In the early and mid-2000s, I was working for an enterprise content management startup when one of our teams came up with a cool new product feature: the ability to access online Microsoft Word documents from the world’s first smartphone, the Blackberry.
That may seem quaint today, when we can do just about anything with our mobile devices, but back then, the feature felt fresh and innovative. We released the feature, but just before the Blackberry emerged as the popular sensation it would become. Uptake of our capability was limited.
For me, the incident has come to illustrate a contradiction that has befallen most technological disruptions through history: The huge amount of marketplace attention they generate tends to coexist with nearly equal degrees of skepticism and caution. Questions often arise over why anyone needs the new technology. In some cases, as with my old company’s Word feature, companies are just too early to market.
I’ve been thinking about that conundrum lately as buzz keeps building, cooling, and then building again around hot emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR).
If history is any lesson, the core question frequently raised about these advances—are they just today’s hype or tomorrow’s game changer?—are par for the course.
Take the automobile, for example. In 1899, Literary Digest editorialized, “The ordinary horseless carriage is, at present, a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.”
The internet that has changed the way we live? In 1995, widely read astronomer and technology columnist Clifford Stoll dismissed the then-new medium as “trendy and oversold.”
When Steve Jobs introduced the original iPhone model in 2007, Apple described it as “revolutionary and magical,” but many were not impressed. “It is nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks,” Bloomberg’s Matthew Lynn wrote.
Even the light bulb received some ridicule when Thomas Edison unveiled it in 1879. “Everyone acquainted with the subject will recognize [Edison’s experiments] as a conspicuous failure, trumpeted as a wonderful success,” asserted Henry Morton, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology.
Those howlers lead me to take a glass-half-full view of the current headline-making technologies and their future path. I think AI, VR, and AR have a better chance than not to reshape how businesses interact with customers.
Thus, it would be irresponsible for company decision-makers not to recognize their innovative potential in organizational long-range planning. This trio of two-letter acronyms simply holds too much promise for companies not to cover their bets and begin exploring how the technologies can help move their business forward.
Here are three pieces of advice I’d offer senior executives:
ACKNOWLEDGE REALITY: CHANCES ARE GOOD THAT THESE TECHNOLOGIES WILL (EVENTUALLY) STICK
With their ability to interpret vast amounts of data, generate insights, and continually learn, AI algorithms offer unprecedented potential for improving business processes and customer experiences. “These advancements in AI are truly revolutionary,” Forrester analyst Christina McAllister has said. “We’re witnessing a pivotal moment in AI unfold right before our very eyes.”
As for VR and AR, Apple made a big splash with its recent announcement of Apple Vision Pro, which it calls its “first spatial computer,” able to blend augmented reality content with the physical world and deliver what Apple says is a new and different digital experience. They’re pretty smart folks in Cupertino, scoring far more product hits than flops in recent decades, so color me intrigued by Vision Pro and Apple’s strategy in the space.
Meta’s virtual reality initiative certainly has had its ups and downs since Mark Zuckerberg announced his metaverse play in 2021, but given the company’s resources and track record of success with Facebook and Instagram, I’m not betting against it either. Time will tell.
The upshot: I think odds are reasonably high that these technologies will play a major role in our lives at some point during the next decade, and companies that ignore the need to invest in them now do so at their own peril.
BE BOLD IN DESIGN AND THEN CHECK IN WITH CUSTOMERS BEFORE BUILDING
Companies that can figure out how to leverage these technologies for new, more immersive customer experiences will prosper. The time is now to start designing those experiences, and be bold and adventurous in doing so.
Then, use the all-important stage between design and build to talk to customers and determine product-market fit. Imagine being a company that could say, “We don’t build anything customers haven’t signed off on.” Such an ethic will become even more critical in overcoming any skepticism consumers harbor about the new technologies.
It bears repeating: The companies that can deliver edgy, customer-validated innovations will win, plain and simple. Hearing, “This is what I want” from customers goes a lot farther than telling customers, “Surprise! Look what’s in stores now!”
WORK TO BUILD CONSUMER TRUST
“Today’s organizations must be able to demonstrate that their systems and algorithms are responsible, fair, ethical, and explainable. In a word, that their AI is trustworthy,” the World Economic Forum says. A Forbes Advisor survey shows that 76% of consumers are concerned with misinformation from AI tools, such as Google Bard, ChatGPT, and Bing Chat.
Businesses need to be well aware of possible trust gaps as they move ahead with the disruptive new technologies—being transparent about how they’re using them and why consumers should feel safe that their privacy and any other concerns are taken care of.
As these three suggestions show, there are moves companies can and should be making now to prepare for a technological future that is far from guaranteed (what is ever guaranteed?), but has enough potential to disrupt markets, such as retail and financial services.
The risk of being left behind is too large not to.