OPINION12 February 2013

Get yourself connected


Ubiquitous computing will have significant impact on individuals and society – and the researchers whose job it is to understand both. Join The Dots’ digital research director James Lang goes in search of his future self.

Market research, as an industry, is fundamentally conservative – and yet it’s remarkable how much change we’ve gone through over the past 15 years.

Much of that change has been driven by waves of technological innovation: the internet, mobile phones and social media. So to understand where we might go next, and what our jobs will look like in five or ten years’ time, it’s reasonable to look at emerging technologies and think about how they might reshape what it is that we do.

The next wave of technology

After hardware and software comes ‘everyware’. Work on ubiquitous computing and its associated movements has been around since the 1990s, and has already delivered some impressive bridging technologies, such as smartphones and tablet PCs. The more fundamental changes, though, are yet to come, as physical environments becomes increasingly intelligent and previously dumb inanimate objects such as clothes, furniture and appliances acquire the ability to communicate with each other.

“Researchers should be actively learning about these technologies, seeking to shape and harness them, and engaging with the issues that they raise for brands and consumers”

This latter development – the much-heralded “internet of things” – is predicted by Gartner to be around five years away, but its early shockwaves have already reached us. In the near future, we’ll live in a world where our fridge can be automatically restocked based on our dietary needs, computers become wearable and embedded in our normal clothing, our cars determine insurance costs based on actual driving habits and our behaviour and movements can be tracked in fine detail.

Google’s Glass project is merely the most high-profile of the wave of new augmented reality products which are dissolving the boundaries between digital and physical space. In the words of Mark Weiser, founding father of ubiquitous computing: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”

In practice, this weaving involves embedding and connecting thousands of tiny sensors in objects and surfaces. One consequence is a tidal wave of passive data – the use of geolocation as a data source for market researchers is an early manifestation of this.

A changing world

What might this technology mean for consumers and brands? We can see some early indications in the activities of the Quantified Self movement – early adopters who are interested in monitoring different aspects of their lives in order to understand them better: sleep patterns, exercise, biometrics, travel, socialising.

Gadgets and apps which make this easy, targeted at mainstream consumers, have already started to appear. One example, the Nike+ Running app and Sportband, shows how this is likely to result in a desire to share and compare personal metrics. On a deeper level, providing consumers with easy access to information about their consumption habits – whether it’s of food, energy or media – is likely to change those same habits.

For brands, it’s easy to see how being able to monitor consumer behaviour at a much more detailed level would be appealing: which products are taken off the shelves, read, then replaced? Which new drink blend is consumed most quickly? How do shoppers flow around the store? And when should we interrupt the experience, by automatically triggering a marketing message or quick survey question?

As the distinction between online and offline is erased, and different aspects of our environment begin to interact independently with each other, one consequence is that the concept of ‘channels’ becomes less and less useful. While questions of attribution may ultimately involve the analysis of thousands of micro touchpoints, it may make little sense to think in terms of traditional channels.

The impact on research

The commercial implications are huge. Corporations will want to understand these changes in the same way as they have needed to harness the web, social media and mobile in the past. They will want to understand how to manage and monetise the flow of content and data.

Some of the ramifications for consumers are genuinely scary. How do you opt in to an intelligent environment? Do you really want your toilet to talk to your GP? As an industry, researchers will be asked to help corporations and regulators understand what consumers will and won’t accept. 

It has the potential to revolutionise data collection and processing. The current debate about big data will need to expand to account for retail environments containing thousands of interlinked sensors, each collecting passive behavioural data about consumers. Ethical frameworks in research are likely to be struggling to catch up (as ever) with advances in technology. In the medium term, I’d argue that we might see a new flowering of ethnography as a satisficing alternative to the challenges of big data. 

It will change consumer behaviour. Consumers will have a different relationship with owning and sharing their data. They are also likely to interact differently with an intelligent shop, restaurant, coat, car or cereal bowl than they would with the current version.

Do these changes represent a threat or an opportunity to our industry? It could be argued that each technological wave of the last few years has cost market researchers a bit of their share of the business of insight, through disintermediation and disruptive innovations coming from outside. Think Google Surveys.

This should serve as an alarm, then. But even in a world awash with passive behavioural data, there remains a need to ask and to understand. Researchers should be actively learning about these technologies, seeking to shape and harness them, and engaging with the issues that they raise for brands and consumers. The alternative is to be left behind.


8 years ago

I thought this was an excellent article I have passed it on to others as I think they might be very interested to read it too. Well done indeed. Happy to associate via Linkedin.

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8 years ago

This is a good article, but might be better if it included recent research into neuroplasticity; how our brains change shape and function under the influence of digital technology. See Nicholas Carr's excellent book 'The Shallows' for instance. The point is, it's not just the environment that changes ...

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8 years ago

@ Noel Good point. It's tricky enough scratching the surface of ubiquitous computing in two paragraphs. Apart from neuroplasticity, you probably noticed that I've skipped any mention of artificial intelligence, robotics and brain-machine interfaces too - all important adjacent subjects (although I wouldn't claim to be an expert in any of them)

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8 years ago

Excellent article! Technology and its impact on consumer behaviour, and how researchers need to adapt to this new outlook.

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