|rofessional prognosticators in the last century predicted the new millennium would witness wonders such as plants that produced porterhouse steaks, work weeks that lasted just 16 hours, and trade shows that would be held in interplanetary "cosmotels" you could travel to by "volkscapsules" or "satellacs." Those marvels remain as elusive as the personal jet pack.
But a few others who peered into their crystal balls a little deeper got it right. By looking at then-current technology and extrapolating from it, AT&T Inc. was as accurate as your GPS in a series of TV commercials 20 years ago that foresaw e-readers, voice-recognition software, electronic health records, virtual meetings, and even streaming movies.
So, like the telecommunications giant, we didn't boldly go looking for Star Trek-like technologies that always astound and amaze though rarely arrive. Instead, we searched for the technologies that are here now, but which will soon accelerate from cruising to warp speed. When you glimpse the marvels we highlight, we think you'll agree that, just as science-fiction legend William Gibson once said, "The future has already arrived. It's just not evenly distributed yet." In fact, we'll bet our jet packs on it.
1 Near Field Communication
In 2002, NXP Semiconductors NV and Sony Corp. invented the fundamental technology for a new wireless gizmo called Near Field Communication (NFC). Comprising an antenna and/or a programmed subscriber identity module (SIM) or secure digital (SD) data-card chip that use a short-range wireless technology, NFC-enabled devices can communicate with one another in close proximity.
Able to transmit data over distances of less than 4 inches, NFC technology has a diminutive size and multiple functions that make it a perfect addition for cell phones, since it enables them to send, receive, and play video, audio, and text files; serve as tickets to gain entry for events; and even make purchases - all just by waving your phone at another nearby NFC-enabled device.
The technology appeared when
Japan's cell-phone carriers began
offering a version of it called Mobile Felica, which allowed mobile phones to act as credit cards and transit passes.
How fast is it taking off?
NFC technology will be more widely available later this year. Cingular Wireless LLC and Citibank N.A. did a dry run with NFC in New York in 2007, by permitting a test group to access the city's subway system wielding their NFC-equipped cell phones as transit passes. Sprint Nextel Corp. carried out a similar test with San Francisco's subway system a year later in 2008, but the technology's adoption has been hobbled by the reluctance of telecom companies, banks, and credit-card companies to agree on universal standards for accepting NFC transactions.
That inertia will soon veer off in a different direction, however. While the technology allows people with NFC-enabled devices to do everything from exchange electronic business cards to enter a multiplayer game, the momentum behind its growth is the allure of a quicker, easier way to make purchases. Recognizing the shift, Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T, and T-Mobile USA Inc. joined ranks in 2010 with credit-card issuers to offer Isis, an NFC-based mobile-payment technology.
Isis secured agreements with major payment processors a year later in 2011: a roster including American Express Co., MasterCard Inc., Visa Inc., and Discover Financial Services. With those heavy hitters in its lineup, Isis is poised to roll out a mobile-commerce program in Salt Lake City and Austin, TX, by mid-2012. Additionally, PayPal Inc. released an app in late 2011 that allows users with NFC-enabled phones to exchange money.
The result of all that corporate synergy is a technology that should take off like Angry Birds: Market-research firm Allied Business Intelligence Inc. (ABI) Research forecasts that by the end of 2012, 20 percent of all cell phones will be NFC enabled. Moreover, Forrester Research Inc. projects that by 2013, that number will leap to 25 percent. Google Inc.'s forecast is even more sanguine, estimating that by the end of 2014, fully half of all cell phones will be equipped with NFC technology.
At least 40 models of smart phones currently have the technology built into them (although you won't be able to use that function until merchants start offering the hardware/software necessary to enable NFC-based transactions) such as Google's Nexus S, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.'s Galaxy S II, and Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry models Bold 9790 and Curve 9380. The iPad tablet, too, is now NFC capable.
"NFC will have a huge impact on exhibiting and events," says Ivan Lazarev, CEO and co-founder of ITN International Inc., a Bethesda, MD-headquartered company that creates mobile-marketing, lead-management, and attendee-tracking solutions for events and exhibits. "Exhibitors will be able to offer more info more quickly and conveniently than ever, and even sell on the trade show floor, all with
a simple wave or touch of a phone."
How are exhibitors using it?
NFC-enabled smart phones have only just appeared recently, but some early adopters have already answered the emerging technology's call. Harris Corp., a communications and information-technology firm, used NFC to empower salespeople in its booth at the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam, a show geared for the TV broadcast industry. After outfitting 10 staffers with NFC-enabled smart phones, the Melbourne, FL-based company read attendees' NFC-equipped badges with a simple touch of the phones.
Along with the phones' program allowing staffers to qualify the interaction with that prospect, Harris immediately used the data culled from the badges to deliver customized information via e-mail to visitors within five minutes after they departed the company's booth. Furthermore, for those visitors who met various criteria set by Harris management, staffers loaded a virtual ticket on their NFC-augmented badges that gave them access to a private beach area outside of the convention center. Once attendees with tickets sauntered over to the outdoor oasis, more Harris staffers, also equipped with NFC-enabled phones, could read the digital ticket and usher the guests to some sun and fun.
In fact, the next year at the 2011 IBC, Harris later evolved its use of NFC into a tool that empowered attendees as much as it enhanced the company's ROI. Concerned that 50 percent of booth visitors to its exhibit at various shows were deliberately avoiding salespeople, the company decided the best course was not to become more aggressive in its approach but, with the help of NFC, to let attendees help themselves.
The company attached NFC antennas to nine NFC-capable iPads, then encased them inside stationary kiosks called BouncePads. In turn, Harris tethered the BouncePads to horizontal surfaces throughout the booth. The unmanned stationary devices allowed guests to discover virtually anything they wanted about the company's broadcast-related tech, from video servers for TV stations to audio-management systems for radio studios.
First, Harris downloaded and installed a program on the iPads from iTunes called Bcard Reader Browser, made by ITN International. Then, whenever staff-averse attendees touched their NFC-equipped badges to the iPads (information on the screen showed booth visitors how to use them), their name, industry, company, job title, and location were captured by the Bcard Reader Browser, after which it launched a microsite on the screen. The site's personalized welcome page, customized on the fly based on information contained on the scanned badge, greeted the guests by name, then offered them a map of the 5,000-square-foot-booth, a portfolio of the company's newest products, and an order form for product literature.
By offering this convenient work around for staff-averse attendees to visit the booth and retrieve product information without the risk of close
encounters of the sales kind, Harris generated 20 percent more leads
than it did the previous year.
Where can I find out more?
Several sites offer solid introductions to NFC that don't require a Ph.D. in electrical engineering or computer science. Near Field Communication Forum is a nonprofit industry association promoting the technology with an excellent primer in its FAQ area, covering everything from how NFC works and how fast it transmits data to how it's similar to other wireless technologies. NFC World, meanwhile, is a trade publication that rounds up the latest news from companies using or testing NFC, lists NFC-capable phones on (or coming to) the market, and details events in the industry. For those who like their information the old-fashioned way, there's also a paperback book, "Getting Started with RFID and NFC," by Brian Jepson and Tom Igoe, available at Amazon.com.
2 Tablet Computers
Possessing 5- to 12-inch displays, pad-based computers, aka tablets, are a hybrid of smart phones and laptops, offering the ability to read books, surf the Web, play movies and games, and more. Many use virtual keyboards and handwriting recognition for text input through a touchscreen. Furthermore, at least two companies have introduced 3-D tablet computers that don't require special glasses, with more models expected before the end of 2012.
How fast is it taking off?
Despite a false start with Microsoft Corp.'s pen-enabled Tablet PC in 2001 that never took off, the tablet computer burst on to the scene when Apple Inc. launched the iPad in April of 2010. Selling nearly 13 million iPads in its abbreviated first year, Apple launched the first major salvo in the rise of tablet wars - but certainly far from the last. Competing manufacturers are issuing their take on the iPad the way AOL Inc. used to bombard consumers with its software disks. Nearly 80 tablets were introduced at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). By the end of 2011, 64 companies would be producing an estimated 102 tablets, according to management-consulting firm PRTM. Of the dozens of models available, the most popular include Samsung's Galaxy Tab, Dell Inc.'s Streak 7, Research In Motion's BlackBerry-branded PlayBook, and of course, Apple's iPad.
New kids on the tablet block, like Amazon Inc.'s Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Inc.'s Nook Color, suggest that overall acceptance of tablets may go quicker than any technical adoption in history. Indeed, a survey by Google discovered that 30 percent of tablet owners considered the device to be their primary computer.
Yet even that armada of manufacturing may not be enough to slake the demand for tablets, whose true impact should perhaps be measured with a seismograph: According to Infiniti Research Ltd.'s "Worldwide Tablet Market Forecast Report," users are adopting the tablet at an even faster pace than they did smart phones, computers, and game consoles. That conclusion is borne out by market-intelligence firm International Data Corp. (IDC), which predicts that worldwide shipments of tablets will grow at a head-spinning clip of nearly 60 percent annually, surging to more than 46 million units by 2014. But even those impressive estimates may be too cautious. Jefferies & Co. Inc., a global securities and investment banking group, projects 246 million tablets will be sold in 2014, while researchers for investment bank Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) Capital Markets LLC believe more than 400 million people worldwide may be
using tablets by 2014.
"Tablets provide a new media format that is highly portable, has a large screen to display products on, and is intuitive for staff to use. This fits the bill for trade shows with trade show managers, exhibitors, and attendees walking the show floor," says technology consultant Corbin Ball, CMP, and author of "The Ultimate Technology Guide for Meeting Professionals." "They will be able to use these tools on the go to get directions, access floor plans, qualify leads, connect with social-media sites, view conference programs and exhibit guides, take
surveys, and much more."
How are exhibitors using it?
Raw Talent Inc. wanted to compile a database of guests who entered its drawing to win a free guitar at CES in 2011. But the Coral Springs, FL-based maker of Raw Talent Guitar, a software program that teaches users how to play guitar, didn't want to stifle its clientele, who are as freewheeling
as a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. So instead of asking attendees to line up at a fixed site in the exhibit to input their names - which might strike booth visitors as being coldly corporate and about as hip as polka - Raw Talent's five booth staffers used two iPads to acquire the information.
When guests entered the 10-by-20-foot exhibit, an iPad-equipped staffer could walk and talk with visitors inside the booth, or even take the conversation to the aisles, when the booth started to resemble Woodstock. After explaining the program that offers instant feedback to help fine tune your strumming and twanging, booth staff signed up guests for the drawing by inputting their personal data into a form on the iPad. At the end of each day, staffers tweeted that day's winner via the iPad's Twitter app.
Hoping to sign up 200 people for the giveaway, the company signed up more than 500 - and also compiled a database of prospects it could contact after the show. By simply using the iPad as a way to physically liberate staff and customers from the more rigid confines of stationary PCs and the booth, it hit the right note with attendees, playing to an image that was more laid-back than uptight.
While Raw Talent capitalized on tablets' portability, Schott North America Inc. and its Home Tech business unit exploited another of its robust powers: The fact that, as Jefferies & Co.'s research concluded, people prefer the tablet over regular computers for watching movies and listening to music by as much as a two-to-one margin. Schott and the Louisville, KY-based Home Tech wanted to educate attendees at the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Expo in Salt Lake City about the benefits of their Robax glass-ceramic, which is used in residential cooktops and fireplaces. Lacking adequate space for a full-fledged presentation theater in its 400-square-foot booth, Home Tech turned to iPads to enable and enhance that education.
Three of the booth's four staffers
were positioned next to an area where Home Tech conducted live demos of Robax. Once guests finished watching staff heat up a sheet of a glass to nearly 200 degrees, then sprinkle a handful of ice cubes on it - which would make the regular tempered glass used for kitchens and fireplaces explode like a cherry bomb - staff members directed them to the iPads. Rather than listening to a set-in-stone litany that can feel as scripted as a robo-call from a presidential candidate, however, the company let guests choose from any of five animations and three videos on the tablet.
Running a brief 10 to 30 seconds long, each of the eight items stressed Robax's strongest selling points, from its durability to its efficiency. For example, attendees might have played a video where the company heats a sheet of Robax to 600 degrees Fahrenheit and then douses it with a blast of liquid nitrogen that chills it to 350 degrees below zero; despite a temperature swing of nearly 1,000 degrees, the glass stays intact. Or, they might
have played an animation showing how Robax doors over a fireplace transfer heat more efficiently than glass doors.
Once attendees finished, they could "Like" Home Tech on Schott's Facebook page, or follow the company on Twitter, all using the iPad. Eventually the company plans to evolve the iPad animations into more sophisticated iPhone and Android versions of the apps that will act as standalone promotions, thus extending the booth
experience even more.
Where can I find out more?
TabletWiki will quickly get you booted up on the subject of tablet computers. The Microsoft Center for Research on Pen-Centric Computing is another great starting point for those who want to understand the technological underpinnings of tablet PCs. For a more general approach, the Open Directory Project's Tablet PCs page furnishes news, product info, FAQs, and more.
3 Radio Frequency Identification
Originating during World War II to help differentiate allied aircraft from the Axis planes, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) comprises a microchip attached to a curly radio antenna set on a substrate, which is usually referred to as a "tag." The microchip can store approximately two kilobytes of data, which the antenna transmits to a computer, or a "reader." The reader in turn sends radio waves to, and receives signals back from, the tag. Typically, RFID is employed to communicate information between a stationary reader and moving objects - e.g., attendees in your booth wearing RFID tags - over short distances of up to 100 feet.
How fast is it taking off?
About 2.4 billion RFID tags were sold from 1946 to 2006, according to IDTechEx Ltd., a Cambridge, U.K.-headquartered consultancy that researches the printed-electronics industry. The market has magnified so rapidly in the last few years with so many different types of RFID tags available - from tags that track your pets to those that monitor the military's cargo containers - reliable statistics are difficult to pin down.
The Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility (AIM) Inc., a Cranberry Township, PA-based trade association for the automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) industry, suggests that the number of RFID tags used in 2012 will probably skyrocket into the hundreds of millions. Still, the variety of tags reflects two common denominators propelling the technology's intense expansion: size and cost. While the RFID tag circuitry in the 1970s covered a volume about twice the size of a penny, today it occupies a space about one-tenth the size of that same penny.
RFID's cost has diminished as dramatically as its size, from about $5 per tag in 2000 to roughly 15 cents today. Perhaps best known for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s use of it in supply-chain management, and automated toll-collection systems such as E-ZPass, RFID will continue to grow annually at a rate of about 26 percent, according to the Global RFID Market 2010-2014 report from TechNavio, an Elmhurst, IL, research firm. Now integrated into virtually every aspect of life, from pill bottles to passports, RFID is also materializing more frequently on the trade show floor: Toshiba America Medical Systems Inc. and GE Healthcare, for example, have already incorporated it into their booths to better parse customer behavior and thereby pump up their return on investment.
"RFID may be decades old, but its uses for trade shows and exhibiting are still emerging," says Richard Norby, the vice president of creative services at Live Marketing Inc., a Chicago-based exhibit- and event-marketing agency. "While it can be highly effective for tracking where attendees go in your booth, it can be used for much more. For example, RFID can be used to trigger customized media to appear on monitors when a key customer or certain tier of prospect enters your booth. You can also use RFID technology to alert your booth staffers so they can engage those customers and prospects."
How are exhibitors using it?
When you have almost as many products and services as cable TV has channels, keeping track of which ones generate the most interest can be as daunting a task as waiting for "Reservoir Dogs" to finally play on the Lifetime Television Network. That's the problem Thomson Reuters Legal ran into for the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) show in Denver.
Normally the Eagan, MN-based provider of information to the legal industry displayed its products in clearly defined, separate exhibits.
But for AALL, it consolidated all individual products it usually showed into one main, 3,000-square-foot exhibit space. With 31 product areas lumped closely together, from legislation-tracking services to document-proofing tools, alongside attendees crowding the space like trial attorneys at an asbestos convention, it would be supremely difficult to chart how much interest each individual product drew. That's why the company turned to RFID.
When visitors approached one of the 50-by-60-foot booth's four check-in stations, their badges were scanned and linked electronically to individual RFID tags they toted with them to all product stations they visited. Coaxing guests to visit as many stations as possible, Thomson Reuters staff informed attendees they could accrue one point per station visited and two points per session viewed in the theater area. Once guests compiled at least seven points, they could move to the gift center where they received small prizes and be entered into a daily drawing for an iPad giveaway. To sweeten the pot with a pinch of philanthropy, Thomson Reuters also donated $5 to the National Audubon Society for each guest with the minimum seven points who stopped at the gift center.
As the guests migrated from station to station, the RFID readers automatically recorded their visits (but not visitors' names or personal data). Attendees could then monitor their score by visiting any of four "Check Your Points" stations, before finally grabbing a prize at the gift center. The results were so stunning, they should probably have been illegal: Thomson Reuters recorded 950 individual booth visitors (55.8 percent of the show's approximate total of 1,700 attendees) who visited an average of 6.59 product stations. With the RFID-supplied metrics, Thomson Reuters was able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that its WestlawNext Mobile (a legal-research app) and Westlaw Court Wire (an app that delivers info on new litigation and court decisions) were the most visited product stations in the booth, while simultaneously identifying products that, due to lower interest levels, could be scrubbed from future booths to decrease clutter and allow a more open floor plan.
Where can I find out more?
"The History of RFID" website is bulky with technical detail, but also offers an engaging history of RFID and useful insights on why the technology is spreading so quickly. The online RFID Journal's "Getting started" page is another excellent gateway to the technology, with plain-English sections on its background, costs, and even 10 questions you should ask RFID vendors. Aim Inc.'s website is yet another Swiss-Army-knife resource, with a newsletter, primer, FAQ section, glossary, and even case studies on RFID.
In next month's installment of "Techno Files," we'll cover another trio of techno-baubles transforming the exhibiting world in ways barely imaginable only 20 years ago.†E