A brave new reality

Within one generation, shoppers could have super-intelligent bots guiding their AR shopping experiences and keeping track of their friends while their fridge takes care of tedious grocery ordering, suggests T21 group chief executive Paul Laville

The future is right on our doorstep. Fact. My youngest daughter is 10 and by the time she’s old enough to start taking driving lessons, the architects of her shopping experience will have constructed an environment around her far more personal and sophisticated than anything we’re seeing today.

By the time her daughter is old enough to take driving lessons (though it’s unlikely she’ll need to, depending how far we’ve got with driverless vehicles), that shopping experience will likely have changed beyond recognition. The future is that close.

Striving for frictionless, intelligent interactions within cyberspace, it’s entirely possible that smartphones will be a thing of the past when my granddaughter hits her twenties, ditched in favour of contact lenses or even direct optical implants that project personalised augmented realities on to the environment around her.

Attuned to her preferences and linked to the all-pervading wi-fi, the AR will offer real-time, head-up displays showing the locations of the nearest coffee shops, restaurants and salons, and tell her where her friends are hanging out – with links to their recent messages, posts and reviews, all floating into her field of vision and ‘clicked’ on with a twitch of an eyelid.

I’d like to think that bricks-and-mortar retail shops and street markets will still exist, even if only as a low-tech option catering for consumers refusing to fully adopt or for services and facilities that still thrive on real-world physical interactions. However, the mass merchandisers will surely be fighting each other for a bigger slice of mind-share in cyberspace, using intelligent marketing tools to dump promotional messages and easy-buying options configured by your favourites lists and subscriptions into your personal (née social) media AR environments.

Deep-learning algorithms – little pieces of software that track your browsing history in order to display tailored ads on your Facebook page – will have become incredibly sophisticated, even by the time my daughter’s in her twenties. A generation on and they’ll have transformed into super-intelligent bots that’ll be predicting your decisions to near-100 per cent accuracy, in part because they’ll also be informing them, presenting you with stuff you like because they told you that you’d like them in the first place. Free will or coercion? You decide.

Given how intelligent these critters are likely to be in only 10 years’ time, it’s possible that the consumers of my granddaughter’s generation will have their own bots zipping through cyberspace to interact directly with the marketeers. Not too dissimilar in principle to the ‘virtual shopping assistants’ currently bombarding us with e-mails beginning: “Based on your preferences, we’ve found a few things you might like…” but infinitely superior, more personalised, owned by you rather than the websites you subscribe to. Maybe, like some kind of gaming avatar, you can style your bot, give it a face, a name and a cool outfit to wear, so that it represents your interests like an über-chic, idealised version of yourself. My granddaughter’s avatar is going to be super-cool, naturally.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that she won’t have to do any real shopping at all. If her bot can manage most of it for her, there’ll be no need to go out trawling the supermarket for groceries. If her kitchen is keeping track of the food inventory, it can order in whatever’s needed, so that she never runs out of anything.

Maybe virtual reality could take care of her shopping? Every so often, little VR packets will drop into her headware, presenting her with interactive shopping environments that unfold from the walls of her living room when she has time to browse, again configured to suit her style. Like surfing the internet, but with the virtual shop inhabiting three dimensions rather than two and themed by her own preferences. Or is that AR again?

I reckon true VR – trompe l’oeil, three-dimensional spaces with no correlation to the real world – will find its natural mass-market home among the gaming fraternity, presenting fantastical arenas for combat, team play, leisure and pleasure.

Whereas the marriage of flexible, augmented reality technology and machine learning will be far more ubiquitous, in a world where our relationship with businesses in a social cyberspace swelling with big data and intelligent analytical engines is properly symbiotic. Both marketeers and consumers will engage via constantly-evolving software rather than physical media.

Think about it. Wherever you go, wherever you walk, reality shifts and changes around you, imprinting layers of interaction and information perfectly tailored to your personal tastes and needs.

Whatever the future looks like, one thing’s for sure – it’s a hell of a lot closer than you think.