Small Business

Five business trends set to shape 2016

If you could push a button to see the future, you'd find that much of it is about doing just that – pushing more and more buttons. Futurists say business activities will become less human, more self-automated. The future, quite literally, will take care of itself.

MySmallBusiness asked three business "clairvoyants" what innovations SMEs will see in 2016. One of the big themes for next year is big data's growing availability to small businesses, another is the rise of business applications for virtual reality.

Immersive reality technology could have important applications for small business.
Immersive reality technology could have important applications for small business. Photo: Bloomberg

1. Big data for small business

Innovation specialist Craig Rispin of Sydney-based Future Trends Group is a strong advocate of IBM's Watson, a cognitive computer that uses natural language processing and machine learning to make sense of "unstructured data".

Like HAL in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rispin says Watson is capable of answering customer questions, extracting key data from documents and making sense of unconnected, inchoate strands of information. Similar to this is Kira Systems' Diligence Engine which analyses business contracts for anomalies and mistakes. Rispin envisages a whole new line of machine-learning apps which peruse mobile telephone plans, energy bills and insurance contracts, scouring the market for better deals and suggesting alternatives.

IBM Watson-powered robots Niki and Nikita at the IBM marquee at the Australian Open 2015 in Melbourne.
IBM Watson-powered robots Niki and Nikita at the IBM marquee at the Australian Open 2015 in Melbourne. Photo: Vince Caligiuri

"Kira's system can tell if your contract is a good one, what has changed from the old contract and from within its own data tell you if there are better deals available," Rispin says. "You won't need to pay an expensive contracts lawyer."

The benefits of big data to small businesses will far outweigh the disruptions, he says. Rispin mentions a sign-maker in Sydney using GoPro cameras to record how many heads turn towards a sign – information that can be later sold on to customers. Similarly, a number of Vancouver credit unions are now offering 2 per cent loan discounts to buyers of hybrid cars after data revealed hybrid owners paid their loans off quicker. US-based SRI has developed and patented computer vision technology for food recognition which instantly provides kilojoule content and nutritional values. A recognition diagnosis system has been developed to detect disease types in blood smears. "These are all small businesses that have used big data to their advantage," Rispin says. "You don't have to employ a data scientist costing $160,000 a year."

2. Immersive​ reality

Futurist Ross Dawson, who heads Advanced Human Technologies Group, says the debut of Facebook's Oculus Rift (and a host of other virtual reality head-sets arriving next year) is his "big game changer". It will be arriving in the first quarter of 2016. Dawson believes it could transform the retail, travel, education and property industries. It is not augmented reality (as in Google Glass) but immersive​ reality: the images move in sync with a user's head movements.

It could be used to offer virtual snapshots of off-plan apartments to prospective property buyers, give travellers the opportunity to peruse a virtual city or visit a mock art gallery in cyberspace, Dawson says. "You could immerse yourself in a battlefield or spend a virtual day in Rome, Paris or Berlin."

Ross Dawson says fast food outlets will be the first to deploy robots.
Ross Dawson says fast food outlets will be the first to deploy robots.  Photo: Nic Walker

Other applications include educational instruction and even (as some have suggested) as an aid to treat post-traumatic stress, helping patients relive a difficult moment or situation under a controlled virtual environment.

3. Automation

Dawson expects to see greater automation in the retail and hospitality sectors, but believes fast food outlets will be the first to deploy robots. He mentions US-based Orchard Supply Hardware whose "OSHbot" answers questions and directs customers to products. There is also California's Aloft Hotel, run by three-foot-high (91cm) "botlrs" which have 7-inch touchscreens to interact with patrons. None of these will be here in 2016, says Dawson, but should arrive well before 2020.

4. Ad funding

Jon Tanner, co-founder of technology recruitment firm MitchelLake, says 2016 will see the advent of ad-funded devices and services from Melbourne start-up Unlockd​, and Singapore's nanu. "Your phone calls will be sponsored," Tanner explains. "It will be a major impact on developing countries where people can't always afford devices, data and IDD calls, but in Australia as well. Just imagine, you call someone overseas and it's free – you'll simply be told the phone call came courtesy of xyz product."

5. Global businesses

In the next year or so, Tanner says the smart new digital businesses will be outsourcing customer services from the Philippines, development skills from Malaysia and Vietnam and ecommerce and design skills from Thailand. "These cities now have huge operations to support global services, local talent and many with offices that look like Google headquarters," he says.

There's no impediment to starting a business anywhere, which is why we're seeing new start-ups pop up in a broader spread of regions beyond traditional hub cities.

Jon Tanner, co-founder of MitchelLake.

As people work and live in places remotely, there will be a rise in social media apps which link teams and people together globally, notably apps such as Slack and Facebook at Work. "There's no impediment to starting a business anywhere, which is why we're seeing new start-ups pop up in a broader spread of regions beyond traditional hub cities. Places like Tasmania, Eastern Europe and New Zealand are now viable," Tanner says.

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