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Tech's Big 6

What’s Google Glass done for you lately? Maybe more than you think. Take a look at six far out technologies changing the very nature of business. By By Mary E. Morrison | Summer 2015

Summer BIG6-1

The tech world moves at warp speed; categories, companies and products can rise or fall within the blink of an eye. Knowing which technologies will take hold and change the way we live and work is a bit of a guessing game, so we've asked two experts to sound off. With input from Randy Johnston, founder & CEO, Network Management Group Inc., and executive VP, K2 Enterprises, and Paul Edlund, Chief Technologist-Midwest at Microsoft Corp., we've compiled a list of six technologies that could have a big impact on finance professionals, businesspeople and consumers alike over the next five years.

ONE: The Internet of Things

You've likely heard about the Internet of Things—the concept of giving everyday objects network connectivity so they can send and receive data. But you'll hear even more about it over the next few years. In 2014, there were 3.9 billion connected devices being used in the United States, according to IT research firm Gartner, and by 2020 that number is expected to rise to a flabbergasting 25 billion.

Which begs the questions, what exactly will be connected, and how will it affect each and every one of us?

Connected objects in the home and office already exist. Take the Nest thermostat, which debuted three years ago and allows users to control heat and air-conditioning levels from their smartphones—which of course feeds the bottom line in terms of cutting waste and boosting efficiency. In the coming years, expect to see more connected devices, from security systems to lighting to appliances; really, the sky's the limit. "It gives you control of home and office from afar—from a browser, from a mobile device, a tablet," Johnston explains.

Next up, several automakers have announced plans to manufacture connected cars—a segment of the larger Internet of Things category—with enough computing power, sensors and Internet connectivity to optimize their own operation and maintenance,  and guarantee the comfort and productivity of their passengers. The number of connected cars is expected to grow significantly—more than sixfold to 152 million by 2020—according to IHS Automotive. The future holds little escape from the office, it seems.

The Internet of Things is truly paving the way for driverless cars, a development Johnston says could have important implications for businesses. Google's early driverless car has been well publicized, but other key players in the auto industry also are experimenting with the concept. “Driverless technology could allow UPS and other delivery companies to have human drivers focus their time on delivering packages instead of driving,” Johnston explains. It all comes down to workforce productivity and the bottom line.   

TWO: Digital Assistants

Many smartphone users have access to a voice-enabled digital assistant—such as Siri on iPhones, Google Now on Androids and Cortana on Microsoft's Windows phones. While hardly without its glitches, functional development is improving rapidly, and greater user uptake is sure to follow.

Cortana, for example, is included in Windows 10, the newest version of Microsoft's operating system, which means the digital assistant is available on PCs and tablets running the OS. Cortana can be set up to deliver calendar appointments and notifications, run Web searches and find locally stored content.

"Today you have all these applications—a sea of apps—but most people use six," Edlund explains. "What we'd rather be able to do is say, 'I want to buy a pair of pants,' and your digital assistant says, 'Okay, you can go to Walmart, it's right around the corner, or Amazon, which has them for cheap, but there's a store right around the corner that has them in your size, a little place that you like. You should go there,' and you never have to open an app."

Digital assistants have many obvious uses for consumers; you can ask them about the best place to buy a burrito for lunch, for example. But there also will be a number of business uses for them. "In the business world, we're going to be able to say, 'These are my marketing people, these are my HR people, this is my salesforce,’ and then I can target information to them as a company," says Edlund. "People in accounting will care about CPA regulations, and they’ll be able to use Cortana to find that information for them. When something new comes out, your digital assistant will say, 'You need to know about this,' and you'll never have to search it out."

The implications could be significant across industries. Doctors, for example, could use the digital assistant to prioritize their schedules according to the most urgent patients or by how much time a patient will need for treatment, Edlund explains. IT departments could program the digital assistant to answer frequently asked support questions, or to help employees analyze data with business intelligence software.

THREE: 3D Printing

When people hear about 3D printing—also called additive manufacturing—many assume it's a fluff technology, something that will enable them to produce cheap tchotchkes at home. Yet 3D printing is in reality a complex and very promising ecosystem of technologies that could change most industries—from manufacturing to life sciences—in very significant ways. "It's going to be a big deal," says Johnston. "3D is evolving to the point that you can print virtually anything."

He points to the 3D printing of entire homes, human skin and organ tissue, and airplane parts as examples. In fact, GE already is using the technology to create fuel-nozzle tips for jet engines, and printed a complete engine over the past year.

Last year Gartner forecast that although mainstream consumer adoption may be five to 10 years out, business and medical applications could see wider adoption in only two to five years. While 3D printing for prototyping is already in general use, we’ll see continued acceptance and use of 3D print creation software, 3D scanners and 3D printing service bureaus, says Gartner. The 3D printing of medical devices, for example, will offer "life-altering" benefits and will result in global use of the technology for prosthetics and implants.

Hurdles remain, Johnston concedes, but rapid advances are making the widespread use of 3D printing a reality. "The game around this is how fast can we get the printers to go," he explains. "You can print things up to about 10 meters by 30 meters in most materials today. The biggest issues are speed, along with heat and toxins. But this is becoming pretty interesting."

FOUR: Bigger Data

The term "Big Data" has been around for a while, but the gathering and analysis of data will only continue to grow in the coming years. In addition to information about customers and prospects—where they are, how they behave, what they're likely to do next—more businesspeople will see data pertaining to them as individuals used in the workplace.

Users of Microsoft Windows 10, for example, will log onto the operating system using Windows Hello, the company's biometric authentication technology that recognizes a user's fingerprint or facial features. The technology uses a sensor whose camera and multi-array microphone can read depth and heat to identify an individual. The result: More convenient and secure log-in. "You walk up to your screen, it will say, 'Good morning,' and log you in automatically," Edlund explains. With a complementary technology—Windows Passport—users similarly will be able to log into websites that support Windows Hello.
Other data about individual employees is increasingly being used throughout the workplace.

Boston-based startup Humanyze, for example, has developed a system that combines wearable sensors and digital data to collect information about employee behavior. The employee badge measures data points such as employee interactions, tone of voice, and movement throughout the day with the goal of improving business performance. Human resources and financial management software from Pleasanton, Calif.-based Workday Inc., meanwhile, is using data and analytics to predict factors such as which employees are likely to leave the company or exceed their budgets.

FIVE: Mapping Technology

Smartphone users are already very familiar with mapping technology that allows them to type in an address and easily pull up directions to their destination—also determining, for example, how long it will take them if they walk, drive or cycle, whether there's traffic, and more. But that's only the beginning, says Johnston. "Mapping technology will be used in lots of places we're not thinking about right now, specifically indoor mapping.”

The idea of indoor mapping is quickly gaining traction, with big tech players forging ahead. Last year, for example, Google released indoor maps created with its new mapping tool, Cartographer. Like the Google Trekker backpacks that collected images for Google Maps' "Street View," Cartographer backpacks are equipped with mapping technology that generates floor plans and information as a wearer walks through buildings such as airports, museums and malls.

Meanwhile, beacon technology, including Apple's iBeacon, is poised to change the way people navigate their way through indoor spaces. These small, low-cost pieces of hardware emit Bluetooth connections to transmit messages, allowing them to work in indoor spaces where GPS and cell signals might be blocked. While this allows retailers to target shoppers with location-specific offers, the technology’s applications don’t end there.

Organizations are testing and using beacon technology extensively—Major League Baseball, for example, has put iBeacons in ballparks around the country.

SIX: Wearables

Wearable technology has gotten a lot of press since the introduction of Google Glass’ optical head-mounted displays a few years ago. Since then, Apple Watch and fitness- and health-tracking devices such as Fitbit and Jawbone have rolled out and gained a lot of user attention—attention that will grow significantly in the coming years.

"Wearables of all kinds are going to be much bigger than people believe them to be," says Johnston. "Some of the technologies are good enough that they are going to trick people into thinking they're seeing things that they’re not."

Virtual reality headsets slated to roll out in the next year include Rift from Oculus VR (the company Facebook purchased last year), Morpheus from Sony, and products from Merge VR and HTC Vive. While these virtual reality headsets are targeted, at least for now, as entertainment and gaming devices, Microsoft is rolling out Hololens, an augmented reality headset that the company says will allow users to tackle productivity related tasks. Where virtual reality headsets show the user an entirely digital world, Hololens interprets the world around the user, identifying a nearby chair or whiteboard, for example, and then responding to voice commands by projecting images onto that whiteboard.

"Imagine being able to say, 'I want to teach you what the heart does,' and you being able to step inside a heart and see not just the valves but go into the capillaries and stand inside them," Edlund explains.

Businesspeople could use the Hololens for data visualization, he adds, demonstrating sales by state or by store or within a store. "Holograms initially will be whatever developers can envision," says Edlund. "We provide the glue, but how that gets leveraged is up to the world."

Whether it's wearables and 3D printing or the Internet of Things and digital assistants, be on the lookout for big developments in the world of technology—and therefore in the world in which you do business. Google Glass? It just might be coming to an office near you.