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The telephone. The personal computer. The Internet. Can you imagine our world without these commonplace offerings?

These mainstream mainstays were once considered innovative technologies with perhaps no more than a hint of budding promise—but with a heavier emphasis on potential benefits than actual results. Some ideas worked out: Marc Benioff’s Salesforce.com not only helped bring software-as-a-service (and now, cloud computing) to the world of CRM, but became a billion-dollar-a-year company in the process. (How much of an achievement is that? We devoted the entire November 2009 issue of CRM to examining it.) Other innovative ideas fared less well—seen any laserdisc players or Betamax systems lately? 

Even for companies eager to invest in new technologies, money remains tight. There has to be more than just a “nice-to-have” aspect to emerging technologies for a company to lay down increasingly scarce dollars. Sometimes, though, the novelty factor for personal use is a prerequisite before applications develop a business use.

Take Sharky Laguana. As chief executive officer of Bandago, a van-rental company in San Francisco, Laguana recalls seeing almost immediately the potential for GeoVector’s World Surfer—an application using what’s known as augmented reality (AR) to superimpose text or graphics on top of an image or video. (For more on AR, see our new Disruptive Technologies column.) He knew it would help him find restaurants and other destinations without having to take his eyes off his iPhone. 

“The first thing I thought is that I need to get my business in there,” Laguana recalls. “People are going to be looking for destinations near to them for services they need. We must be visible and present when making that purchasing decision.”

And that’s how promise turns into profit, pushing the five technologies we’re highlighting here—surface computing, high-definition (HD) voice, AR, video search, and mobile robots—to the verge of becoming big-time innovation, instead of Betamax. 

SURFACE COMPUTING: Putting Your Cards—and So Much More—on the Table

Customer experience is all the rage today for any business looking to not only keep customers satisfied, but sufficiently happy that they return to its product or service. (See our December 2009 cover story, “No Substitute for Experience,” for more on the subject.) 

Jackie Fenn, a vice president and fellow in emerging trends at Gartner, explains that, as more businesses look to reinforce their brands, surface computers are slowly becoming part and parcel of early adopters’ repertoires. “They’re being used in foyers of restaurants, casinos, and retailers in the customer-facing environment to give people a new and exciting way to view [the] brands,” she says. “It’s interesting because the screen can become part of the furniture around you, [or] more embedded in the real world and [used] for information displays.”

This isn’t the only way surface can help, though. These computers—large-screen displays supporting direct interaction via touch or gesture—can include manipulation and movement of graphical objects; selection; navigation; uploading, downloading, and transferring; and collaboration. Matt Champagne, director of marketing for Microsoft Surface, explains that the possibilities are seemingly endless. He notes the industry verticals Microsoft is focused on—but not exclusively shooting for—include retail/hospitality, financial services, healthcare, automotive, and education. 

In the wireless retail experience, for example—where in-store and phone-agent turnover is high and knowledge of all the intricate plans and services isn’t always up to snuff—Champagne sees an opportunity. “You can interactively navigate on a map to your particular area, figuring out the types of plans and different options available to you,” he says, noting that Microsoft just launched a surface computer for Vodafone in Germany. “You can also put the device on the surface, look at detailed features, get video on how the device works, put two side-by-side, and compare them. This transforms the experience.”

For Matt Hagerman, hotel manager for Hotel 1000 in Seattle, Wash., getting the first version of a surface computer from Microsoft approximately one year ago was “a no-brainer.” His hotel uses the surface computer for maps, concierge services, uploading and viewing photos, and even playing games such as chess and checkers. “Guests can sit there, eat and drink with their plates on the table, and play a game of chess,” he says. “It’s an old game—but in a new format that reinforces our brand. It also gets us sitting at the same table—literally—with our customers to get to know them better.” A year later, Hagerman says he now intends to expand the use of surface computing throughout the hotel. (To get Hotel 1000’s full story, see “Scratching the Surface,” Real ROI.) 

HD VOICE: Now Hear This!

When Alexander Graham Bell’s baby, the telephone, was invented in 1876, voice quality wasn’t exactly top-of-mind. People were sufficiently impressed at being able to connect beyond their four walls with something more advanced than the dots and dashes of the telegraph. The industry made some valiant efforts in improving voice quality over the initial decades, but the last major advance—setting the standard for microphone technology—came in the 1930s. 

In other words, delivery models may have evolved—just think of wireless cellular phones and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)—but quality hasn’t improved in more than 70 years. 

“The telephony market is stuck in 1937, and something just seems wrong about that,” says Larry Golob, vice president of business development for Global IP Solutions (GIPS), a provider of voice- and video-processing. 

Well, listen up: The promise of high-definition voice is much like that of HD for televisions—the user experiences a fuller, richer sound without audio fatigue, echoes, or the tinny effect heard on many mobile or wireline telephones. 

“[It’s] more than just getting over a watered-down experience,” insists Scott Stonham, vice president of marketing for CommuniGate Systems, which develops carrier-class unified communications and media delivery software for broadband and mobile operators. 

Stonham’s company gets HD voice from GIPS, and he says that whenever he has to go without HD now, it’s like driving an old clunker of a car after tooling around in one with power steering. “The listening, comprehension, and understanding,” he says. “It’s amazing how much difference that makes to your level of fatigue and interest in the conversation.”

This rings true for the small-to-midsize businesses served by CommuniGate’s Web-conferencing capabilities. The vendor is adding GIPS’ HD voice offering across its product portfolio—and expects that to be a differentiator beyond VoIP. “It’s incredibly exciting because we’ve been in this market for 12 to 15 years, and people are focused on VoIP being a static experience, a way to make free phone calls or work around tolls,” Stonham says. “How do you sell something that’s free? With HD voice, it becomes something of value rather than a throwaway.”

The next step for HD voice would be to transform contact centers, but that’ll take some work. The industry only got its first HD voice–over-3G location in September 2009—a Moldova facility for mobile operator Orange, which has plans to expand the service to networks in Europe (starting with the United Kingdom and Belgium) by the end of 2010. 

Rod Ullens, chief executive officer of Voxbone, a VoIP vendor which recently added support of HD voice to its international-number service iNum, says there are several factors slowing the proliferation of HD voice. “There are different codecs for how voice is encoded and packaged over networks,” Ullens says. “There will always be different ones, and it is just a matter of making them work together in the best possible way. If you really want to experience HD voice, every device and every network between the caller and callee need to support it…and we’re not there yet. In the next five years, we’ll start to really see a lot of calls being done over HD voice.”

AUGMENTED REALITY: What You See Is Not What You Get

In a world elevating the value of real-time, whether in mobile marketing or service-related issues, being in the right place at the right time is more important than ever, and augmented reality can put this capability in the palm of your hand—well, smartphone. Augmented reality (AR, or AugReal) is beginning to take hold as a technology businesses can use not only to enhance the customer experience, but also their brands. (See “The New Reality Will Be Augmented,”—CRM’s new Disruptive Technologies column.)

Context, of course, is the key for any mobile marketing or service. The reality being augmented needs to be accurately understood. “[AR] is a context-relevant tool that knows where you are, shows you right where something is, and if it’s available to you to have or purchase,” says Maarten Lens-FitzGerald, cofounder of AR provider Layar. “[AR] knows what the context is, and that’s why it’s so powerful.”

Pam Kerwin, vice president of business development for GeoVector, the maker of World Surfer, gives a retail example that goes beyond merely locating the four nearest locations for a particular pair of jeans. “It’s technically possible for a retail-shopping application to show within a certain direction where the jeans are available, access the inventory, and see if the size is available,” she says. “That way, you have the opportunity to see if they have a size 6 in black before going to the store and searching yourself.”

Need another real-world application? Laguana uses World Surfer on his iPhone to record the geolocation of his car when he parks at the airport, enabling him to find it effortlessly when he returns. He’s also used it for mundane tasks—locating a Starbucks—but sees broader potential. “It’s quicker and to the point as opposed to using the Google Maps application and typing [your location in] because you can bookmark [it],” he says. “I’m pointing at Yorba Linda Lighthouse right now, and I can pull up an entry on the lighthouse on Wikipedia. I can hold this in the palm of my hand. I feel like I’m on Star Trek.”

Many of the early uses so far include a heavy emphasis on location-based needs, says Gartner’s Fenn. “Initially, these consumer applications will be [in] verticals that have physical outlets like banks,” she says. “There can be an ATM finder. There’s interest with industries utilizing physical equipment that need to see what part or product is at the edge of a warehouse.”

Lens-FitzGerald says his vision for AR actually meshes with CRM. “In the future, AR will be the key interface for vendor relationship management,” he says. “Say you arrive in an airport and you’re looking to rent a car. You send out your profile for a quick moment, pick up the phone, and literally see a natural interface for which car companies have a good car-rental offer based on your profile. An open AR network will come very soon and enable a new kind of marketing truly controlled by the user.”

VIDEO SEARCH: A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

What’s that? You don’t think video search belongs in a group of “innovative technologies”? Just because you’ve been searching YouTube for years? Not so fast, there—hit pause, and rewind.

At YouTube and other consumer-focused video sites, you’re only searching manually supplied, text-based tags. Video search is far more complex, combining one or more of the following: the ability to examine a collection of footage, inside or outside the enterprise, via elements of social networking; the extraction and application of social-tagging metadata; video and audio transcription; and conventional enterprise search. 

“People don’t know how it works at all,” says Whit Andrews, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. “But who can blame them? It doesn’t come up in one university computer-science class.”

According to Tracy Askam, director of rich media products at Autonomy, which offers video-search capabilities, vendors must do a better job of informing businesses of the technology’s potential. “We need to get out and evangelize more,” she says. “There’s difficulty…understanding that a piece of technology can truly understand the meaning of videos. But, with meaning-based computing, we have accomplished that. We need to get that out there and communicate how successful it can be, doing things humans would [take] hours to accomplish.”

Besides saving time, one application of video search can help those in the media and entertainment industries. VMS, a media-monitoring company, makes its living on providing information to clients about what is being said about them—not only in conventional print news outlets, but also on television, movies, online news presences, and (especially now) social media. By analyzing content, the company can also correlate advertising activity and spend with public relations spend and activity, look at the relationships between the two, and how they work in tandem to impact business outcomes. (See “Innovation Picks Up Static,” page 18, for a look at the complexities of innovation in social media and speech analytics.)

“It’s critical we’re able to aggregate all media, including Internet and social media video,” says Peter Wengryn, chief executive officer and president of VMS. “We haven’t been able to in the past. The ability of having the video search through Autonomy ensures that down the road, we can provide a truly holistic view of the media and better position our clients.” 

Wengryn says VMS’s client base has consistently been asking for more support in this regard. “If something negative is being said, we want to know about it as soon as possible before it erupts into the traditional-media side, in which case it’s too late to respond,” he explains. More than merely enabling clients to play defense, however, Wengryn says that integrating Autonomy’s rich media solution with VMS’s own offerings should produce a return on investment in the form of increased sales. “This is the largest investment in [the] history of our company,” he says. “We expect [these capabilities will] increase our market share in a significant way.”

MOBILE ROBOTS: We Have the Technology

Many people shrug off mobile robotics as Jetsons-age nonsense, but Gartner’s Fenn says it may one day soon let you be in two places at once. 

“It’s often dismissed as science fiction, but there are a couple of ends to it,” she stresses. “There are high-end humanoid robots that can climb stairs, sit down, keep balance, and possess cognitive capabilities—very hard and challenging things. Then there are robots that perform tasks and duties, such as vacuuming and cleaning gutters.”

On the spectrum bounded by those two extremes, the most promising applications—service robots—land somewhere in between. “We think these have some potential for businesses,” Fenn says. “The idea that you have a reasonably smart machine with local capabilities, or remotely controlled, to move around and go where [it’s] needed.”

According to Dr. Yulun Wang, a physician and chief executive officer of InTouch Health, a remote-presence company specializing in healthcare, embracing innovative technology is a no-brainer in the face of today’s prevailing trends: an aging, growing population; rising costs for treatment; increasingly specialized medical fields; and a lack of growth in the number of medical-school graduates over the past 30 years. 

“We’ve got a big problem on our hands,” Wang says. “We have to use technology to improve our ability with the limited resources we have with healthcare professionals.” 

InTouch’s mobile robots allow direct connection to Class II medical devices such as electronic stethoscopes, otoscopes, and ultrasound. Plugged into the robot’s expansion bay, these devices transmit medical data to a remote physician. Parkview Health System, a six-hospital community-health system in Fort Wayne, Ind., was able to provide immediate care orders in 70 percent of cases and transfer patients to the intensive care unit (ICU) in 43 percent of cases. Perhaps most important, the average number of monthly “out of ICU” cardiac arrests decreased from six to one. 

Even with results that impressive, convincing users to flip the switch involves (if you’ll pardon the expression) some patience. “You don’t bring in remote presence and do things exactly [the] same way you did before,” Wang says. “You do things a little differently, and that change can take some time.”

Even if change does take time, the effort can also save time. Just ask Mitch Rosenberg, vice president of marketing at Kiva Systems, a mobile-robotics company providing solutions for material-handling systems. “Our view is that the distribution or warehouse is the store,” he says. “You never see it, but that’s where retail shoppers get the primary customer experience. If you go to the store to buy shoes, you have instant gratification, but if you order on the Internet—as many increasingly do—you have a substantial delay and less certainty that you’re getting what you wanted…. Kiva mobile robotics makes sure experiences online are comparable [to] bricks-and-mortar stores.” 

One well-known Kiva customer is Zappos.com, the e-commerce site for shoes that was recently acquired by Amazon.com for $1.2 billion. Widely regarded for the customer experience it provides its own shoppers, Zappos.com reduced its order-cycle time by a factor of four thanks to Kiva’s mobile robotics.

“This idea that you’re using something mobile and robotic to take things where they need to be…shows quite a lot of promise,” Fenn says, adding that the business applications in manufacturing are bright as well.

WHILE PEOPLE such as Bandago’s Laguana and Hotel 1000’s Hagerman can see the promise of emerging technologies and the benefits to their respective businesses, many are still trying to figure out how to express those benefits in tangible numbers. That can be easier for some technologies than others—mobile robotics in warehouses clearly saves time and increases accuracy—ones that impact the customer experience can be a bit more nuanced. 

“It’s like trying to get return on investment on one tire on a car,” Hagerman says. “You can’t quantify one tire because it’s a piece of the vehicle. You must have enough things reinforcing what you are and who you are.”

It’s quite possible that the technologies mentioned here—and other up-and-coming solutions—will merely complement existing systems. Many believed that about the Internet when it was just the ARPANET back in the late 1960s. 

But can you imagine today’s world—or your business—without it? 

Sidebar: Top 15 Technology Trends

1 | Business intelligence goes real-time.

2 | Data-quality services become real-time. 

3 | Telepresence gains widespread use. 

4 | Business rules processing moves to the mainstream.

5 | Business process management will be Web 2.0–enabled. 

6 | Business processes and applications go mobile.

7 | Mobile networks and devices gain more power.

8 | Policy-based services-oriented architecture becomes predominant.

9 | Master data management matures.

10 | Collaboration platforms become people-centric.

11 | Software-as-a-service will be ubiquitous for packaged applications. 

12 | Client virtualization is ubiquitous.

13 | Cloud-based platforms become standard.

14 | Customer community platforms integrate with business applications. 

15 | Security will be data- and content-based. 

Source: “The Top 15 Technology Trends [Enterprise Architecture] Should Watch,” Forrester Research

Sidebar: 5 Themes to Monitor

1 | Social computing in and around the enterprise.

2 | Process-centric data and intelligence. 

3 | Restructured information technology service platforms.

4 | Agile and fit-to-purpose applications.

5 | Mobile as the new desktop. 

Source: “The Top 15 Technology Trends [Enterprise Architecture] Should Watch,” Forrester Research

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