A few weeks back Andy and I were shooting the idiom in the Head kitchen, fueled only with a chilled tetra pak of coconut water and some out of date Turkish sweets, when we segued much like this sentence onto the topic of digital trends for 2012.

So, after a solid 10 minutes of predicting the obvious (pretty much what’s been going on in 2011 but ramped up a bit) like growth of mobile devices and apps, connected TVs, mobile money, ultra-books, affordable e-readers and the collective protracted moan over the Facebook Timeline, we decided not to dwell on any of that a minute longer and proceeded to conjure up some thoughts on matters of the less apparent. Finally, with coconut water supplies depleted, we’ve made a list of our top 5 digital trend predictions that we think will pop-up in your news feed sometime over the next 11 months.

1. 2012 - Year of the Hack

Now is the time for the hacking of stuff. Yes it’s been going on for eons but making your coffee pot talk to the internet isn’t just for nerdlingers anymore. Hacking in this case isn’t Pentagon infiltrating / celebrity voicemail hi-jinx hacking but the repurposing of objects, data and tasks to suit an individual’s needs. Made at home, quite possibly in a shed, with inexpensive hardware and open-source software, 2012 could be the break-out year that hacking takes the deserved main stage.

arduino

One piece of kit that champions open-source innovation is the Arduino. Around since 2005, the little Italian micro-controller and it’s clones are exploding onto the scene. Beefed up with open-source software, a huge support community and affordable add-ons in the form of connectivity shields, motors and sensors it really opens up your brain to the possibilities of designing and building interactive objects and environments.

The Like Light is a classic great example of converting live web data into a physical event. It uses simple ingenuity by merging Facebook, an arduino and some good old Scandinavian plastic to perform a simple task - letting the user know when something is liked in a feed by pulling data from the Facebook Graph API and switching on some LEDs inside a Lego thumbs up.

On the commercial side, the chaps who made Twine have recognised the value in self hacking and have made it even easier for the average Joe to hook things up to the internet and run simple tasks through an intuitive GUI. We think there will be an increase in more consumer oriented products and simple GUIs aimed at a wider gadget enthusiast audience in 2012. Keep an eye on Twine and it’s knock-offs showing up to help you automate your house

Another bit of tec ripe for the hack is Microsoft’s Kinect.  Microsoft did an incredibly smart thing by opening up the Kinect dev code to the public allowing anyone to experiment and repurpose it for things other than gaming. Letting the public innovate and effectively become their R&D department stands to see their product playing a key role the future or gesture controlled environments and motion tracking. There have already been applications of Kinect hacking applied to the medical field, virtual dressing rooms, physiotherapy, web browsing and interactive advertising.

Soon to be making it's debut is Raspberry Pi - a credit card sized GNU/Linux box with 256mb RAM and an ARM 700mhz CPU. Think of it as a barebones motherboard brain that will set you back mere $25 USD. You can connect this little gem to a TV and keyboard and use it like a regular PC or get stuck into programming it. Interfaces include an SD card slot, ethernet, USB 2, Micro USB, HDMI and RCA video ports and an audio jack all running off of 4xAA batteries.

In the developers’ own words, “We want to see cheap, accessible, programmable computers everywhere; we actively encourage other companies to clone what we’re doing. We want to break the paradigm where without spending hundreds of pounds on a PC, families can’t use the internet. We want owning a truly personal computer to be normal for children. We think that 2012 is going to be a very exciting year.”

Hacking is good. Hacking is right. Hacking works. It encourages and creates more entrepreneurs, startups and consumer products. It fuels collaboration and the sharing of ideas and knowledge. We may not need a LIke Light but it has a use, not everything born out of hacking will be a winner (and that’s ok) but the tools and communities are in place to kickstart innovation and get us making things.

“Men don’t and can’t live by exchanging articles, but by producing them. They don’t live by trade, but by work.” - John Ruskin

2. Spime and Phygital growth

2012 should build on our ever evolving relationship between the physical, the digital and the convergence of emerging technologies. We’ve always had a connection to physical things and occasionally we want our digital media to reflect that - the popularity of Hipstamatic and Instagram vintage camera filters for our smartphones, Apple postcards and Berg’s Little Printer promises us the ability to make a paper record of what was previously only in a digital entity. Progress through nostalgia maybe?

spime cup

Digital is acting more and more as a mediator between us and physical things. Objects can now be designed or adapted to communicate to us humans their situation in space and time. Spime is a term relating to the “data-fication” and tracking of physical objects through space and time. It's happening all around us with data mining, RFID tags, micro sensors and GPS chips. Nike + is a classic example of using spime objects to great affect, so is Jawbone’s Up life monitoring wristband and the glorious Copenhagen Wheel which can transform your ordinary bicycle into a super hybrid e-bike that also provides feedback on pollution, traffic and road conditions in real-time.

Augmented reality and QR codes are also testing the waters with how comfortable we’re becoming at brokering between physical and digital. This budding relationship seems to be largely driven by evolving mobile phone tech. Phygital Retail should be revealing it’s ubiquitous self all over town to help consumers consume impulsively when they have a few minutes to kill. Tesco Home Plus is a lovely example of how our Korean friends are making use of unclaimed space. QR codes allow commuters to scan a virtual grocery store walls stocked with essential items while waiting for the next train. Similarly, in the UK we have HMV’s bus shelter and the Dominos poster food ordering app  so you can plan you evening’s entertainment while waiting for your luxury ride home.

As the physical fights it’s way to fit in and becomes more relevant in the digital world we’ll see an increase in spime and phygital growth. Digital is still scary for some people. It’s transient vaporous nature goes against our desire to touch stuff, trade it and hand it down as a tangible reminder to others that we were here. Smooshing physical and digital together to create things with data fingerprints will spawn new products and  interactivity and engagement between digital devices and human beings during what could be described as a transitional period.

3. Rise of the Empire of the Senses

Shout it, shout it out loud like Kiss because voice control UI is making a buzz again. 

Siri

Our eyes, ears and fingers dominate how we control digital media and devices, usually via a rectangular screen and headphones. Inputting commands via a keyboard and mouse are giving way to multi-touch gestures which are giving way to 3D gestural interfaces. Is there room for new user interfaces? Apple says yes. I remember trying (and failing) to use the built in voice control on my old beige Power Mac G3 back in 1998. It a was pretty dismal affair but things have since moved on. With the introduction of Siri on the iPhone 4S, voice and AI are going to change the way we think about man-machine interfaces and their potential in daily life. SIri is young and as it gets smarter it will be interesting and a little frightening to see if it’s perceived ability to learn about you and your routines actually affects the decisions you make.

Assuming Apple will integrate Siri-like control into Apple TV and it proves a success, they may feel the urge to disrupt other industries with voice control and AI - automobile, kitchen appliance and the search engine databases that drive Siri’s results.

Something we’d really like to see more of in 2012 is haptic navigation systems - portable vibrating objects du jour that communicate direction or proximity. Eric Berdinis and Jeff Kiske’s haptic navigation belt experiment for the visually impaired could have a wider appeal by nudging any wearer to his destination leaving other senses (assuming you have them) free to take in the atmos. A less conspicuous egg sized version of the good old Momo could lead users around without the prospect of looking like a dufus - something augmented reality apps try really hard to achieve by forcing you to hold a mobile, or worse an iPad, in front of your face while you cause a human traffic jam on the pavement.

haptic Kinect blind belt

With our hands, eyes and ears free we’ll be able to enjoy everything around us and spend more time talking to Siri.

4. 3-D printing, obviously

Like Macaulay Culkin, 3D printing has been around since the early 80‘s. As of 2003 though there’s been a steady growth in 3D printer sales. Now, it looks like 3D printing about to hit the mainstream.

3D printing

Two popular additive 3D printing methods at the moment involve manipulating either heated thermal plastic filament or bonded powder. Both start with sending a 3D model of the object being created to the printer. FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) works by feeding what amounts to strimmer wire (ABS filament really) into a heated pot then deposited through needle like nozzles to build up the object layer by layer. SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) and MJM (Multi-Jet Modeling) both build objects by laying down a fine layer of powder and then selectively bonding the powder together for each layer. The later method allows for the building of objects in a variety of materials like polystyrene, glass, ceramic, nylon, steel, titanium, aluminum and even starch.

Will there be a 3D printer in every home? Yes if kids have a say in it.  Hardware and supplies are a little pricy right now but folks like MakerBot and Cubify are selling affordable & friendly FDM kits that will let you design, download and print objects right at home. Makerbot playsets is already jumping on this with it’s print-your-own doll house series of objects. How long before Hamley’s starts selling official Barbie and Lego 3D print models for download?

Here’s something amazing - Unfold’s L'Artisan Electronique installation of a ceramic clay printer. Why stop there when you can print chocolate, icing and eventually synthetic meat if we keep our fingers crossed. Yummy.

Will 3D printing de-centralise manufacturing and distribution? Will it create a new economy of buying and selling patterns and models? Maybe, if all we need right now is small, neon cloured plastic trinkets. When the price, scale and a variety of quality print materials outmatch current manufacturing standards we all may want a 3D printer in the home.

5. Pinterest

If you’re not heard of Pinterest by now then that’s OK because you’re about to. Pinterest is a social bookmarking site that lets users collect and share things they like on the web. Think of it as an online pin board (Pin + Interest, see what they did there) where you can create, curate and share aspirational mood-boards that express your personality and style. The Pinterest folk see their service as a useful tool to help people find their style, save their inspirations, plan their weddings, decorate their homes, organize their favorite recipes and eventually connect everyone in the world through the things they find interesting. Quite ambitious, but it seems to be working. Pinterest’s traffic has seen 7.51 million unique visitors in December 2011 alone.

The concept isn't entirely new. The ancestry of image bookmarking sites goes back a ways. Take for example exclusively niche ffffound and weheartit or more product oriented svpply.com and invite only Dribbble - a socially-powered website that allows its members to post previews of their design work. Pinterest’s broader appeal comes as a result of letting users create their own niche personal categories while inspiring each other.

Brands should be excited about this. Especially those with a target consumer group of females between the ages of 25 and 44 which makes up 59% of the user base. The amount of traffic Pinterest sends elsewhere has risen to the top five referrer for several apparel retailers. Search is still the biggest driver of traffic to retailers’ sites but Pinterest and other social media sites are making ground as major players in the referral traffic game.

By having a Pinterest presence, brands can curate their image and supply users with fresh, quality media to pin and share. Once a brand creates an account and builds boards, pins and follows, they can drive traffic back to product detail pages. Of course all of this should be considered at part of an overall multichannel digital strategy and not something to be undertaken casually.

While Pinterest is conquering America it will be interesting to see if it takes up in the UK and elsewhere. UK and global brands might want to start a Pinterest presence early and get their feet wet in the social commerce pool.

6. Bonus Prediction! - WFH

Yes, Working From Home will finally shake off it’s snoozy reputation and become an acceptable alternative to the office as a legitimate place to conduct one’s business affairs. And who can blame one really? With the increasing cost and uncomfortable experience of commuting to metropolitan centers in the UK; the dining room table is looking like a fine executive desk at the moment. A slippered commute down the hallway in jim-jams vs a packed train carriage of influenza riddled zomboids? Technology is on the home-workers’ side with the four C’s - 

  1. Contactability - chances are WFH types can be reached on a myriad of channels like Facebook, Skype, email, Twitter, chat, Linkedin or the good old telephone. Getting a message to them is easy, getting a response is slightly more difficult but nevertheless making contact should be a cert.
     
  2. Conferencing - Skype, Google, WebEx, FaceTime, there’s no escape form getting the gang together face-to-digital face for an old fashioned e-rendezvous wherever they are, cheap and easy.
     
  3. Computing - mobile computing specifically. Laptops, smart-phones and tablets let the Home Worker have the portable tech they need to perform away from the office desk.
     
  4. Cloud -  whether you’re using a desktop at work or lost that laptop in a Westminster pub that’s ok too because you can access what you need at home through the glory of online storage. Storing, accessing, editing and sharing files is pretty routine these days through Google, iCloud and Amazon and if you’re lucky enough to work with a hip IT department you might just have an internal storage and collaboration solution with you very place of employment.
     

But sadly, once this revolution runs rampant we’ll no doubt start seeing status updates from lonely people who will be going against the grain and WFO (Working From Office) to revisit the nostalgic allure of human contact.