the way of some of most exciting and talked-about innovations today.
VR and machine learning will enter the workforce
While the hype might suggest otherwise, virtual reality (VR) won’t become mainstream in 2017. However, its industrialisation will start to gather momentum.
VR has already been used as a training tool in medicine, and next year there will be more innovative VR-enabled medical applications.
This will pave the way for assisted remote self-diagnosis by patients, so that people won’t necessarily have to travel to see a doctor when they’re unwell, for example.
Similarly, the introduction of VR-enabled diagnostics in industrial maintenance operations means that the expert will no longer need to be physically present to identify and fix faults on the factory floor.
This has been talked about for years but finally there are both high-quality camera technology and ultra-high-bandwidth networks to give a second pair of eyes to any problem, anytime, anywhere.
The powerful combination of VR, robotics and machine learning will also start to transform many sectors.
There are a number of tasks, such as assorting deliveries in a warehouse that could in theory be done by robots.
This is a repetitive job, but until now it hasn’t been possible for a robot to do it from start to finish because of the precision needed in the placement of different items.
Now, humans will be able to teach robots – remotely and virtually – to do a range of tasks, accelerating the adoption of VR across many industries.
VR will give people experiences money can’t buy
Whether VR lives up to the hype in the consumer world will depend on the industry’s ability to harness it – to give people experiences that money can’t buy.
Otherwise, these applications will wither away in the same way as 3D TV.
VR is a technology with incredible potential – but the key question is, do people really need it? Like with Netflix or Amazon Instant Video – will people feel that they are missing out without VR?
There is a common misconception in the entertainment industry that you have to build end-to-end VR experiences to make people embrace this technology.
In fact, the biggest opportunity lies in amplifying film series, such as Star Trek or James Bond, and augmenting them with additional immersive, virtual elements.
During closing credits, cinema goers could get a virtual tour of the film set, transporting them to the middle of an epic battle scene and making them part of the action using VR.
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Film franchises with a loyal following, who trawl the web for trivia, spoof reels and memorabilia on their favourite movies, would be ideal for VR-augmented experiences.
This could also help make going to the cinema – instead of streaming content at home – more appealing, creating immediate value for both cinemas and content owners.
Lack of 5G will risk bursting the VR bubble
Practically unlimited storage and computing capacity in the cloud, superfast fibre connectivity at homes and sophisticated headsets make it possible for VR to become mainstream.
However, mobile connectivity is not yet ready to support these immersive experiences despite the fact that VR is inherently mobile.
In many parts of the world, 5G networks might not arrive until 2020, and organisations creating new VR applications will find that they aren’t able to deliver these experiences to people wherever, whenever.
The lack of fast ubiquitous broadband contributed to the bursting of the dotcom bubble in the early 2000s, as ambitious, innovative Internet companies couldn’t reach their customers who were stuck with painfully slow dial-up Internet connectivity. In the same way, slow mobile networks could easily burst the VR bubble.
Technology will converge with humans
Applications such as Amazon Echo and Google Home have shown us how the much-hyped connected home could look like thanks to advances in IoT-enabled sensor technologies and natural language processing.
Society is moving away from simply using technology to being surrounded by technology that enhances all aspects of our lives and the world around us.
But this is just the start. Next, the input and output of devices will disappear into the background altogether.
You will no longer have to talk to a connected home terminal, computer or a smartphone, let alone type on one.
The Internet of Things will evolve into the Internet of People which will enable humans and machines to interact in a more seamless, converged way than ever.
Wearables are already enhancing our ability to interact with the world. Once things start to interact with these technologies, as well as humans, our understanding of the world around us will augment exponentially.
>See also: The future of virtual reality
Imagine knowing exactly where to go to catch the right bus in a strange city, or being guided to a meeting within your office without having to check your calendar, as your wearable taps you on the shoulder to let you know which way to turn while you walk along.
But, this evolution will bring with it new security threats too because the more connected applications there are, the more vulnerable society become.
There have been different efforts throughout the technology industry to tackling massive attacks aimed at webcams and other IoT devices – but this piecemeal approach is woefully inadequate as tens of billions of things become connected to the world’s networks.
Businesses will need a much more holistic, standardised and industry-wide strategy to securing the Internet of Things and the Internet of People.
Until the industry is able to solve this problem, cyber criminals will continue to exploit the vulnerabilities in the connected word and prevent people, businesses and society as a whole from making the most of the incredible opportunities that the convergence of technology and humans brings.
The living, breathing network will emerge
There have been huge advances this year in technologies such as software defined networking and network functions virtualisation, making connectivity more intelligent than ever.
But no matter how much automation can be programmed into networks, it’s fair to say that they can’t actively think for themselves. To offer people and businesses the ‘always-best-connected’ experience, regardless of device, location, network type or operator, the telecoms industry will start to harness the power of AI.
This will be the biggest shift the industry has seen in years: we will start moving away from a fragmented, distributed network matrix to a global, ubiquitous network topology, powered by AI.
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Imagine universal connectivity without boundaries that will seamlessly route you to the best possible network, with everyone and everything, always connected, everywhere.
People will no longer have to think about whether they are using Wifi, a mobile network, Bluetooth, or one of the many IoT network technologies. It will just work.
Ultimately, we won’t need a mobile phone, a wearable or any other device to access this connectivity universe – our innumerable applications will become a virtual platform as we interact with them or even put them on our bodies.
Creating a world where all networks and applications work harmoniously together to give people this ubiquitous ultra-connected experience is a task that the telecoms industry should start to tackle together in 2017.