On March 27, 2017, I will speak at Spectrum 2017, the annual educational conference hosted by the Rochester chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. I am a member of STC, I have always enjoyed attending Spectrum. The keynote addresses, presentations, and vendor demos are always very good. I feel I walk away at the end of the day having learned something new about my field. I also have presented twice at Spectrum (2009 and 2010), and enjoyed contributing to the overall knowledge shared at those conferences.
The theme for this year’s conference is “Optimizing Your Role in an Evolving Profession.” In the Call for Proposals, the Spectrum committee asked prospective speakers to address the following questions in the subjects of their proposals:
- How do we transition to supporting the vast array of inter-networked computers and devices?
- Is there still a role for the traditional technical writer?
- What skill sets do we need to keep pace and stay employed?
- Are there soft skills we need to develop?
- Do we need to learn how to develop apps?
- Is knowledge of DITA or content management systems important?
- What are the new opportunities and challenges?
- Should we be interested in the Certified Professional Technical Communicator credential from STC?
After reading the theme and these questions, I felt that I could help answer some of these questions by sharing what I had learned about emerging technologies in my Summer 2016 graduate class in the Information Design & Technology program at SUNY Polytechnic Institute.
Overview of IDT 585: Seminar in Emerging Technologies
In IDT 585, I studied a group of selected semi-emerged/emerging technologies that have already impacted, or will impact, the people interact with others, access information, and perform their job functions.
My professor selected the following technologies for us to study:
- Augmented Reality (AR)
- Intelligent Personal Assistants (IPAs)
- Internet of Things (IoT)
For this class, we pretended we were answering a Call for Proposal from a Community of Practice (CoP) that wanted an information product that would keep its members informed of the latest developments and trends in the selected emerging technologies and how these technologies relate to the CoP. A CoP is essentially a professional organization. Since I am a technical writer and a member of STC, I chose STC as my CoP for the project. The information product to be delivered would be a blog with a series of posts discussing how the emerging technologies may impact my field. The information product also required a service that members of the CoP could subscribe to, or follow, in order to be informed of my posts. My information product consisted of a WordPress.com blog (this blog!) with a Twitter feed.
The presentation I submitted for Spectrum 2017 was entitled “Emerging Technologies 101: A Primer.” Its focus would be a synopsis of what I learned about the emerging technologies my class studied and how they might impact the field of Technical Communication.
This post is an extension of my presentation. It will contain links to the blog posts that I wrote for my class in addition to updated information I researched while putting my presentation together. Think of this post as the white paper for the presentation.
Note: There are no concrete answers or solutions presented here in this topic, or in my presentation. It is simply the result of my research that will hopefully stimulate some interesting discussion at the conference.
Computers and the technology associated with them are revolutionizing the ways in which our civilization creates, stores, and transmits knowledge.
– Christian Vandendorpe
The above quote is from my textbook for my Spring 2017 class: From Papyrus to Hypertext: Toward the Universal Digital Library, by Christian Vandendorpe. Vandendorpe’s book was published in 1999, but I thought this quote was relevant to my discussion of how today’s emerging technologies influence the ways we create, store, and transmit knowledge.
Connie Giordano, the editor for TechWhirl’s Tech Writer Today online magazine, published a poll on the impact of emerging technology on the field of Technical Communication in 2013. Here are the poll questions and results:
What I find interesting about this poll is that the field of Technical Communication has always anticipated how new technologies may impact or influence how people use products and access information. So, it’s no surprise to me that my field has been bracing itself for some of the technologies I researched and learned about just this past summer.
You probably have seen examples of these technologies in popular film and television. For example, look at this clip from one of the Iron Man movies. Is any of the technology portrayed “real?” Check out this this video for the Microsoft HoloLens.
These clips, one fiction and the other real, showcase Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Gesture Recognition. The cool thing is these are all real emerging technologies!
What follows next is a look at the technologies on their own in order to understand what they are and what they do. While each of these technologies can stand on their own, they most likely will interact and be integrated with other technologies and appear as one unified product or service. The integration is seamless and transparent to the end-user.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Prior to IDT 585, I had heard of virtual reality (VR) and knew it was big in the gaming industry, but was unaware of augmented reality (AR). VR and AR share many things in common, but the important difference is the part that is in bold in the following definition.
Augmented Reality is the integration of digital information with the user’s environment in real time. Unlike virtual reality, which creates a totally artificial environment, augmented reality uses the existing environment and overlays new information on top of it. (“augmented-reality-AR,” whatis.techtarget.com)
AR’s roots go back to the mid 1990’s with the SixthSense gesture-based wearable systems developed by Steve Mann and Pranav Mistry at the MIT Media Lab (“SixthSense,” Wikipedia.org). But you don’t need to go back that far to experience a readily-accessible implementation of AR. All you need is an iPhone or Android phone (sorry, Windows phone fans, you’re out of luck on this one) to play what was the biggest gaming craze of Summer 2016: Pokemon GO.
Pokemon GO uses the smartphone’s GPS and camera systems to aid you in the hunt for rare Pokemon. When you encountered a Pokemon, the animated map of your physical location (for example, your local park) that was displayed on your phone’s screen switched to a real-time view of your surroundings with the Pokemon character superimposed on it.
For example, in the picture above, you can see that Hannah, my girlfriend’s dog, is completely unaware of the weedle that is hovering near her and trying its best to evade capture. The release of Pokemon GO couldn’t have been more timely as I was in the midst of IDT 585. The forum for this class suddenly was buzzing with my classmates inquiring if the rest of us had played the game yet. While walking Hannah in a local park, I felt obligated to try this game in the name of educational research (and it was fun!).
AR has more practical applications outside of gaming. For example, check out this video on how Audi revolutionized the traditional car owner’s manual.
No more digging through the glove box to search for the owner’s manual shoved way in the back in order to figure out what that blinking icon means on your dashboard!
In the next example, Etteplan, a specialist in industrial equipment engineering, embedded systems and IoT and technical documentation solutions and services, shows how AR can assist in the installation and maintenance of electronic systems.
Not only will AR influence our gaming experiences, but it is quickly impacting how we interact with, and acquire information about, more important things like automobiles and life safety systems.
The deeper I dug into AR, the more I learned about Gesture Recognition. This technology was not one of the assigned technologies in IDT 585, but I felt it was too important not to include in my project for that class or my Spectrum presentation.
A simple definition of gesture recognition is “…the mathematical interpretation of a human motion by a computing device,” (“gesture recognition,” WhatIs.com).
The following definition shows the interrelationship of gesture recognition with other technologies.
Gesture recognition, along with facial recognition, voice recognition, eye tracking and lip movement recognition are components of what developers refer to as a perceptual user interface (PUI). The goal of PUI is to enhance the efficiency and ease of use for the underlying logical design of a stored program, a design discipline known as usability. (“gesture recognition,” WhatIs.com)
Like AR, gesture recognition is a technology that is already here (“emerged”) in the form of smartphones that respond to hand gestures to activate the camera or flashlight function, or the motion-sensing technology behind Microsoft Kinect and Nintendo Wii.
Like AR, gesture recognition continues to evolve and emerge. Soli is a project of Google’s Advanced Technology & Projects (ATAP) group that is researching and developing applications for gesture recognition technology, including wearables, phones, computers, and IoT (Internet of Things) devices. Below is a short video on Project Soli.
The MYO Armband is an example of a product that utilizes gesture recognition in a multitude of ways, from gaming and entertainment to manipulating machinery in hazardous environments to business applications.
By the way, in the video above, did you notice a usage that combines gesture recognition with AR?
Internet of Things (IoT)
WIRED Brand Lab and IBM collaborated to publish a series of articles and videos on how buildings integrated with IBM’s Watson IoT transform static, lifeless structures into artificially intelligent, “smart” beings. One of these articles discussed networked people. It stated that by 2020, “smart” buildings, cars, and cities will remarkably improve life for the “connected” person.
The “smart” behind “smart” buildings, cars, peoples, etc. are tiny devices that collect and transmit information across the Internet. Hence, the Internet of Things.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals or people that are provided with unique identifiers and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. (“Internet of Things (IoT),” TechTarget.com)
When I hear about “smart” devices, I think of the funny series of commercials that Nest produced like this one for their learning thermostat.
But the IoT is serious business. The Gartner IT Research and Advisory company forecasted the following estimates on the IoT. By 2020:
- 26 billion devices will be connected to the Internet worldwide
- 7 billion of those devices will be laptops, tablets and smartphones
- 8 billion is the estimated world population
Think about that. By 2020, there will be a 3:1 ratio of devices connected to the Internet per person worldwide!!
The research, while astonishing, supports the numbers predicted by Gartner and illustrates just how serious and big the IoT already is and will become. Here are just some of the numbers from the infographic above.
- The IoT will be a staggering $731 billion investment.
- There will be 25 million cloud-based servers and 3.7 billion smartphones worldwide.
- Private residences will represent represent $111 billion (31%) of that $731 billion figure with 8-10 connected devices per home.
- Cities will represent $392 billion (54%) across the transportation ($80 billion), government ($99 billion), banking/financial ($94 billion), and education ($118 billion) sectors.
- The workplace will represent $228 billion (15%) with investments across the communication ($73 billion), enterprise social software ($10 billion) and enterprise mobility ($145 billion) sectors.
Speaking of mobility, it’s time to look at the technology that will make these other technologies more accessible and affordable.
Like AR, gesture recognition, or the IoT, mobile technology is a technology that has already emerged but continues to emerge.
Mobile technology can be defined as the following:
Mobile technology is…used for cellular communication…Since the start of this millennium, a standard mobile device has gone from being no more than a simple two-way pager to being a mobile phone, GPS navigation device, an embedded web browser and instant messaging client, and a handheld game console. (“Mobile technology,” wikipedia.org)
What I like about this definition is it is two definitions in one: a technical definition (the entire definition) and a user-centric definition (the highlighted part). It shows the flexibility and diversity in use of mobile technology.
According to the Pew Research Center, here is what Americans have typically used their smartphones for from 2012 to 2015:
What do you use your mobile device for? Does the Pew Research Center’s findings represent you? Or do you use your mobile device differently?
It is no surprise that as mobile technology improves, the cost of mobile devices will drop allowing even more people to acquire and use them. Statista provides the following projections on US and worldwide smartphone usage:
Currently, the mobile device (smartphone, tablet, iPad, etc.) is the user interface to the phone, navigation device, web browser – whatever it is that the user primarily uses that device for. As mobile technology continues to evolve, the mobile device will also be the primary user interface for implementations of the emerging technologies that we have discussed.
Note: If you would like to see my project from another class about the evolution of the smartphone and its impact on society, here is a link to the Prezi presentation.
Impact on Technical Communication
Jacquie Samuels wrote an excellent article called “The Future is Now: User Experience Drives Technical Communication” for Tech Writer Today Magazine. In this article, she discusses several points how and why Technical Communication will change due to the integration of User Experience. Many of her points also apply when considering the impact emerging technologies will have on our field:
- Continued adoption and use of XML: According to Samuels, the use of XML will continue to grow and serve as the foundation for many other changes that our field will see as technologies influence how users interact with the product and demand information. Think about what you saw in the videos I shared and how people interacted with the products. How did they get information? XML provides a consistent, repetitive way to structure, author, and tag content, which will be very important when more devices transmit data across the IoT.
- Personalized, dynamic content: People want the information they need right away, which is nothing new. What is new, or at least improved, is the ability to give people what they want without forcing them to search high and low. Using XML to tag content and then tying tags to roles and login information, users can get the appropriate information they need based on what they use a product for right away. To see how Adobe handles this, see their white paper on the dynamic content filtering feature in RoboHelp 2015.
- Foster user-to-author feedback: What do tech writers crave most besides a good paycheck? Feedback!! Did that user guide help someone? Was someone able to solve their problem using the troubleshooting section? Was that content accurate? Today’s authoring tools and paradigms can provide a direct line of communication from the target audience to the technical writer. How satisfying is that for both sides to see user content quickly updated, improved and re-published? That proves to both sides that someone cares about user assistance and actually uses it!
- Foster cross-functional team collaboration: In her article, Samuels calls for the breaking down of work silos. A solid, well-designed, thoroughly-tested, and accurately documented product requires true teamwork from developers, user experience (UX), quality assurance, product management, technical support, marketing, and technical writing. Without this cross-collaboration, this sharing of knowledge and information, the chain (or product) is only as strong as its weakest link.
- Adopt new authoring paradigms: The rapid growth of mobile technology has been a game-changer in so many ways. Like the PDF “killed” the printed manual, mobile technology is killing the PDF. The PDF will soon become an alternate option that the user creates on their own if they so desire from the ready-to-use content that the product serves to them. Cloud-based services will force our hands to publish on-demand. In her article, Samuels says that “mobile is king.” It won’t be long before we bow to the wishes of this new king.
- Adopt information architecture: With all of these changes to accommodate new authoring strategies, content types, user profiles, etc., there will be an increased emphasis on overall ease-of-use and ability to find information. Having people on the cross-functional teams who are well-versed in user experience, information design, and information architecture will help ensure that people will be able to find what they need when they need it.
The field of Technical Communication must be ready, as it always has, to understand and embrace the benefits, limitations, and risks any new advancement in technology may introduce to our abilities to clearly and effectively share information and explain how to do something to our target audiences.
Links to My Blog Topics
My Spectrum presentation only focuses on a subset of the technologies studied in IDT 585. If you would like to learn more about all of the technologies, here are links to the blog topics I wrote for my project:
- Augmented Reality (AR) and Gesture Recognition
- Intelligent Personal Assistants (IPAs)
- Internet of Things (IoT)