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Tech Meets Creativity: Best of 2016 & Trends for 2017

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Towards the tail end of 2015, everyone was declaring 2016 as the dawning “Year of VR,” and whilst there have been a number of major developments in the field this year, including the commercial launches of all three major platforms, it's still a while away from mainstream commercial adoption. There was so much more to 2016 than virtual reality and Pokémon though. Speaking of which...

Pokémon Go, AR & HoloLens

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OK. Let's get this one out of the way first, because we're all probably sick of hearing about it. The Pokémon Go phenomenon appeared to peter out almost as quickly as it caught fire, with just around 10% of the users who jumped on the bandwagon back in August still sticking with it (myself being one of them to be honest). It did, however, expose just how popular mobile gaming has become in recent years, effectively killing off the concept off standalone handheld gaming consoles such as the ill-fated Playstation Vita. Pokémon Go also inspired a number of interesting campaign activations, but one in particular caught my eye. The ambient campaign created by BBH Barn, the creative placement scheme run by BBH London, took advantage of the craze in order to raise awareness for the real high risk missing people. Vinyl posters of missing people borrowed the look and feel of Pokémon balls to target gamers in the area the at risk individual was last spotted. They asked anyone with information to call the charity’s free, 24/7 and confidential helpline. The vinyls were placed on the floor to be most visible to Pokémon gamers looking down at their phones. A genuinely clever way of using a seemingly benign fad to achieve something truly wonderful and quite special.

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Another technological advancement that the Pokémon Go craze underlined was the artificial reality software underpinning the game itself. AR is a technology that hasn't been receiving half as much coverage as its older brother, VR, but it contains applications that potentially have even greater implications for the creative industries. The Microsoft HoloLens is a case in point. This is a device that fancies itself as a 'mixed reality' tool, which effectively bridges the virtual and real worlds by allowing users who don the glasses to control and manipulate virtual tools in the real world. The HoloLens headset, which has been dubbed as the first holographic computing platform was first announced last January and works by projecting 3D holographic content onto the physical world using elements of augmented and virtual reality. It also interacts with the user by picking up their voice and hand gestures. Retailing at over £2000, HoloLens is not being released as a consumer produce, but is aimed much more at a commercial market compared to some of its rivals. HoloLens currently retails from £2,719 with a more advanced commercial suite version retailing at £4,529. So certainly too rich for my blood, but there are plenty of commercial applications I can see it being used for in the near future that I'm personally pretty excited about.

Pilot Earbuds

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The world has thousands of languages, each with their own unique structures and rules. In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy universe, this galactic-scale conundrum is solved with a babel fish, a fish you stick in your ear that eats other people's brainwaves and excretes a translation into your mind. This year, the babel fish effectively became reality with the ingenious Pilot by Waverly Labs. The Pilot is the world's first language-translating earpiece. It works in pairs, meaning you wear one earpiece and the person you're speaking with wears the other. From there, your speech will be translated almost immediately to the other wearer's language, which they'll hear in their own earpiece. A little less invasive than the babel fish then certainly, though it does require a bespoke smartphone app (of course) to function, as it works via a Bluetooth connection.

Virtual Reality in Advertising

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Whilst VR is yet to fully wean its way into the mainstream, 2016 saw a slew of rather ambitious activations from a number of agencies who sought to jump on the bandwagon before it becomes old hat. This is largely because, whilst the more pricey headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive might have failed to ignite the imaginations of joe public, more affordable, entry-level devices such as the Samsung Gear, the upcoming Google Daydream and the even cheaper Google Cardboard, have become perfect stocking fillers. Indeed, Carphone Warehouse, who released their own inspired “VR Santa Training School” last month, predicts that one in 10 UK homes will have some form of VR tech by Christmas, which is double the number that currently own one of these devices.

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Another big story for commercial VR this year was Sky's VR app, which is surely a sign that other mediums like broadcast are getting in on the VR act. Richard Nockles, the Creative Director of Sky’s VR studio and the founder of Surround Vision, has been at the forefront of the commercial VR movement, with his company creating not only 360-degree experiences for broadcasters and brands, but their own projects, like Simon – a VR film revealing what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a young many with cerebral palsy. There was also the John Lewis in-store activation, which gave shoppers the chance to step inside the world of the 2016 Christmas ad, Buster the Boxer. adam&eveDDB and MPC Creative developed the in-store installation idea for John Lewis that outs users on the same trampoline as in the now classic spot. They are then joined by a cast of furry characters who jump and perform at their command, with 360-degree positional sound effects. It's pretty twee stuff, but it's a more relatable and mainstream example of what VR is capable of.

Artificial Intelligence

With perpetually increasing processing power able to actually handle it, 2016 saw artificial intelligence go mainstream. Not in a terrifying, Terminator 2 fashion, but in a significantly more subtle manner. Perhaps one of the most interesting uses of AI in recent months was from McCann Romania, who actually programmed an AI to act as the country's ambassador, albeit in an unofficial capacity (for the time being at least). Romanians were invited to visit https://rombot.ro and start chatting live with the ROMBOT, who asked hundreds of questions about the Romanian way of life. Close to 1 million answers were registered on the website in the first days and all of them taught the ROMBOT valuable facts about Romania, and at the start of 2017, once it accumulates enough information, the ROMBOT will be ready to fulfil its ambassador duties and answer any questions asked by foreigners curious to find out more about Romania. It will recommend places to visit, food, will talk about the people, the customs, their way of life. For the time being, however, ROMBOT is still learning.

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Perhaps one of the most ambitious and entertaining VR activations this year was courtesy of Framestore, who created the Field Trip to Mars for Lockheed Martin & McCann New York. Framestore are veterans in VR (if such a young medium can have veterans!) so they created a tonne of VR projects in 2016. But this one stood out particularly for me because it was truly a group VR experience that went on to be the single most awarded campaign at Cannes this year. Even more advanced than regular VR, this was a group VR experience that took schoolchildren on a virtual tour of Mars by rigging a school bus with all sorts of incredible tech to make the view out the windows look and feel like the Martian landscape, not the Washington DC streets that the bus was actually driving down. The AI trend looks set to expand dramatically in 2017 too. According to the Warc global marketing intelligence service, AI will have a particularly major impact on the marketing industry next year, with machine learning already being applied to programmatic trading and the rise of the chatbot. Speaking of which...

Chat Bots

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Whilst they certainly run no risk of passing the Turing Test just yet (but then wouldn't that be absolutely terrifying?). Chatbots are software programs designed to automate customer-to-company conversations that use machine learning to help determine what the consumer’s question is, source a relevant answer and form a reply. Whilst chatbots have become a definite fixture of 2016's consumer landscape, most sources agree that in 2017, chatbots will become key touchpoints for many service brands. They can also, however, be used for more benevolent purposes. Take the live T-Rex chatbot from +rehabstudio, which gave children and parents this year the chance to chat live to a virtual T. Rex via Facebook Messenger. Created to feed childrens’ imaginations and answer their questions, the catchily-named Tina the T. Rex was all about virtual learning and discovery. The bot went live across three of NG KiDS’ Facebook pages over the summer, allowing thousands of people in the UK, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand the chance to quiz Tina on the fascinating life of the T. Rex. It's activations like this, in my opinion, that really open up the possibilities of the platform.

AI and Design

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Perhaps the most daunting aspect of the dawn of AI is that many creatives fear artificial intelligences could essentially steal their jobs out from under them. Lending credence to this fear is a new website launched this year, which uses an algorithm to “design” logos instead of human designers. Logojoy is targeting the 80% of new businesses which “just want a simple, good looking logo,” and does just that via an algorithm, which works by requiring customers to select existing logos as their “inspiration,” while the site then generates an entirely new logo based on their tastes, at incredibly reasonable prices ranging from $20-$65 (£16-£51). Honestly though, these are very basic logos with little creative input. In many ways, the algorithm is simply copying and pasting the general concepts behind existing ideas. For now, at least, I think the jobs of top typeface designers is largely safe.

AI & Native Advertising

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One area in which AI has been utilised more effectively this year is in programmatic advertising. IBM’s ground-breaking Watson artificial intelligence software was, for the very first time this year, being used to create better targeting for native advertising. As part of the platform, Watson now scans all the publisher pages in the ADYOULIKE global network of publishers and analyses them in the same way as a human mind would: looking contextually for topics, sentiment and semantics rather than just scanning for simple keywords. This allows the platform to deliver native content in-feed in the most relevant and targeted way possible. Watson looks at where, why and how the existing editorial content on each site is ‘talking about’ subjects and ensures advertisers are dynamically delivering the best native content to fit. The data is currently available through ADYOULIKE’s DMP and will be usable by programmatic buyers in 2017. A demo is available HERE.

Self-driving Cars hit the Road

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Definitely a trend that won't be seeing mainstream adoption this side of 2020, but something that definitely spawned a few headlines this year (remember when the first self-driving Google car ran into a bus!?), is the self-driving car phenomenon. Slightly more successful was Uber, who, back in April, started testing their self-navigating vehicles in Pittsburgh. The taxi app brand has fallen afoul of Californian state law more recently, however, when they refused to cease tests in San Francisco, even though California regulators had said the service was illegal because Uber had not obtained the necessary permits. Google, meanwhile, appear to have recovered from the setback earlier in the year with the recent announcement of the Waymo project, which seems a lot more legitimate than the company's previous self-driving efforts, at least on first glance. Still, whilst everyone appeared to have tried to make self-driving cars viable in 2016, it's looking like it might be a few years yet before we can throw away our driving licenses.

Prepare The Drones!

One final trend I personally noticed this year was the rise of automated drone usage. Yes there was that hilarious South Park episode from last year that highlighted the odd rise of hobbyist drone pilots, but it wasn't until this year that major commercial companies began to see their potential. A genuine breakthrough in the field was announced just this month, when Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon and serves as the company's CEO, announced on Twitter that the “First-ever Amazon Prime Air customer delivery is in the books.” The completed Amazon Prime Air delivery occurred in Cambridgeshire, England, on December 7. The drone works autonomously, flying under 400 feet from warehouse to household. Amazon Prime Air is only in the private testing phase right now, but the company is hoping to expand the program in the years ahead. In fact, Amazon announced drone delivery back in 2013. Drones have even bee used in a number of advertising activations this year, with one particular campaign for Direct Line from Saatchi & Saatchi using a series of drones dubbed “Fleetlights” to guide people home at night in rural areas. A neat idea, but a bit of a gimmick, which is a sentiment that probably sums up the use of drones in 2016. In 2017 and beyond, however, who knows?

Creative Opinions

Looking to gain some outsider perspective on the major tech movements of 2016, I reached out to Dror Ginzberg, Co-Founder & CEO of Wochit, the online video creation platform, who saw 2016 as a year where online video content was king:

“2016 was predicted to be the year of online video, and it was 100% correct. The main social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, really put video content at the heart of all their strategies this past year. From Facebook Live’s release in April, to Twitter’s extension of its video character limit, to Instagram’s launch of disappearing videos, each platform has sought to innovate and perfect its video offering, especially as online video now accounts for over two-thirds of all internet traffic, and is expected to jump to an unprecedented 82% by 2020.”

He also saw the dawn of ‘Live’ video and the fall of traditional paid TV subscriptions:

“While live video streaming platforms, such as Periscope, first came to prominence last year, the concept achieved full lift off in 2016 with the launch of Facebook Live in April. The power of such live content was really illustrated by ‘Chewbacca Mask Lady’ Candace Payne, who’s unforgettable Facebook Live video has generated a stunning 162 million views and over 3 million shares. With pay TV subscriptions in the UK declining significantly these viewers are moving to social media and Facebook Live is now a natural home for these viewers.”

Christian Lachel, ECD and Vice President at BRC Imagination Arts, also outlined some of his thoughts on the tech trends he noticed in 2016, which were having an impact on the way brands and agencies alike create experiential events and moments as part of their campaigns.

“One of the most interesting trends in 2016 is the use of drones to create new ways to control experiential events and moments. For example, Disney World’s Paint the Sky Experience uses 300 drones to produce a brilliant show of light in three-dimensional images that bring the sparkle and magic of the holidays to the sky. The use of drones and the expanding world of experiential technology is a leap in program control, immersive filming, gaming and even competitive racing. 2016 also included the continued evolution of immersive theatre experiences, like Punch Drunk’s “Sleep No More,” where audiences move freely through Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Macbeth, creating their own journeys through a film noir world. Many new players have entered this space, like Third Rail Projects who have created some of the best examples of immersive theatre in 2016. These new experiential, immersive events are changing the world with more complex and extreme story-driven experiences that take people on very intricate journeys throughout the world. Technology will also continue to influence experiences. For example; in 2016 we saw the Ghostbusters experience in NYC come to life, engaging audiences in a new immersive approach. Here The Void, the creators of mixed-reality entertainment, teamed up with Sony Pictures to develop the first public installation based on the studio’s Ghostbusters franchise, where guests working as a team can track and trap ghosts through a NYC apartment.”

Benjamin Hiorns is a freelance writer and struggling musician from Kidderminster in the UK.

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