In 2018, AIs make the leap from personal assistants to true companions.

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Millions use Siri and Alexa as personal assistants. Now, they’ll be turning to VIRTUAL COMPANIONS for wellness, happiness, companionship and more.

It’s that time of year again. Marketers, brand strategists, product designers, founders, CEOs: everyone is asking what 2018 holds.

Across a series of five linked posts, I’m going to share TrendWatching’s Five Key Consumer Trends for 2018. Trends that any professional should have on their radar for the months ahead.

These are trends reshaping the behaviors, mindsets and expectations of consumers all over the world. They’re here to empower you. But also to scare you. Apply them and they can fuel your next product, service, campaign, business model, or something else entirely. 🚀

You can check out Part 1 of 5 in the series by reading In 2018, consumers will automate their shopping. Or Part 2 of 5 by reading Consumers are crafting new narratives of adulthood. You should help.

But now let’s dive into Part 3 of 5: VIRTUAL COMPANIONS.

Regular readers of TrendWatching will know that we’ve been tracking the ongoing evolution of human connection since, well, pretty much ever. But in 2018, that story takes a radical turn.

Because this is the year that millions of consumers start to feel it is possible to have a meaningful conversation – 💖 a relationship, even 💖 – with virtual entities that entertain, educate, heal and even befriend. 

No, we haven’t been watching too many episodes of Black Mirror. This trend may sound more sci-fi than reality, but it’s grounded in deep shifts, both technological and social. After all, tech firm Gartner has long been predicting that by 2020 the average person will have more conversations with bots than with their spouse.

And while it’s AI and machine learning (again!) that make it ever more possible to realistically model human conversation, millions of consumers are already deeply immersed in behaviors that make VIRTUAL COMPANIONS the natural next step in 2018. We’re not just talking about the staggering 394% increase in time spent on social and messaging apps in 2016 (Yahoo, June 2017). We’re talking about relationships with personal assistants that already extend beyond the merely functional, and encompass aspects of human existence such as happiness, wellness, and the simple desire to alleviate boredom. Don’t pretend that you’ve never had a deep and meaningful conversation with Siri!

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No wonder Apple is hiring software engineers with a psychology background to ‘help Siri have serious conversations’.

Throw in the dawning realization that traditional social media can increase feelings of isolation, and the final piece of the consumer demand puzzle is in place. A recent study found that among users aged 19 to 32, those who spend more than two hours a day on social media have twice the risk of feeling socially isolated against people who spend less than 30 minutes a day on the same platforms (American Journal of Preventative Medicine, July 2017).

So, how will you meet rising consumer expectation for virtual entities that become true companions? Take inspiration from these examples.

INNOVATION EXAMPLES

KLM: GPS-enabled wearable tag gives visitors tips about Amsterdam

Where does this trend start? With innovations that have one foot still firmly planted in functionality and assistance, but offer an innovative shot of brand companionship, too. In September 2017 Dutch airline KLM launched the KLM Care Tag for visitors to Amsterdam. The GPS-enabled tag works without an internet connection to deliver location-based city tips from KLM staff and crew members on restaurants, tourist spots, navigation and more.

Replika: AI-fueled chatbot becomes mirror of user’s personality

What does true VIRTUAL COMPANIONSHIP look like? Replika is an AI chatbot intended to become a mirror of the user’s personality. The bot learns about its user via questions about interests, aspirations, hobbies, values and more, and over time becomes an ever-closer approximation of the user’s deep self. Replika was created by US-based Luka. Launched in March 2017, the app had reached 100,000 sessions by May.

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au by KDDI: Diners interact with virtual popstar Hatsune Miku

Here’s an early signal of where all this is leading. In July 2017 the Blue Leaf Café in Sendai, Japan, partnered with telecoms company au by KDDI to host an experience with well-known virtual popstar Hatsune Miku. Each table had a Lenovo Phab 2 Pro cellphone; the device used augmented reality technology to make Hatsune Miku appear and interact with diners.

Credit Suisse: virtual moneybox responds when cash is deposited

This bank has reimagined a traditional aspect of childhood via a VIRTUAL COMPANION. Launched in August 2017, the DigiPigi is a smart moneybox from Credit Suisse. The box responds with sounds and facial expressions when cash is dropped into it. It can also be synced to current accounts and will respond to activity across those accounts.

NEXT

It would be easy to look at the examples above and dismiss this trend as a Black Mirror episode come to life. But it would also be a big mistake. Need more evidence? Witness the delight in reviews for the ‘magic AI friend’ Uni. Those are real (not virtual) feelings.

Apple is already responding to the expectation that personal assistants become companions. But that expectation extends far beyond the tech giants. A full 72% of regular voice technology users say ‘I think brands should have unique voices and personalities for their apps/skills and not just use the assistant on my phone’ (JWT, April 2017).

Still, this trend does come with a warning: it’s emphatically not one for every brand to embrace wholeheartedly. Consumers don’t want many of the brands they deal with to be true companions – virtual or otherwise – and that’s okay! You don’t have to jump on every new trend, even if your dev team tell you they can have something ready after the next sprint.

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So first, ask yourself: are we one of those brands that should make a true VIRTUAL COMPANION? Or should we stick to creating or improving a highly functional chatbot – and meet the expectations this trend is generating by adding a hint of playfulness and personality (think Slackbot)? 

If you think a true VIRTUAL COMPANION is part of your destiny, you have an exciting challenge ahead. Start by asking: if our brand came to life, what kind of personality would it have? What kind of companion should it be to our customers?

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