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Gavin Finn, Professor of the Practice, shares how big data, augmented reality, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence will impact businesses in 2018.

As a Professor of the Practice at Tufts Gordon Institute, Gavin Finn teaches New Product Development, Entrepreneurial Marketing, and Entrepreneurship for Computer Scientists. Finn is president and CEO of Kaon Interactive. The company creates 3D virtual product marketing applications for B2B companies such as Cisco, GE, Waters, and Thermo Fisher Scientific.

We recently spoke to Finn about four of the biggest technology trends – big data, augmented reality, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence – that will impact businesses in the coming year. Finn breaks down the differences between AR and VR, predicts how B2B companies will leverage these new technologies in the next year, and explains why machine learning isn’t necessarily going to replace people.

1. Big Data

What it is: As business marketing becomes more digital, more and more access to data means there are endless ways to track customer activities.

What to look for:

“For marketers in particular, this is a critical issue. The question now is, what do you do with all this data to make informed business decisions? And second, what kinds of tools and technologies do we need to develop insights from the data?

Now, companies can instantly test the effectiveness of their campaigns online and get real time data about viewership, brand retention and sales impact. The digital technology allows you to make adjustments immediately and constantly.

Another advantage of data is being able to measure individual engagement. Marketers can track what you did on their website, how long you were there, or whether you looked at something and put it in the shopping cart and didn’t buy it. They can then use algorithms to determine what their best next step action is to help turn you from a prospect into a customer.

The business to consumer industries (B2C) have been the leaders in this personalization of data analytics and highly-targeted ad campaigns and digital behavior analytics. That’s now starting to become more and more common in B2B businesses, as well.”

2. Augmented Reality (AR)

What it is: An immersive technology that uses the camera view on your phone or tablet (or even a wearable device, such as a transparent headset, such as Google Glass) to overlay digital data in the real world.

What to look for:

“Companies are starting to use these technologies for consumer and for business-to-business marketing. For example, companies are starting to provide augmented reality in a store so that you just hover your phone over a product to get the information that’s relevant to you. Of course, there are also popular games that are using this technology – ‘Pokemon Go’ is a good example.

Another really innovative way of using augmented reality in the consumer environment is maintenance and service. If you’re trying to fix an engine on a caterpillar truck, or an electronic in your home and start taking a video, AR could be used to overlay the maintenance instructions over the physical product and tell you what to do. Think about how much more effective that would be – it’s almost like having somebody there helping you.

A lot of what my company [Kaon Interactive] is doing is using augmented reality to show B2B customers what products would look like in their own real environment. There’s almost no way to tell that it’s digital versus a real object. We’re also working on collaborative augmented reality so that multiple people can see the same AR seen on their iPads at the same time.”

3. Virtual Reality (VR)

What it is: The opposite of augmented reality, virtual reality puts people into fully immersive digital scenes, while AR puts digital objects into a real scene.

What to look for:

“For sales and marketing, VR can be highly effective. A customer buying a car can use a VR headset to experience the car firsthand – see the interior, and where all the gears are. You could see multiple car models instantly and almost shop for a car from home.

On the business side, imagine if I was building a new hospital or lab, and I could say, ‘let’s go take a walk.’ You would put on a headset and could literally walk through a new facility before it was ever built. You could get a sense of how people would operate the equipment, and what the workflows would be in the space. That immersive environment makes a huge difference.

The current VR technologies are very realistic. In the future, integrated haptic technologies will be available, which allows you to experience the sensation of touch. Imagine not only seeing the interior of a car, but also being able to put your hand on the gearshift.  Over the course of the next year or two, immersive technologies like AR and VR are getting realistic enough that they are going to start making a measurable difference to businesses.”

4. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning

What it is: Algorithms that give computers cognitive functions to learn and get smarter on their own.

What to look for:

“Because of all of this big data, we now need more powerful computers to be able to really use the data. AI and machine learning tools are becoming more practical for these purposes. Over time, as more and more data are generated, and more and more useful information becomes available, these machine learning algorithms are becoming much more sophisticated and are able to predict what’s going to happen more accurately. It’s not teaching them– it’s programming them to teach themselves and how to learn and evolve their ‘cognitive computing capabilities’ in a similar way that humans do.

Another benefit is automation – being able to automate many things that currently require a human to make decisions. Machine learning is often more effective than humans because the amount of information that can be accessed and analyzed is far greater in these digital infrastructures. However, AI and machine learning are not necessarily going to replace people – systems will just be more efficient. For example, machine learning can use data to help predict when a machine is going to fail, which is hugely important. Then, an employee is able to quickly go in and fix it before it fails.

As technologies evolve and become more practical, the work that you do around them changes. We used to have a rotary phone, then a push-button phone, and now it’s a computer in your pocket, and we all learned how to operate the computer. It hasn’t replaced people using phones, but it’s changed the whole way that we think about phones. The same thing is going to be true as AI starts to pervade many of our applications. It’s not necessarily going to make people or jobs obsolete, but it’s definitely going to change what people do.”

In the Faculty Viewpoints series, Tufts Gordon Institute faculty share thoughts on the latest on news and trends in leadership, business, technology and entrepreneurship.