7 Cool Consumer Technologies Coming Soon to a Cubicle Near You

Move over, tablets and phones. Here are seven user technologies heading for the enterprise.

Ask CIOs what comes to mind when they hear the term "consumerization of IT" and most likely you'll hear tales of users carrying personal smartphones and tablets into the workplace, demanding access to corporate email and other applications.

But mobile devices aren't the only consumer-based technologies pushing their way into the enterprise. Computerworld spoke with visionaries and practitioners on the cutting edge of emerging technologies to get their take on what's coming into the office next. The verdict? Some technologies will be brought to the business directly by consumers -- virtual assistant, anyone? But in the case of technologies like smartphone servers, innovations from the consumer market are being adapted for enterprise use.

Here are seven consumer tech trends coming soon to a cubicle near you.

Natural user interfaces

A move to natural, more intuitive user interfaces, such as 3D gesture-, voice-, emotion- and even brainwave-recognition, will begin to change the way users interact with technology. "IT is shifting from something you constantly have to drive to becoming an intelligent assistant, and it will start to become invisible," says Steve Clayton, who, as Microsoft's storyteller, works with research and product teams across Microsoft to spot trends.

[ The Future of Human Computer Interfaces ]

One such trend: "Technology will start to create an environment where language translation will more naturally occur," Clayton predicts.

In a recent demonstration, Microsoft researcher Rick Rashid spoke in English to an audience in China, which heard him speaking Mandarin. That translation occurred in real time. "It wasn't just a robotic voice taking his words and speaking them back. The prototype [software] understood Rick's voice and turned it into Mandarin," says Clayton. "It sounded just like he was speaking Mandarin."

In another area, gesture technology, now widely used on 2D tablets, may soon move into three dimensions. Leap Motion, a maker of motion-control systems, is preparing to offer a controller capable of fine-grained gesture recognition. "Think about something that can track the tip of your finger in space," says Dave Evans, chief futurist at Cisco Systems. Using this new tool, he says, "you will be able to literally design an object in space, push and pull and shape it like virtual clay, and then drag and drop in pre-engineered pieces."

Products developed for the consumer gaming market, such as Kinect, the gesture-based controller for Microsoft's Xbox, and KinectFusion, which adds multiple cameras to build a 3D representation of the world, could become popular as an interface for applications in areas ranging from healthcare to manufacturing.

Microsoft's KinectFusion system takes live data from a moving depth camera to create high-quality 3D models in real time.

Microsoft recently demonstrated one use of the technology in an Audi showroom in London, where customers used Kinect to navigate around and outfit 3D representations of automobiles. And in a virtual dressing room at a Bloomingdale's department store, the technology was used to paint clothes onto a 3D representation of a shopper on a video screen. "It sees the world in 3D and hears the world in the same way we do. It is a blending of the physical and digital worlds," Clayton says.

This blended technology could also be used in an enterprise setting. For example, an automobile engineer could scan a physical vehicle to create a digital 3D model that could be shared with colleagues who could annotate it as they talked about it, Clayton says, adding that there are many other potential business-to-business and business-to-consumer applications.

In the consumer market, brain-machine interfaces are evolving for tasks such as thought-based remote control of toys. Of course, many projects involving this type of technology still fall into the realm of pure academic research, but eventually, you may be able to read your email just by thinking about it, says Cisco's Evans.

Enterprise gamification

A phenomenon that has come to be known as gamification first took hold several years ago on consumer-facing websites as a way to develop customer loyalty and generate revenue. You can see the process at work on the ClubPsych.com website, which uses Bunchball's Nitro gamification platform to engage viewers of the USA Network show Psych, issuing challenges and offering members reward points that they can use to customize their virtual spaces or buy show memorabilia.

Now gamification technology from Bunchball, Badgeville and others is making its way into the enterprise, where it's used in efforts to improve sales performance or increase customer engagement, for example. Human resources departments are using it to track employee progress toward goals.

[ How Gamification Reshapes Corporate Training ]

"The big area driving this is HR," says Carter Lusher, an analyst at research firm Ovum. For example, a Salesforce.com product called Work.com uses gaming tools to encourage managers to provide feedback on their direct reports. "It's not a gamification platform, but it uses gamification as a function to accomplish a goal," Lusher explains.

Bunchball used Nitro to develop a training program for IBM's Connections enterprise social network software. The program turns learning into a game, sending users on "missions" as they advance through four levels. As players move up, they see progress bars that track their performance, and they compete to get their names on a leaderboard and receive real-time feedback and kudos. "Any behavior you can track, you can build a program around and reward," explains Bunchball's founder and chief product officer, Rajat Paharia.

The market is still small. "Less than 2,000 companies have moved beyond the pilot phase of gamification into production, but it's growing dramatically," Lusher reports. And once the technology has proved itself in one area of the business, it's likely to be applied in others. "In theory, gamification can be used by everybody for just about anything," he says.

Virtual assistants

Digital personal assistants like Apple's Siri and Google Now -- programs designed to access your personal digital resources, anticipate your needs and act on your behalf -- are today more of a consumer novelty than true business productivity tools.

But imagine Siri with the intelligence of IBM's Watson. That's where personal assistants, also called virtual assistants, are headed.

"The magic of Siri is not that I can ask about things; it's the ability to parse that speech and send intelligent data back," says Scott Davis, CTO of end-user computing at VMware. What if the back end were based not on an end-user device but on cloud technology? "More and more you'll see an explosion of complex cloud services on the back end," Davis predicts.

Scott Hebner, vice president of business infrastructure management and cloud at IBM, is similarly excited. "The real capability is the fusion between the intelligent device and the back end," he says. "You have a data center on wheels, in your phone, talking to back-end business servers."

Today, Google Now knows where you are, shows you your travel itinerary and tells you how long it will take to drive home. Eventually, other smart devices, powered by a cloud back end, will have similar intelligence to anticipate your needs and provide assistance.

When you take your seat on an airplane, the seatback in front of you will know who you are, your ultimate destination and whether you're traveling for business or pleasure, and it will present offers and information relative to your needs during the flight. When you attend business meetings, the conference rooms will know who you are when you walk in, offer background on other attendees and instantly connect all of your computing devices to the wireless network.

The mode of interaction with those devices will also change. Instead of interacting with a virtual assistant program on your iPhone, you might be greeted by a photorealistic customer service "person" on your car, smartphone or television screen. This avatar will be able to understand natural language, use computer vision technology to recognize and respond to emotion, and access a vast store of information to solve problems. One such example: the prototype of a virtual triage nurse that Microsoft demonstrated at the Cleveland Clinic in January 2011.

"We'll see virtual people for internal-facing functions, such as the IT help desk and meeting coordination and logistics, as well as for customer-facing applications in healthcare, for legal support, for call centers -- anyplace where you need to interact with a 'person' to get first- level support," Evans says.

Augmented reality

Augmented reality already exists in the form of consumer mobile apps that superimpose data on a map or camera image of, say, a street in Manhattan. Rather than simply layering data onto a 2D image, the next step will be programs that not only see the physical world but understand it in three dimensions, recognizing objects and understanding their physical properties.

One such prototype: a wearable multitouch projector from Microsoft that recognizes the surface against which it is to project an image and adjusts the image to fit the surface, whether it's a meeting room wall or the palm of your hand. "It has an understanding of the world it's projecting into," Clayton says.

In the enterprise, an augmented reality application could recognize employees visiting an office and set up a workstation that simulates their office environment back home. The technology could be used by mechanics working on an aircraft, surgeons during an operation or even patients recovering at home. "Your phone will become a tricorder that's connected to sensors that can do medical diagnostics," Evans says.

Enterprise social networks

It goes without saying that consumers are hyper-aware of social media. Enterprise social networks build on that awareness by using the basic building blocks of social media -- profiles, news feeds, social graphs, media galleries and so on -- for business-specific outcomes.

[ 11 Promising Enterprise Social Networks ]

Companies are using enterprise social platforms to collaborate on RFP responses, customer service requests and business proposal reviews. Social tools can replace productivity-draining meetings and conference calls, reduce long email chains and improve the speed and quality of work, says Jeffrey Mann, a Gartner analyst. "If I can use a project area or activity stream to find out the current status of a project, I don't have to listen to the weekly conference call," he says.

By 2016, Gartner predicts that half of all enterprises will have internal, Facebook-like social networks. Of those, 30% will be as essential to the business as email and the telephone.

"It's not about status updates and what people are doing, but about organizing to get work done," explains Adam Pisoni, founder of enterprise social software vendor Yammer. "Before social, [companies] didn't have a way for employees to communicate in a self-organizing way," says Pisoni, now CTO at Microsoft, which acquired Yammer last year. In larger organizations in particular, an enterprise social network can make it easier for employees to discover people and information relevant to what they're working on from elsewhere in the business, he says.

The next phase will be all about embedding social mechanisms into individual line-of-business applications. "It will be integrated into the tools you already use so that the co-creation of information and collaboration become part of all of these things," says Pisoni.

Expect to see social media embedded with traditional CRM functions, where it can be used to maintain client relationships and identify new opportunities for communication, says Jenny Sussin, a Gartner analyst.

3D printing

While 3D printing got its start in business, lower-cost versions of the manufacturing technology, designed for consumer hobbyists, are helping to drive innovations that will benefit consumers and businesses alike. 3D printers use a variety of processes and materials to lay down successive layers of powder, liquid or sheet material and fuse them together to create solid objects. These additive printing technologies can produce objects from a wide range of materials, including plastic, metal, paper -- even chocolate.

The consumer market, which uses a process similar to inkjet printing to create toys, models and other objects out of molten ABS plastic, has forced manufacturers to come up with lower-cost machines that fit into a fast-growing consumer market, while a new class of consumer- focused 3D design tools and the availability of online libraries of downloadable, ready-to-print objects has made it easy to, say, knock out a collection of tchotchkes for that sales meeting.

But the real benefits accrue to businesses, which can use 3D printing both for low-cost one-off preproduction prototypes and on-demand printing of spare parts and other low-volume products that currently need to be manufactured, distributed and stored in warehouses.

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