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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Wearables and chatbots prove not all tech is useful

Both developments have fallen into the 'trough of disillusionment'

Wearables are not living up to the hype, in part because, like chatbots, people don't really like using them. Justin Sullivan : Getty
Wearables are not living up to the hype, in part because, like chatbots, people don't really like using them. Justin Sullivan : Getty

Technology industry watchers are probably familiar with the term “trough of disillusionment”.

Coined by the US research firm Gartner, it refers to that period of time when consumer and investor interest wanes in a particular technology after it fails to live up to its initial hype.

Interest may recover over time and the technology may ultimately become a world-changer but not without major improvements or other adjacent developments first taking place.

The trough - preceded in Gartner’s Hype Cycle by the “peak of inflated expectations”, followed by the “slope of enlightenment” and finally the “plateau of productivity” - has become useful shorthand for explaining why technologies fail to catch on, at least temporarily.

But, as with much of the terminology related to tech and the hype surrounding, it has become overused to the point where it can be misleading.

Suggesting that a failing technology simply needs to work out some bugs implies that it will inevitably succeed some day, which unfortunately ignores the possibility that it may not. It could just be bad technology that nobody wants after all.

Wearables come to mind. Not so long ago, analysts were forecasting a rosy future in which everyone would have devices on their wrists that could measure heart rate, oxygen levels and who knows what else - perhaps the weight of the wearer’s mind?

In 2015, when wearable hype was at fever pitch thanks to the launch of the Apple Watch, the analysis firm eMarketer predicted 63.7 million Americans would be using such devices at least once a month. Last year, as it became clear that the category was not catching on, the firm scaled back its estimates to 39.5 million.

With the wearables pioneer Jawbone last month beginning liquidating proceedings after its fitness-tracker product failed to take off, it is safe to assume those estimates will track even lower this year. The technology news website TechCrunch has gone so far as to proclaim Jawbone’s demise as “the end of the wearables industry”.

The tune is similar with chatbots. The peak of inflated expectations was at its highest last April, when Facebook launched the capability for its Messenger chat app.

The chief executive Mark Zuckerberg pitched the bots, which could have automated conversations with users, as the future of customer service. “You’ll never have to call 1-800-flowers again,” he said at the launch event.

Brands flocked to the new feature and spent time and money developing their own custom chatbots, only to learn shortly thereafter that nobody really wanted to use them. A year after Facebook’s splashy launch, nearly 80 per cent of Americans reported never having heard of chatbots.

According to a recent survey by the retail mobile app developer GPShopper, only 9 per cent of respondents believe chatbots will improve their shopping experience, which helps to explain why brands are abandoning them en masse.

Proponents of wearables and chatbots will argue that both are in their respective troughs, that it is still early for them. But that overlooks the larger possibility - or likelihood rather - that they may never be successful. Or at least relatively “never”, as in not any time soon.

Wearables will always have to contend with a plain existential fact - that many people simply do not like wearing extraneous things when they don not have to. That means gizmos but also unnecessary accessories. If it was socially acceptable to not wear trousers in public, for example, the trouser industry would probably collapse.

Chatbots have a similar existential problem in that people either hate talking to robots, typing on their phones or wasting their time in conversations that don not yield useful results. Yet chatbots make them do all those things - that is lot of obstacles for the technology to overcome.

So, which technologies currently at the peak of inflated expectations will be the next to dive into the trough?

Augmented reality (AR), or at least some implementations of it, seems like a good candidate.

AR will certainly have its successes - it will probably be very useful when embedded in car windshields - but disillusionment is likely to set in if anyone tries to build it into glasses, as Apple is reportedly doing. Remember that notion about people not wanting to wear trousers? As someone who wears vision-correcting spectacles, trust me - it goes double for glasses.

AR may already be in the trough after reaching its peak last summer with the smash success of Pokemon Go. The game, which quickly reached a billion downloads, has all but faded from public consciousness and there has yet to be any other AR hit.

Artificially intelligent voice assistants - Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa - are also strong candidates for disappointment, considering the hype they are generating.

For my money, these assistants - housed mainly in speakers now but spreading to other devices, appliances and cars this year - are more likely to avoid the trough, or at least a deep one, mainly because they do not force users to conform to their limitations.

Time will obviously tell, but it is important to remember in the meantime that not every technology is destined to revolutionise the world.

Sometimes, new tech fails to find a use and the disappointments around it are just that.

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