The future workplace – take me to the holodeck…

Ian Bradbury
By , - Innovation

I’m often asked what my employer’s vision for the future workplace is. That’s a tough question to answer – what’s the time horizon? What do you mean by ‘workplace’? Where are you starting from?

It’s not that I or Fujitsu don’t have an opinion – you don’t get positioned right at the top of the Gartner Magic Quadrant for completeness of vision without having a view on where things are going.

So let’s take a step back for a moment…

Most people view workplace technology as a PC, laptop or phone, and they use a whole bunch of robust (legacy) and new (fast evolving) apps to do their daily business. But the primary interfaces are still very much keyboard, screen, mouse, microphone and speakers.

For those of us old enough to remember, the mouse enabled probably the most radical development in usability in 1981: the graphical user interface (GUI), which is still going strong today and continues to be evolved (the use of touch in Windows 10, for example, which is really just an extension of the GUI).

That’s a key point – no game-changing innovations since 1981, but continued evolution.

Of course, what sits behind these interfaces has radically changed – the internet has enabled that. And of course I’m completely ignoring the smartphone revolution, which is quite a lot more than a small-factor laptop and a massive aid to personal and group productivity.

So what are the game changing innovations of the future workplace likely to be?

The successful innovations will be human-centric

I think the next set of developments are all likely to be around our interfaces, driven by human-centric innovation.

We know that Microsoft (with Cortana), Apple (with Siri), Google (with Google Now) and now Amazon (with Echo) are investing heavily in developing natural language processing interfaces (including significant artificial intelligence (AI) adoption) for their technology platforms.

These will enable our workplace of the future, and they’re actually getting to be quite usable – if you haven’t tried them for a while I suggest you do, as they’re evolving all the time.

Integration with a broad range of solutions is also beginning to take place. I can use my Amazon Echo and room dots to control my lights, my audio visual systems, my heating. And I can get information on my daily commute and many other things.

But while all this is making my life easier, some members of the Bradbury household absolutely refuse to ‘speak to a machine’ – we have a cultural change problem.

And that’s another key point: change is unlikely to be easy when innovation of interfaces takes place. Make no mistake, the voice-machine interface is not only coming, it’s already here and usable, and enterprises should be testing and adopting it for specific use cases in their workplace environments.

VR and AR will continue to rise

So what else? I think we will start to make much greater use of virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) solutions, replacing the traditional screen experience.

Imagine a world where you never need to commute to meet people and instead can attend ‘immersive’ meetings with a team or individual, enabled by authentic digital interfaces that mimic up to five senses. All our body language nuances would be supported.

That is the promise VR brings to the workplace. Is it there yet? Well, it’s not fully immersive, it’s clunky-to-use, those five senses are not all supported, and it can make you feel ill….but it is at a stage where enterprises should be thinking about future use cases and testing it. The big technology companies are certainly convinced that VR has a future.

AR is another area that is for the future, but solutions that will support the workplace are becoming available.

Google, Apple and Microsoft have been working hard on providing contextual information via your smartphone and wearables based on your preferences, your ‘digital history’, where you currently are, what the time is and what is happening around you.

Although Google Glass was perhaps before its time, the massive adoption of Pokémon Go shows that visual based augmented reality is viable.

Eye-tracking solutions are already being used in retail environments to help organisations understand what consumers are actually looking at and interested in. It’s an easy move from this understanding to project contextual information (e.g. a real-time discount) to a display nearby to the consumer.

What might this display actually be? Well it doesn’t have to be a traditional screen. Projector technology has moved on considerably – we have tiny projectors putting images on wrists, and bigger projectors able to move an image around a room and adjust what is actually projected to make it visible and usable based on the surface it is displayed on.

Using the aforementioned eye tracking technology, we can now project an image where the individual is looking. If you also add technology like that used in the Microsoft Kinect that recognises human gestures, you can sit in your seat, look at a surface and swipe and point the air in front of you to navigate through the content provided.

Check out this video to find out more about how we’re using VR and AR to enhance the workplace.

Without cultural change, none of this matters

Now let’s bring that vision back to reality…

Most organisations already have the ability to use desk-to-desk video – but don’t. Some organisations do, however – every voice conference or individual contact-to-contact call that takes place includes desktop video.

Reasons given for this usage are increased ‘body-language’ usage, focus of attention on the subject being discussed (rather than multitasking via the keyboard), ‘properly’ joining the work environment when working from home and improved human-based responses (some people are quite happy to be rude on the phone, but not to a video of a person).

So if it is technically available, and the benefits are there to be had, why don’t enterprises use desk-to-desk video?

I think this goes back to that Bradbury family issue: it needs a cultural change to make it work.

 This blog was first featured on LinkedIn Pulse
Ian Bradbury

Ian Bradbury

Chief Technology Officer - Financial Services Business Unit at Fujitsu UK& I
Ian Bradbury

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