Just as the fashion industry fixes its attention on what’s out, what’s now and what’s next, the tech industry has its own way of eyeing trends that could shape the consumer experience. One such microscope is the tech start-up showcase and one of the biggest is TechCrunch Disrupt, where some of the industry’s largest companies address or mingle with early-stage businesses with ambitious ideas.
The San Francisco installment kicked off Monday, and Intel chief executive officer Brian Krzanich took the stage to explain why the company is doubling down on technologies like self-driving cars and artificial intelligence, while stepping back from wearables.
“I think you have to look at them [and ask yourself, is] one of these going to be the next mobile?” he said in an onstage fireside chat. “The last thing you want to do is miss out on one of those.” Components manufacturers offer intriguing glimpses into where technology is going. Since they develop parts for the gadgets or back-end systems that will power tomorrow’s devices and services, they tend to cast their eyes forward.
The chip giant weighed in on three key questions tech makers — and indeed, those who partner with them — must ask themselves: “Do you bring differential technology to this, or are you just one of the many?” said Krzanich. “Is there something there that somebody wants to pay for? And third, is it scaling [or] do people see a need for this?” He sees wearables struggling with those last two questions.
Though best known for its PC processors, Intel pursued partnerships to develop smartwatches, a market that’s dominated by Apple. “We still have one of the best wearables with the Tag Heuer wearable watch,” the Intel ceo added. “But it’s just not scaling, so we backed away.” Instead, the company is focusing on self-driving cars — it just bought smart-car camera tech company Mobileye for $15 billion — as well as data centers, robotics and artificial intelligence.
Few buzzwords are buzzier than AI. Behind everything from Siri, Alexa and Google to robotics, self-driving cars, face-recognition and visual-search features, AI has multiple industries in its cross hairs. The latter examples speak to the evolution of computer-vision technologies that could shape social media, retail, security and other sectors.
Computer vision — in which machines read and understand information gleaned from images — is a priority for “all-visual” social networks like Pinterest, as the firm’s ceo Ben Silbermann revealed during his session.
The company, which houses 100 billion ideas across 200 million users, established an internal computer-vision team. It wanted “to solve all these simple-sounding, but technically complicated problems,” said Silbermann. “If you see an image, and it’s got, like, a chair and a photo on the wall, how do you know where you can get that chair? How do you look inside that image?”
It’s not clear how much demand there is for these features among the Pinterest user base; however, Silbermann said the company regularly polls its users for feedback. A feature being tested called Sections, which lets people split boards into subboards, was a common request. Now he sees computer vision-assisted shopping solving real-world problems for consumers. Imagine people seeing something in the real world, like shoes, and wanting to know where to buy them, he said.
The spiritual kin to this shopping model may be the see-now-buy-now approach, and brands like Tom Ford, Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger and others have dabbled with it, often tying online purchasing availability to live events. With computer vision, anyone could see a stylish handbag on someone’s arm, snap a photo of it in a restaurant or on the street, and instantly know who designed it and where it’s available.
Silbermann sees people ultimately relying on such features as a core part of the consumer experience. “We think that computer vision technology is going to be fundamental,” he added. “We say at the company, the camera might be the next keyboard.”
The trajectory of the smartphone camera’s evolution has been heading skyward, from Samsung Galaxy Note 8’s adjustable Live Focus and Sony Xperia’s XZ1’s mobile 3D modeling to Apple’s latest iPhone X depth-sensing cameras. Excellent camera technology means more people will be shooting better images. Meanwhile, Google, Facebook and others have been developing image search and detection, setting the stage for a potential surge in consumer expectations.
Of course, with all that data, efforts to protect must also expand. Security was an important theme at the show — in fact, the first session featured Heather Adkins, Google’s director of international security and privacy.
The massive Equifax security breach, which affected 143 million Americans, was a wake-up call for many American consumers. The overarching message: Companies of all types, but particularly e-commerce platforms, need to employ better practices — from how they secure back-end data to staffing. Adkins even advocated hiring interns, if need be, to scour and write software patches to cover vulnerabilities.
When asked how consumers could keep themselves safe on the Internet, Adkins recommended two tactics: Two-factor logins and antivirus software. The former is an added step when you log into, say, e-mail or social accounts, that could send you a code to input, ask for fingerprint ID or some other verification.
Two-step authentication is “incredibly important for all of your accounts, especially your high-profile accounts, [like] your e-mail,” she said. E-mail is particularly fraught, since it has practically become an extension of the human brain. “I actually recommend people not put some stuff in e-mail. I deleted all my love letters from my husband, because I never want anyone to see them.”