These last couple months have made us more conscious than ever about the things we touch. Everything from a handshake before a meeting to the buttons at an ATM. It seems the very wheels of commerce require a human touch. Closing deals is harder when you’re doing it over the phone. Money is more difficult to part with when you feel like your life is literally in your hands when you punch in your pin. The multimillion dollar industry of conferences is hard to capitalize on when only those in your bubble are allowed to attend.
Human ingenuity is like life, it finds a way. Here are just a couple of the industries that are evolving out of necessity to bring people together and keep things moving.
Payment methods are one technology that seems ripe for evolution and adaptation. Indeed in the last issue of M2, we pointed out that fintech startups have been popping up like mushrooms in the last couple years. Here in New Zealand, we’re already well used to going cashless and indeed contactless with our payments. Of developed countries, we have some of the best uptake rates for Paywave style services. Americans on the other hand may finally be brought kicking and screaming into the 21st century as their weird paper money could be considered a disease vector. South Korea has even been tightening its own routines on incinerating its currency in a bid to stem the spread. As this issue goes to print, news has also come out from BNZ and ANZ stating that they would be phasing out cheques completely, a move Kiwibank already made in February
As the WHO have recommended contactless payments as a way to limit the spread of germs, banks around the country have either waived fees for small businesses or are being strongly pressured to do so. One sticking point though is that in many cases, payments over certain thresholds trigger manual keypad use anyway, measures ironically put in place to protect customers to begin with. Loosening these restrictions will mean more of an onus on providers to get better security for contactless card holders. This is all leading us to…
Paywave isn’t the end of the evolution of payment, plenty of upstart companies and governments outside the banking sector have already seen a need and are actively trying to fill it.
Singapore, for example, expects its ID card system to be a thing of the past by 2022 as it integrates all its citizens with the government’s National Digital Identity (NDI) service. The system uses facial recognition and a four million people strong biometric database to ID people. The NDI can also enable transactions, making your face the ultimate oontactless credit card. China has been itching for any excuse to use its own facial recognition tech. Since last year, WeChat Pay has been showing off its Frog Pro, a facial recognition payment system which Tencent has been touting as a safer, quicker, more convenient payment option. Going even further back, Alibaba has been pushing it’s Alipay “smile to pay” since 2017.
It appears that pressing buttons may be for cavemen now, although the failsafe nature of facial recognition has been easily called into question after Chinese 4th graders easily hacked Hive Box, a Chinese smart locker company that uses facial recognition, by simply holding up a photo of the intended person’s face. It’s a trick you can pull off on most phones already, with a few exceptions like Apple ID. The simple hack prompted Alipay to put out a statement assuring customers that their system wasn’t so easily cracked open. Alipay, WeChat Pay, and Apple Pay all use 3D mapping with infrared illumination and two-step verification to thwart deepfakes and A4 sheets of paper with your face on them.
Payment options aren’t the only contactless systems that have felt the strain from self isolation. In the opening days of Covid-19 related lockdowns, Discord’s servers bore the full brunt of people logging in, with the gamer based company needing to spin up more servers to keep up. Likewise, the more professional oriented Microsoft Teams was crippled for hours in the initial surge of businesses working from home, while the video conferencing company Zoom has seen its shares double since the outbreak. But as some companies have been forced into using these tools, it seems likely that if they had a good experience with them, they’ll remain using them long after the lockdowns have subsided.
It’s also got the Silicon Valley types thinking about what’s the next step in bringing people together without bringing them together at all. It is, after all, what Silicon Valley is best at. Video conferencing is all well and good (and probably the most a regular punters desktop could handle), but VR could be one possibly avenue to bridge the gap.
In terms of apps available for business, there are a whole host of services that are geared toward VR conferencing such as Rumii, Glue and MeetingRoom. All of these include the tools you need to waste time in a meeting, including whiteboards for visualising, and grandstanding for looking important.
The end of 2019 saw most stocks of VR headsets selling out, due to gamers preparing themselves for Half Life: Alyx. The recent lockdown and hold on mail being kept for essential services only has meant that here in NZ nipping out to get yourself a decent VR set for work hasn’t exactly been practical. Coming out of it though, a headset like the Oculus Quest, which doesn’t require the grunt of a gaming rig could possibly find market penetration with businesses looking to make conferencing a more intimate affair. A 2018 study by Tractica found that business spending on VR could outpace entertainment with revenue expected to be $9.2 billion by 2021. That is, of course, if factories can even keep up with that demand. “The coronavirus outbreak will cause temporary manufacturing and shipment delays,” said ABI Research research analyst Eleftheria Kouri. “However the demand for consumer AR and VR devices and content has been increased due to home isolation, balancing initial drop in demand and financial losses for providers.”
It may seem like a lot of fuss for something we can just do via teleconferencing, and in most instances, it probably is. But MeetinVR claims that there is a 25 percent increase in attention span in VR over video calling. In a small study, researchers at the University of Maryland found an 8.8 percent improvement in memory performance after being made to do a task in VR. So as far as training tools go, it may be more efficient than getting lectured through a screen.
If you’ve ever used something like VRchat with a headset, you might already know what an awesome experience it can be to connect with someone and just talk about life, more comfortable sharing than you ever would be with a webcam glaring at you. But the facial expressions of your avatars leave a lot to be desired, with new expressions only popping up when you do the right swipe combinations on your controller touchpads. The best clue you have to how someone feels is their general movements and tone of voice.
Facebook Reality Lab is trying to change this limitation by creating insanely lifelike avatars of yourself, rather than forcing your CEO into a low poly Superman model. Their early results are astonishingly lifelike, but it’ll be another thing entirely trying to figure out how to roll this out to the general public. Not everyone has a booth made out of DSLRs just lying around. This tech is years away, but it’s still an interesting glimpse into how the future could bring us into each other’s living rooms
Telehealth has been on the cards for a while and it seems like a no-brainer. Simply call up your GP, skip the lines, don’t risk infecting any more people than you have to. But what happens when hospitals can’t keep up with demand? Have your call redirected to a call centre on the opposite side of the planet? Perhaps apps, as usual, are the answer. Apps are the bandaids for modern problems after all.
98point6 is one such service that’s replacing doctors with AI. It quizzes you on your symptoms and drills in further for details, it can even handle and examine photos of problem areas you take on your phone.
Bright.md is another tool that once quizzed and consequently flagged, users will be forwarded on to a video call with a physician.
Further afield, a chatbot app called Woebot on the Android store uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to give people a chance to vent and unwind. It’s not pretending to be anything other than it is though. It’s a bot for sure, and not a registered therapist. But it’ll definitely do its best to try and cheer you up and engage you in a way to help challenge negative thoughts and the way you express them. Internet Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or ICBT has been analysed in research and so far there are promising signs that it could be a solid complementary tool.
The world is changing, but all we ever want to do is connect, and everything we currently have is just a poor mimick for the real thing. We live in unprecedented times, but the things we want never change. Apps can’t cure loneliness, VR won’t help you shake a hand, and Paywave won’t protect you from someone sneezing in your mouth. But maybe they’ll help just a little bit.
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