Speaking of augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR): If ever there was a time when people might yearn to retreat into a digital reality, 2020 was surely that time. But both the hardware and the software were still finding their footing, and like anything that wasn’t rock solid at the start of the year, COVID-19 presented a setback.
But the setback will be temporary. In July, IDC took stock of the developing technology and estimated that from 2019 to 2024, the compound annual growth rate in global AR/VR spending would be 76.9% worldwide, reaching $136.9 billion.2
AR and VR are naturally lumped together in many discussions, but they’re not the same thing. Augmented reality overlays data on live video, often through a phone or tablet camera. (Think Pokémon Go, or watch this Splunk video demonstrate an industrial repair scenario.) Virtual reality is what we’ve been expecting at least since Tron hit movie theaters in 1982: Interactive worlds created entirely from computer graphics. VR requires headsets, currently on the expensive and cumbersome side, to create true immersion.
Virtual and augmented reality improve collaboration and access to knowledge. As a greater percentage of our retail activity and business communication move online, there will be demand for more immersive experiences. Additionally, industries not nearly as well-established as ecommerce are making massive shifts to digital platforms: Remote learning and telemedicine are entering many school districts, universities and medical practices for the first time.
New medical applications are already appearing. Doctors at George Washington University Hospital have been using VR to uncover lung damage from COVID-19 since March.
“Telemedicine has certainly accelerated, with medical practices working in partnership with insurance providers,” says Simon Davies, vice president of Splunk in the Asia-Pacific region.
“One of the most interesting VR advancements I’m seeing is in data visualization and event management. The ability to effectively consume data is critical to timeliness. Organizations are using virtual reality to consume 20 to 30 dashboards, coupling human intelligence with machine intelligence to distill meaningful insights in real time.”
An AR/VR survey of venture capitalists, released in March by law firm Perkins Coie, predicted that AR will continue to outpace VR, in part because mobile devices are already everywhere, and they’re better suited to AR overlays than full-immersion VR.
According to the World Economic Forum
According to the World Economic Forum, AR does three things very well: visualization, annotation and storytelling — each of which can be very useful to workplaces, schools and institutions during and after the pandemic. Further, AR/VR experiences could help mitigate the isolating nature of lockdowns and lingering effects on, for instance, business and leisure travel.The WEF links to news stories about the following examples:
? Virtual job training for young adults with autism
AR visualization of air pollution worldwide
? “ All 185 first-year medical students at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) are using HoloLens and HoloAnatomy, an award-winning AR app by CWRU and Cleveland Clinic, to learn from their own homes.”
? “ London’s National Theatre is using AR to help make its performances more accessible for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.”
? Microsoft’s Project Tokyo helps visually impaired people to “see” using AR and AI and the HoloLens. The device can detect the location of people in the user’s environment, and recognize faces, relaying the information to the wearer via audio
AR/VR’s breakthrough application will be immersive collaborative communication.
“I think of it as Zoom on steroids,” Jesse Chor says. The toll remote work takes on collaborative communication means we’ll want more immersive solutions that make interaction easier and more effective. “Not like a Zoom call today, where everyone talks over each other: ‘Oh, sorry, you go ahead.’ ‘No, you go.’”
5G bandwidth and more powerful laptops will reduce latency problems and provide opportunity for new ways to collaborate, to share visual presentations, on-the-fly notes and more. Post-COVID, more workers are going to continue to work remotely, and tech companies have long believed that innovation arises from the live, daily mix of coworkers, and that the hallway and kitchen are as important, if not moreso, than designated conference rooms.“
So the question becomes, how do remote teams effectively replace actually being in front of each other? We’re going to want virtual collaboration to be as close to the real thing as possible,” Chor says. “I think the next iterations of video conferencing will incorporate AR and VR technology.”
We’ll see a breakout hit in consumer/entertainment VR by early 2022, or virtual reality will drop off the radar.
Any consumer entertainment model requires a combination of hardware and content. The hardware element, Jesse Chor says, is there. But that isn’t enough.
“Virtual reality is at a very, very interesting spot,” Chor says. “It’s not new — it has been around forever, and it’s at a very vulnerable time now.”
He notes that the success of entertainment technology is driven by content. A new device might be an obsession only for the hardcore hobbyist until a viral hit drives mainstream adoption. Chor says VR’s hardware is there. The Oculus Quest, released in 2019 and sold out everywhere in 2020, is the Nintendo Switch of VR: A cheap, attractive device to drive adoption. Now we need the critical-mass software, the breakthrough game.
“It’s do-or-die; either that breakthrough comes in 2021, early ’22, or it’ll be another 10 years before it gets visited again.” So VR needs its “Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” or “Super Mario Odyssey.” Otherwise, Chor says, companies will lose patience and stop investing in the technology. He’s optimistic that a hit will emerge to capture interest. “Because with COVID, there’s an audience for anything that’s driving immersion at home.”
Biometrics was already taking off before the pandemic. Apple devices had been asking for your thumbprint for years, and the newest iPhones really want to be unlocked by your face.
In addition to biological attributes such as thumbprint, voice and facial scans, biometrics includes behavioral measurements, and that goes back centuries: Verifying identity by comparing signatures is not exactly cutting edge. Similarly, what time you regularly log into a system, your typing style, how you walk — all are being used today to identify individuals.
UK schools have used fingerprinting or face scanning for access control, recording attendance, buying lunch, checking out library books. One school, University Technical College, Leeds, has had to abandon its fingerprint sensor access controls due to the coronavirus pandemic, replacing them with proximity card sensors, facial recognition and, for health purposes, a thermal camera. (On the other hand, a French court blocked high schools from using facial recognition.)
Japan’s Seven Bank was testing ATMs that use facial recognition in late 2019, and in 2020 trials were under way to use facial recognition for cashierless checkouts in Japanese 7-Eleven stores.
Biometrics will move up in the world. And into the cloud.
“I’m a big fan of biometrics,” says Splunk Head of Mobile Engineering Jesse Chor. He predicts that biometric adoption, like (and as an example of) two-factor identification, will increase sharply in the Data Age. And he predicts that a key evolution in biometric verification will be solutions that don’t store your data on your device. Because if the app that verifies your thumb print is stored on your phone, bad guys need only hack your phone (which may be preferable to hacking your thumb, actually).
“The data won’t be stored on your phone,” Chor says. “It’s going to live in the cloud. The phone just sends the thumbprint it receives to another entity, and it’s up to that entity to decide, is this the right one? And your device won’t send your actual biometric data, but a hash, just like we do with passwords now.”
While biometric identification is a great way to minimize security breaches that depend on account or identity theft, the field is highly controversial, particularly around facial recognition. In September, the city of Portland, Oregon, banned use of facial recognition by government or businesses, a more stringent ban than bans on government agency usage already enacted by San Francisco, Oakland and Boston. Controversies around the technology have led to calls for greater regulation. A 2019 profile of one facial recognition provider’s practices ran in The New York Times under the headline, “The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It,” and use of facial recognition and other biometric data collection (including DNA samples) as part of China’s oppression of its Uighur minority generated international condemnation.
Chor notes that legal and ethical guidelines will have to be worked out on the national and international level, and permissible use of biometric data may vary. (A September article in the MIT Technology Review discusses such efforts.) But biometric technologies are too important and useful to kill. Whether we’re doing our jobs or managing our personal finances, the most important aspects of our lives are digital, and increasingly under threat of cyberattack.
The enterprise blockchain ecosystem has rapidly matured, and Splunk’s head of blockchain, Nate McKervey, measures that in a very hands-on way.
“2020 has been the first year where I have not had to explain blockchain once to organizations,” he says. “They come in understanding it to a high-enough degree that we can show them what problems we’re solving, which is a wonderful thing. Looking back, 2018 was the year of ‘what is blockchain’ conversations. 2019 was full of ‘nobody needs blockchain’ discussion, and in 2020 we’ve reached, ‘Okay, I understand where it’s useful and valuable. Now, how can you help me be successful?’”
The 2021 conversation, he predicts, will be, “What is your blockchain strategy?”
“In two years,” he says, “some companies will realize that if they don’t have a blockchain strategy, they’ll be less competitive because they won’t be as efficient as their competitors.”
With that in mind, he provided a rapid-fire series of predictions around digital ledger technologies.
COVID will accelerate blockchain adoption.
McKervey says that when the pandemic lockdowns began, he assumed that organizations would conserve resources and focus on core technology investments.
“I even told our leadership that I expected emerging technologies to be the first ones to be cut,” he says. But by autumn, not one of the more than 100 organizations he was talking to had suspended their blockchain initiatives. “In fact, we’ve had more inbound interest.”
An August article at CIODive.com backs him up. The publication spoke to experts who also had expected 2020 to be a bad year for blockchain, but were seeing continued interest, particularly in supply chain and other use cases where value is obvious. As Congress continues to urge the utilization of blockchain technology, we expect no slow down in interest.
Successful blockchain implementations will focus on efficiencies.
As blockchain emerges from that 2019 trough of disillusionment, McKervey expects adoption to accelerate in the pandemic/post-pandemic era. The degree to which the pandemic interrupted supply chains will particularly drive interest in blockchain technologies, which can improve visibility into the source of goods, and where they are at any time, and how overlapping supply chains interact.
“If my supply chain is 10 times more efficient than yours, your vendors aren’t going to want to work within your supply chain,” McKervey says. “We’re seeing organizations decrease paperwork and manual processes by 97%. If their competition doesn’t do the same, they won’t be able to compete.”
The financial services industry was our big pick last year for blockchain strides. That sector continues to be a strong area of blockchain interest, with particular interest in central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), but expect supply chain applications to see the greatest near-term improvements, largely driven by the pandemic.
In the short term, organizations will struggle to turn blockchain test projects into full-scale successes.
Blockchain initiatives still start with small proof-of-concept projects that prove value on a small scale, and success drives full implementation … which is where the trouble often starts.
“The move to production is where the real challenge comes,” McKervey says. “When you do a proof of concept, you just have to show that it functions. When you move to production, it needs to be secure, stable and to perform at scale.”
The trouble, he says, is often a lack of observability. Problems in production have to be diagnosed. You need visibility into data from the digital ledger itself, your infrastructure, your applications. Often organizations stitch together a mix of individual tools to analyze and visualize each type of data. And they may have to write proprietary code to analyze the ledger data. It reminds him of the days before Splunk, when sysadmins would write scripts to awk and grep through log files.
“The problem is, then they have this code that they have to support and scale and modify as the ledgers get upgraded and modified, and that’s a huge hurdle we’ve worked with customers on,” he says. As a result, he expects to see vendors respond with more interoperative monitoring solutions, or, as Splunk provides, cohesive observability solutions that combine logs, metrics, traces and ledger data
While blockchain consortiums are a leading model, they’ll be hampered by coordination and visibility challenges.
A lot of enterprise blockchain experience right now is through consortiums, in which companies in a certain industry or supply chain collaborate via a digital ledger. The consortium operator, which is not a stakeholder in the partnership itself, may be coordinating the solution, but lacks visibility, as do the members of the consortium. And visibility can be a challenge when some data may be proprietary to a specific participant, and when some of the participants may be rivals.
Among the biggest challenges, McKervey says, is getting to a decentralized state. Often the consortium starts with centralized control by the operator, with the goal of decentralizing the control. This can only be achieved when sufficient visibility across the consortium is obtained. Sufficient visibility is a difficult target, since the members use different infrastructure, cloud providers and monitoring solutions. This parallels the challenge individual organizations find as they power up from proof of concept to full production, and is another force that will drive a more cohesive approach to observability.
In about three years, blockchain gets really exciting.
The short term for blockchain is in security and efficiency, but looking a few years out, new business-transformative blockchain-based solutions will emerge and most won’t even know blockchain is part of the solution. Secure voting, tracking of political donations, tracking of disease outbreaks and securing medical supply chains are all happening now, but business-transformative use cases are hard to predict. (Did the taxi industry see the Uber model coming? Exactly.) Decentralized identity will be an enabler of these new business models. “That stuff is a ways out, though,” McKervey says. “Right now we’re still seeing blockchain develop as a strategic technology for businesses and the public sector. We’re at the stage where blockchain is beginning to increase efficiencies, but most CIOs aren’t yet seeing blockchain as a top initiative.”When will they get the message? “When leaders see their business model disrupted,” he says, “and by then it may be too late for their organization.”Decentralized identity is especially interesting, McKervey says. Individuals and organizations use many globally unique identifiers, such as: communications addresses (email address, user name, etc.), ID number (passport, driver license, tax ID), product identifiers (serial numbers, barcodes, RFIDs). The vast majority of these globally unique identifiers are not under our control, and may be open to fraudulent use: identity theft. The idea of a means of identification that is secure, global and not controlled by a central body has many appeals and applications.
“That stuff is a ways out, though,” McKervey says. “Right now we’re still seeing blockchain develop as a strategic technology for businesses and the public sector. We’re at the stage where blockchain is beginning to increase efficiencies, but most CIOs aren’t yet seeing blockchain as a top initiative.”When will they get the message? “When leaders see their business model disrupted,” he says, “and by then it may be too late for their organization.
Edge computing is an inevitable progression. We’re already managing a great deal of the data and interactions of our smartphones and laptops via the cloud, with software that’s delivered as a service rather than installed on the endpoint. And we’re constantly digitizing more stuff. We’re putting sensors into warehouses, onto trucks and freight trains, in industrial machinery.
The result is that we’re measuring things and making decisions about devices on the edges of our networks by shipping the data to a central, probably cloud-based datacenter, doing the analytics, and sending back automated instructions. All that back and forth takes time, and latency is a problem.
(That’s right, a quarter-century ago, we were all on dialup, and now we’re complaining about the speed of light. Sounds funny, but half-second latency won’t be a laugh when your car is driving itself through rush-hour traffic.)
Our main prediction about edge computing (in which analytics and automation do all the “thinking,” and take action, at the network periphery rather than reporting back to the mother ship) is that it’s here, it’s necessary, and it’s getting better. What’s interesting is the way in which the edge provides a perfect arena for every emerging technology we’ve been discussing.
Emerging technologies come together at the edge.
John Sabino says that the real power in emerging technologies is not any one of them, but the combinations. “I think the keys are AI/ML and automation, and when you add them to IoT, edge computing and 5G, you can transform entire industries — logistics, manufacturing, healthcare, energy.”
Tim Tully sees the same effect, and notes that smarter AI, and more powerful hardware and robust connectivity will be transformative for applications of edge computing. “More and more is happening at the edge, because we can do more and more computation as the hardware and software gets more sophisticated,” Tully says. “Local processing reduces the latency of moving the data to the cloud to process, and you get the same results.”
“When I was at GE, we had this concept of an industrial internet that is only gaining steam,” Sabino adds. “You can see it on brewery lines right now. You might have four master brewers that might operate a multimillion-gallon line.”Progress. We’ll drink to that.
Future Steaks, Working Assumptions
We asked Jesse Chor for his most far-out, decade-plus prediction, and he gave us a pretty wild vision. Today’s 3D printers can handle machine parts and numerous consumer goods. Chor says that’s just the foot in the door for digital printing.
“I look at COVID-19 as an example,” he says. “Without a doubt, it’s going to accelerate vaccine production and testing, but I’m also looking ahead to a world where we digitally print vaccines, we digitally print medicine. It’s going to be world-changing, and even that’s just a start. Imagine digitally printing food.”
Sounds amazing, though if we’re predicting Star Trek futures, we’re more excited about visiting a VR holodeck than eating a filet mignon printed by a food replicator. To ground us back in the present, we asked Tim Tully for his most immediate, prosaic prediction.
“We’re all going to have to update our home networks,” he says. So many people are working from home, perhaps while a working spouse and distance-learning kids compete for bandwidth. And even if that’s not you, you’re probably consuming a lot more digital entertainment at home during the COVID era, in place of a more on-the-go social life.
“If you have three kids in the house on Zoom doing school plus two working parents, that’s probably 5x the amount of traffic you’ve ever had to have before,” he says. “I’ve helped a number of our execs upgrade to enterprise-level or prosumer tech.”So bring on the WiFi 6, and get on the Oculus Quest waiting list. The future is now.