Technology solving real world problems.

Conversation moves to the practical applications of consumer technology.

Beyond entertainment: Conversation moves to the practical applications of consumer technology

The consumer technology market has traditionally been tagged, and indeed widely promoted, as a gateway for entertainment and leisurely diversion, in recent years growing at an express pace and embracing an increasingly diverse canon of devices manufactured to cater for consumers' every whim and whimsy. In turn, consumer technology has become progressively more integrated into most facets of modern society—tied together by an ever-expanding global network of high-speed internet—and not only as a vehicle for entertainment, but also offering a readily accessible suite of more practical applications.

Indeed, in recent times there has been a notable shift in the global dialogue surrounding the applications of consumer technology, with technology manufacturers, and associated industries, driving forward the conversation to the potential for their technology, with its increasingly vast and all-encompassing reach, to assist in solving real world problems.

To put this potential into context, consider these statistics. Smartphone usage has been growing at a tremendous pace in recent years, with the global market topping one billion units for the first time last year. According to technology research firm Gartner, approximately 1.24 billion units were shipped in 2014, up 28.4% on the year before, while 2013's 967.78 million units shipped represented growth of 42.3% on 2012's 680.11 million units. So, in the space of just two years, smartphone shipments have almost doubled.

Smartphones are the omnipresent digital totem of modern technology, the instantly recognisable accessory of the technology tribe, with consumers the world over now routinely walking around with smart devices in their pockets capable of carrying out a vast range of tasks in a manner that was unimaginable only 20 years ago.

While smartphones have led the charge, an ever-growing collection of smart devices are concurrently expanding the connected world. Commonly categorised under the umbrella term the “Internet of Things”, these devices range from wearable technology, such as fitness trackers and smartwatches, to kitchen and laundry appliances, to smart building technologies, such as smart LED lighting and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, to connected vehicles. Gartner has previously forecast that the Internet of Things will grow to encompass 26 billion units installed by 2020.

So, given they are out there in their numbers and are growing at pace, what are some of the potential practical applications of smart devices?

Health applications

First and foremost, there has been growing momentum in recent times behind the development of smart device-driven health applications, with technology heavyweights, such as Apple and IBM, devoting their significant clout to the development of smart solutions. Apple, for instance, this year released its ResearchKit framework, designed for medical and health research, allowing researchers to gather and utilise data from participants using mobile devices. ResearchKit works in conjunction with Apple's previously released HealthKit framework, which enables health and fitness apps to communicate with each other.

The vast amount of connected devices are creating a vast amount of data, and the challenge for technology companies is to catalogue and utilise this data in an accessible and effective framework. IBM states that with the increasing prevalence of fitness trackers, connected medical devices, implantables and other sensors collecting real-time information, the average person is likely to generate more than one million gigabytes of health-related data in their lifetime. That, IBM states, is the equivalent of more than 300 million books.

To this end, IBM recently unveiled Watson Health Cloud, designed to advance personal health care, which it states “will provide a secure and open platform for physicians, researchers, insurers and companies focused on health and wellness solutions”. IBM has additionally teamed up with Apple, harnessing data collected from iOS devices, providing researchers an “open ecosystem” within which to access and share data, employing Apple's ResearchKit and HealthKit frameworks.

Mobile payment technology

Consumer technology has been making great strides, and providing another practical application for smart device users, in the field of mobile payments. Smartphones are now being transformed into mobile payment devices, commonly referred to as the “digital wallet”, helping users consolidate their information in one device, and providing greater security for transactions.

Professional services firm Deloitte expects that 2015 will be something of a turning point for mobile payment technology. Deloitte has predicted that by the end of 2015, 5% of the base of 600-650 million NFC (near field communication)-equipped smartphones will be used at least once a month to make contactless in-store payments, compared with a monthly usage of less than 0.5% of the 450-500 million NFC-equipped smartphones as of mid-2014. Deloitte states that the combination of biometric authentication (such as a fingerprint, eye scan or heart rate sensor), an embedded secure element and tokenisation (the generation of a unique code when a payment is made via an NFC device which is sent to the merchant's NFC-enabled till), may provide more robust security than card swipes or chip and PIN.

Apple is again a frontrunner in this field, and, according to Gartner having captured a greater market share than other smartphone manufacturer in the 2014 fourth quarter following the release of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, this makes perfect sense. Last year, Apple introduced its Apple Pay payment technology in the US, which it is likely to rollout in other countries this year. Apple Pay, which is available on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, employs NFC and Apple's Touch ID fingerprint scanning technology, allowing users to make in-store payments by placing their iPhone near a compatible contactless reader while keeping a finger on Touch ID.

Fellow technology giant Samsung earlier this year announced it will also be launching a mobile payment service in the form of Samsung Pay, which will be available on its recently released flagship Galaxy S6 and S6 edge smartphones, employing both NFC and a new proprietary technology called Magnetic Secure Transmission, which Samsung states can potentially be accepted at approximately 30 million merchant locations worldwide. Samsung Pay is set to initially rollout in South Korea and the US, subsequently expanding into other regions.

Vehicle technology

Vehicle technology is another area in which technology companies are devoting substantial resources to the development of practical applications carrying both environmental and safety benefits. Electric cars are a focus for manufacturers, with significant research being devoted to the development of battery technologies. Electric cars, of course, provide environmental benefits, cutting down on carbon emissions, along with playing a role in energy conservation.

Cars are also increasingly becoming connected, with Gartner this year forecasting 250 million connected vehicles will be on the road by 2020 and stating they will become a major element in the Internet of Things. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, technology manufacturer Nvidia launched its Nvidia Drive PX, for developing auto-pilot capabilities, and Nvidia Drive CX, for creating advanced digital cockpit systems, car computers, with Nvidia CEO and co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang observing that with a vast array of cameras and displays “cars of the future will see and increasingly understand their surroundings”.

Manufacturers, including Ford, Audi and Mercedes, were also active at CES, displaying a range of technologies, including in-car communication and navigation systems, and previewing a future in which fully autonomous vehicles may well become a common fixture on roads. While the wide-scale deployment of fully autonomous vehicles may still largely be conceptual, the potential safety benefits of such a technology are a significant motivator in its development.

Entertainment and practical applications all in one smart device

Key consumer technology events, such as CES and the South by Southwest (SXSW) conferences and festivals, have this year provided a platform for technology companies to show off the practical applications of their latest wares. Of course, there are many devices being manufactured purely focused on entertainment, however with the consolidation of a range of applications in one smart device, devices are increasingly offering the best of both worlds. It is certainly a space to keep an eye on, and, with the collective technology world devoting significant resources to the development of practical applications for solving real world problems, there will doubtless be further innovative products arriving to market in the near term.

Share this.