From video conferencing platforms to chatbots, just about every kind of technology that keeps people connected and engaged saw a boost this year as the Covid-19 pandemic pushed marketers to experiment with tools they might never have otherwise considered.
It can be hard to tell how much staying power each of these trends will have as the world begins to reopen in 2021. Will they be prove to be enduring parts of a new normal or fleeting quirks of lockdown life?
The difference may be that many of the most promising innovations to gain traction this year were already poised to take off—the pandemic simply lit a fuse.
With those considerations in mind, we’ve rounded up a few areas of emerging tech most likely to have a lasting impact on how marketers do their jobs in the year to come and beyond.
Augmented reality (AR) and 5G
In January 2020, Apple CEO Tim Cook called AR the “next big thing” and predicted that it would come to “pervade our entire lives.”
The tech, which involves superimposing 3D graphics on the physical world, has seen a surge in popularity in the months since as retailers have adopted it to create virtual try-on features in lieu of physical store shelves and fitting rooms. Other brands have also latched onto the format as an interactive way to engage consumers as the pandemic made physical activations difficult.
“With people buying so much online, AR is able to enhance that experience,” said Sheri Bachstein, global head of Watson Advertising. “Companies are still trying to figure out how to use it best, but … you’re seeing it in beauty, you’re seeing it in some retail clothing—and I think that’s just going to grow.”
Even before the pandemic, social platforms like Snapchat and Instagram had helped set the stage for such a trend by making the developer tools needed to make AR quicker and more accessible than ever, according to a recent eMarketer report on the trend.
Now, 5G has the potential to open even more doors for the tech with its ability to support bigger file sizes, faster load speeds and therefore more elaborate and immersive graphics. While the next generation of wireless service is still in the early stages of rolling out, the launch of the first 5G-enabled iPhone this fall could help accelerate AR adoption.
“One thing I like to hit on for any brand is to think of all the physical things you have in the world—if it’s your store, if it’s your products—those need a digital layer, and that digital layer will be augmented reality,” said Matt Maher, founder of AR-focused consultancy M7 Innovations. “And that world’s starting to be built now. I think we’ll get to a place in two to five years where if you hold your phone up at anything, there should be a digital experience to the physical touch point.”
With video production processes frequently disrupted by lockdown measures this year, a handful of brands turned to a technology more commonly associated with fake news than Hollywood magic: AI-enabled deepfakes.
State Farm and ESPN used this form of machine learning to alter a vintage clip of a SportsCenter anchor when a man-on-the-street bit fell through because of quarantine. Hulu used AI to superimpose the face of NBA player Damian Lillard over that of a stunt double so that the star didn’t have to be physically present for a shoot. And Spotify tapped it to recreate the likeness of The Weeknd to simulate a one-on-one experience with the R&B star online.