It’s the beginning of September (and no, I don’t know how that happened either), and as the summer lull winds to a close and we prepare for a renewed frenzy of activity, it’s a good moment to take stock of the year so far.

Last month, two different articles were published looking back over some of the key trends we’ve seen in 2018 with regard to emerging technology and digital transformation, and comparing them to what was predicted.

One was a piece by Forbes contributor Daniel Newman of CMO Network, who revisited his predictions for digital transformation in 2018 in light of the past eight months, to see where we are with some of 2018’s most potentially transformative technologies. It takes a broadly optimistic view of the technologies that are meant to be shaking up the digital world in 2018, with a few caveats.

The other was by The Register’s Andrew Orlowski, written in response to the publication of Gartner’s annual ‘Emerging Technologies Hype Cycle’, which revealed that a number of the most “hyped” technologies from last year have vanished from this year’s chart. Needless to say, it takes a more negative view on the ability of emerging technology to live up to industry expectations.

Taken together, they paint an interesting picture of technological developments over the past year, contrasting industry expectations for some of the most hotly-debated tech with the realities of consumer adoption and commercial viability.

Let’s look at some of the highlights.

Blockchain: increasing disillusionment or gradual adoption?

Ah, blockchain. In my most recent round-up of news and insights from the world of martech, I wrote about the increasing disillusionment amongst advertisers when it comes to blockchain, as they realise that blockchain isn’t the easy solution to industry transparency issues that it was originally billed as.

Which isn’t to say that blockchain doesn’t have a role to play in advertising, even an important one – but implementing it won’t be simple, either.

The Register calls blockchain one of this year’s “strivers”, in that it hasn’t disappeared from the Gartner Hype Cycle altogether – in fact, it’s barely budged at all since 2017, when Gartner plotted its course past the “Peak of Inflated Expectations”, and slowly descending the slope towards the “Trough of Disillusionment”.

Demystifying Blockchain: Guidelines for Marketers

Meanwhile, “Blockchain for data security” has been given its own point on the Gartner Hype Cycle, and is inching its way up from “Innovation Trigger” to the “Peak of Inflated Expectations”.

In his analysis for Forbes, Daniel Newman notes this trend as well: “[Blockchain has] definitely reached peak buzzword status, but it’s also finding its way outside the financial sector. Major cloud providers are now offering blockchain as a Service for increased security measures.”

However, he maintains, “Blockchain is poised to disrupt industries and departments from banking to HR. […] I think there’s still a lot of potential in this field, but it’s definitely taking longer than I expected.”

In other words, the answer to whether we’re experiencing mounting disillusionment over blockchain or gradual adoption of the technology seems to be: “Why not both?”

Is AI “mainstream”? Smart homes and virtual assistants

Here’s a bold assertion from Daniel Newman: “AI is now mainstream”.

“Alexa, turn off the light.” “Siri, lock the front door.” “Cortana, what’s my schedule for tomorrow?” These are just a few of the commands that I said to my AI devices today. These virtual assistants are the norm, now.

Is it true that AI has already transcended into the “mainstream”? I’m a little more sceptical than Newman. I’ll note first off that since “AI” can be used to refer to a whole host of different things, I’m talking specifically about the adoption of smart home devices and virtual assistants, since that’s what Newman appears to be referring to, as well.

If Newman is using his own circumstances as proof that AI is now “mainstream”, I think that being in a position to own multiple smart home devices (each, apparently, with a different virtual assistant) is far from the norm in 2018.

According to Statista, only 19.7% of households in the UK are “smart homes” (generally defined as homes with two or more smart devices). Smart home devices are more widespread in the US, but still, only a third of consumers there currently own two or more smart home devices, according to a study by GfK.

Smart homes and AI assistants: now “mainstream”? Not quite.

I’m not denying that smart home devices and virtual assistants are on the rise; GfK’s study also found that 49% of US consumers own at least one smart home device, meaning that 83% of consumers surveyed owned one or more smart device(s). That’s an overwhelming majority.

But having multiple smart devices and virtual assistants managing different parts of your life in 2018 is still the province of tech enthusiasts and early adopters, and I don’t think we’ll see it become “mainstream” for several years yet.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle for 2018 plots “Connected Home” and “Virtual Assistants” at different points along the slope towards the “Trough of Disillusionment” – progress since last year, when they were nestled next to each other atop the “Peak of Inflated Expectations”. Virtual Assistants are predicted to reach mainstream adoption in two to five years, and Connected Homes in five to ten.

Meanwhile, the “Smart Workspace” has almost reached the Peak (compared with last year when it was about two-thirds of the way up the slope), though personally I’ve heard very little talk about smart workspaces, hype or otherwise.

If smart workspaces do emerge into greater prominence, this is one technology that could play a huge part in digitally transforming the world of work, potentially linking together other disruptive technologies like cloud computing and automation, and enabling more flexible and efficient ways of working. Gartner aside, however, there’s not much evidence of that just yet.

Are 2017’s emerging technologies really “disappearing”?

One of the most potentially alarming revelations about the state of emerging technology in 2018 is The Register’s observation that nine of the technologies from Gartner’s 2017 Hype Cycle are nowhere to be found on the 2018 chart.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which technologies the publication included in their count (for reasons I’ll get to shortly), writer Andrew Orlowski names Edge Computing, Machine Learning, Human Augmentation, Augmented Data Discovery, Knowledge Graphs and Commercial UAVs (Drones) as technologies that have disappeared between 2017 and 2018.

Virtual Reality is also conspicuously absent from the 2018 graph, after having been the closest emerging technology to adoption in 2017.

Gartner Hype Cycle 2017

Gartner’s Hype Cycle for 2017

Gartner’s Hype Cycle for 2018 – more technologies in total than 2017, but with some conspicuous absences.

It’s hard to concretely track the disappearance of technologies from Gartner’s Hype Cycle, as the names that Gartner uses to refer to things change from year to year (which also makes it difficult to follow a single technology’s progress along the Cycle).

For instance, “Serverless PaaS” (Platform as a Service) is gone from the 2018 chart, but “AI PaaS” has taken its place. “Deep Reinforcement Learning” is no longer present on the Hype Cycle in 2018, but “Deep Neural Network ASICs” have emerged. “Deep Learning” itself has turned into “Deep Neural Nets (Deep Learning)”, and “Autonomous Vehicles” is now split into “Autonomous Driving Level 4” and “Autonomous Driving Level 5”. And so on.

So how much stock should we put in the idea that several once-vaunted emerging technologies have “vanished”? Even The Register is sceptical, noting at the end of the article that “The Hype Cycle has been criticised for bearing only a tenuous relationship with reality”.

In his much-cited retrospective of 20 years of Hype Cycles, Michael Mullany notes that many once-hyped technology trends are “just flashes in the pan”, die outright, or simply reach widespread adoption irrespective of whether they ever appeared on a Hype Cycle.

With that in mind, it might even be a good thing when a technology disappears from the Hype Cycle – maybe it has transcended hype altogether. After all, countless marketers can attest that Machine Learning is alive and well, even though it’s been removed from the Hype Cycle for 2018.

And in his analysis for Forbes on digital transformation trends, Daniel Newman cites Edge Computing as one of the core trends for 2018, calling it a trend that “will continue for years to come”. Yet Gartner has taken it off the graph.

As one commenter on The Register suggests,

“Presumably things can disappear from the Emerging Tech report because they have, in fact, emerged, and are now lounging about comfortably in deck chairs, having decided to skip the other stages.”

Michael Mullany makes a very insightful point in his essay that the Gartner Hype Cycle is useful mostly as a reflection of industry consensus. It appears to deliver best on the “hype” portion of the cycle (though there have also been times when it identified emerging trends yet to be picked up by the industry), and less so on the actual adoption.

All in all, perhaps it most accurately represents the disconnect between the predictions made by commentators in the business, technology and marketing sectors, and the factors that determine whether a new technology actually catches on.

What happened to VR?

Finally, we have augmented and virtual reality, two technologies that honestly merit a Hype Cycle of their own to chart all the many ups and downs over the years: the high hopes, disappointments, and genuinely exciting potential.

Or maybe that should be a merry-go-round. AR and VR seem to endlessly take it in turns to emerge in front of the other as the more viable technology. In 2016, with the successful funding and release of the Oculus Rift and numerous other competing VR headsets, Virtual Reality was the talk of the industry, with brands experimenting with the possibilities of VR to create branded content and tell stories. Writing for Econsultancy, Juliet Stott even tipped it as “the content marketing trend for 2017”.

Two years on, AR has pulled ahead, and VR seems to have been left in the dust. 

The Register notes that in 2017, Gartner’s Hype Cycle placed VR partway up the “Slope of Enlightenment”, making good progress towards the “Plateau of Productivity” that is the ultimate goal of every Hype Cycle technology. Augmented Reality was plotted behind it, almost in the deepest part of the “Trough of Disillusionment”.

But this year VR is nowhere to be found. AR, while still mired in the Trough for 2018, has recently re-ignited conversations in the technology and marketing industries, thanks to the long-awaited release of Magic Leap’s first headset, and an improved indoor positioning system by Blippar that could enable a lot of the more exciting ecommerce and marketing possibilities for AR.

Daniel Newman asserts in his analysis that “AR has endless ways of improving our interaction with technology. However, VR is taking a backseat, albeit slowly.”

From a digital transformation perspective, both technologies have vast amounts of potential, but AR is the easier technology to get on board with, with a lower barrier to entry for both consumers and businesses, and more obvious use cases. Newman notes that companies can use AR 3D visualisation to “better train, pitch, and envision new products, without the large expense of VR.”

We’ve previously written about why VR headset sales are declining and why the VR “craze” among marketers might have been a little over-hyped. The obstacles to mainstream adoption of VR are numerous: from expensive and bulky hardware, to motion sickness and disorientation, to a fragmented market with numerous competing platforms, each with its own development requirements. Even among gamers, the most natural audience for VR, remarkably few headsets have been sold.

Where does that leave this once-hyped technology? In 2017 Mark Zuckerberg pledged to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in VR, and predicted that it would take ten years for VR to see mainstream adoption. Ten years is a long time for industry commentators (particularly in our industry), who see an enticing new technology with lots of potential and want to make grand predictions about it.

But it’s hard to imagine much changing for VR all that quickly.

Beware the hype

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from all of this is: be wary of getting too caught up in the hype around emerging tech.

The world of digital marketing can be incredibly susceptible to hype, particularly around a few specific trends (*ahem* voice search *ahem*). It’s completely understandable – after all, we need to keep tabs on what might be happening next in the industry, and the potential payout from being one of the first to get in on the “next big thing” can be huge. Hype doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, either; if no-one got excited about the possibilities of new technology, there would be no investment in them to aid innovation.

However, examples like blockchain, VR and Gartner’s Hype Cycle illustrate how long it can truly take for an exciting new technology to reach its full potential, and illuminate the huge chasm that can sometimes exist between industry expectations and consumer reality. And while we’re all busy following the shiny new attraction, more humble technologies are quietly bringing about significant change. Not every technology that changes the digital landscape is big, shiny or expensive – perhaps focusing on the technologies that reports like Gartner’s don’t cover is something we should do more of.

Ultimately, the best way to keep a level head when it comes to emerging tech is to think critically, be wary of sweeping claims, and research up-to-date figures for consumer or business adoption of the technology. Of course, extreme cynicism is another potential trap (see: the “[x] is dead” claims that are made all too frequently), but backing up your investments and decisions with solid facts and forecasts is never a bad move.

And remember to pay attention to what’s happening around you – we’re all consumers ourselves, and often our day-to-day experiences can be the best indicator of how the world is changing.

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