Tech Agency Leadership Technology

The ‘try not to talk about AI’ challenge: What tech trends are exciting ad execs?


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

March 8, 2024 | 12 min read

AI isn’t everything, whatever the breathless LinkedIn posts say. So, we gathered a panel of marketing technologists for a challenge: discuss the most exciting tech developments right now without mentioning AI.

A pair of human lips, with a finger to them in a 'shh' gesture

What is going on in the world of tech, behind the giant AI cloud? / Kristina Flour via Unsplash

If you gather five smart marketing technologists in a room and ask them what’s getting them excited in the tech world, with the caveat that, just this once, they can’t mention AI, how many times do you think they’ll slip up?

When we tried, the answer was nine. That’s no reflection on our panel’s smarts but a reflection of how widely AI has already spread its tendrils into almost every area of tech. In writing about the industry as well as the products themselves, AI is everywhere – and arguably drowning out all the other interesting stuff coming out of R&D labs across the globe. So, here are the other tech trends that our panel says you should be keeping an eye on right now.

1. Wearable tech

As AI pushes forward, our panel says, there has been a slightly quieter ramp-up toward genuinely interesting, useable, wearable tech. As Search Laboratory’s chief technology officer Angus Hamilton puts it, we’re on “the unrelenting march to wearables… You thought everyone had had enough with smart watches, then smart rings come out which can track even more of what you’re doing”.

Wearable tech is no new phenomenon, but it has been the victim of the same hype cycles that AI is rolling through (and ‘the metaverse’ is just tumbling out of).

It’s 11 years since the ill-fated launch of smart specs Google Glass, which looms much larger in the imagination than in the memory. But a confluence of factors might just be making mass-market wearables feasible in the near future: cultural shifts toward closely monitored health factors and reduced screen time, improved small-battery technology; and reduced cost.

Wearables have been ubiquitous at recent trade shows like this year’s CES in Las Vegas. There’s been a shift in how these products are marketed – not the high-tech whimsy of Glass, but a focus on health metrics. Bracelets like the Whoop band and rings like an impeding offering from Samsung and the Oura (the latter buoyed by early adoption by Prince Harry) promise persistent health monitoring (the breakout success of glucose-monitoring apps and patches like the Zoe serve a similar market, but have raised alarm bells with some doctors).

All of this, says Jack Morton’s strategy director Carrie Mahoney, signals a “change away from the basic mobile phone setup and a reimagining of kind of how we approach interacting with those spaces… we’re breaking the molds and getting away from this tiny, very restrictive rectangle.”

Then, of course, there are the AR headsets, like Apple’s Vision Pro and its Meta competitor, the Quest – and more affordable descendants of Google Glass, like the XReal Air Ultra (not to mention a raft of ‘wearable assistants’ that tout their AI credentials, like the Rabbit RI and the Humane AI Pin). Those cheaper AR devices, says 2Heads’ head of creative technology Sam Drew, might finally enable mass adoption of wearables. “While those products currently require being tethered to a phone, as technology gets smaller and more efficient, and battery life is improved, people will turn to glasses, rings and personal assistant attachments rather than their phones.”

2. Neural sensing tech

Wearable tech clips sensors on to the body or clothing; neural sensors go a little deeper, monitoring brain activity with EEG technology. Again, versions of this tech have been on the market for years (the Muse headband promises emotional monitoring for meditation, for example) – but more mature products have been making waves at tech shows.

Here’s Drew of 2Heads again: “Suddenly, you have the potential to get people’s subconscious and emotions. You don’t break down the barriers much more than that.” As Drew says, it’s not hard to imagine integrations with (claxon) AI tech, like Spotify’s DJ function. “Suddenly, you can build that neurofeedback into your music listening experience and you can deliver music on a deeper emotional level.”

3. Personalization

For Mahoney, “a really big connector of those trends” above is brands finally marshaling the vast reservoirs of data they have been collecting for years in service of true product and service personalization. “Every brand has been gathering data that, frankly, they haven’t been using... But we’re getting closer to that ‘omni’ experience of it really being connected, your experience with a brand starting in one place and following through – not in a creepy way, but in a way that the ads actually make sense. How many of us have bought something on Amazon, then for the next six months got ads for the product we already bought? Consumers are just saying, ‘We gave you all the data and you’re still not giving me a decent experience!’”

This kind of personalization, Mahoney says, can “go far past recommendations; it goes into the tailoring communications, loyalty programs and the offerings we make.”

4. Autonomous tech

Not unconnected to the above is a shift in how some of this tech is marketed. Suraj Gandhi, global executive director of performance content at IPG Mediabrands, says to expect more tech that calls itself ‘automated.’ “Now, rather than ‘self-driving cars,’ we have ‘automated mobility.’ Everything from lawnmowers to cars to public transportation systems: ‘automated’… I think there’s this push to give the user back more time from things that were labor-focused to more of a convenience”.

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5. An analog backlash?

The skeptical reader might reach this point with a healthy dose of concern: rings tracking your somatic vitals, bras monitoring your heartbeat, headbands sniffing out your emotions, all that data coming back to haunt you in the form of ‘personalized’ ads. Doesn’t it all sound a little, yes, creepy?

Our panel – all of them tech fans – is willing to predict various forms of analogification and tech rejection in response. “We’re reaching a climactic point in terms of governmental restrictions and social considerations around how technology incorporates into our lives,” says Mahoney. “How do we want this to be a part of our world? Where do we want technology to be allowed? We have technologies that are designed to take advantage of our worst features. So, do we change the technology? Or do we just keep creating for our basest urges?”

This reckoning, says Hamilton, will touch the tech we’ve discussed here just as much as it has touched, say, social media. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people who find having constant notifications on your wrist disruptive and intrusive. You don’t want to be interrupted all the time… We may be reaching the point where people just want a nice watch that looks nice rather than something that wants your attention every two minutes.”

If that’s right, a few things are likely to happen: first, big tech may incorporate more opting-out (Drew says to expect “a shift in the way that apps and notifications are handled, giving users more ability to block out the digital extension of their lives”). Second, other tech will pop up to meet that desire. Ghandi says that the last hype cycle hero might yet be the thing that enables personalization without all the creepy tracking: blockchain. “This was exactly the promise of blockchain and web3,” he says. “Cookieless, dynamic contracts – but it got it all mucked up with Bored Apes and all the hype that came with them and we lost sight of the utility.”

And third, says Landor’s global executive director for experience strategy Joe Crump, expect a movement towards analog technology. “I’ve been in digital since God lost her shoes and I’m looking for a rise in analog – or at least a world where analog is on an equal playing field. The irrational exuberance around the next big thing in digital is hilarious to me if you take the long view. Just ask anyone who works at Decentraland how well that worked out for them.”

Instead, says Crump, we should be “looking at the next big human trend” and only then think about how tech can solve it. “Things like the rise in museum and national park attendance – or the rise in home births. With these things, there’s an equal and opposite reaction, heading toward a high-touch experience. Surely, some of that will be enabled by digital. But, frankly, a lot of it won’t be.

“People want experiences outside of their screens. That doesn’t mean that they don’t love their screens… But human beings change much more slowly than technology. Since the beginning of time, we’ve had this yearning to be connected to one another, to advance our lives and to have joy. Brands need to get smarter about that fundamental insight and be able to give us what we want: help in the way that we want it – not on a screen, but in the same way that we’ve always wanted it, from a friend or from someone at their elbow”.

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