Friday Five: VR fairs and Facebook does voice

Zone’s Mark Sylvester handpicks and shares the five best stories on new digital trends, experiences and technologies…

1. All the virtual fun of the fair

What constitutes fun changes from decade to decade and these days tech really is redefining how we amuse ourselves. Which is where innovative gaming gurus Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman come in.

They’ve digitally remastered the big top to produce a VR-saturated extravaganza in Los Angeles. Having laid on enhanced entertainment for the likes of Microsoft, Intel and Warner Brothers, the duo’s new venture brings cutting-edge tech and classic carnival games together in one place, with aspects of immersive theatre thrown in for good measure. Could this be the future of fun? Watch this virtual space…

2. Putting a voice to the face

Whether it’s choosing a restaurant with Siri or having Alexa lay down some tunes, we’re all getting pretty used to chatty digital assistants. However, the news that Facebook is throwing its hat into the voice recognition ring was still met with a few raised eyebrows.

Reports suggest the beta feature, apparently codenamed Aloha, has been squirreled away deep inside the Android Facebook and Messenger apps. But it does bear all the hallmarks of an embryonic smart assistant that could be capable of spanning both smartphones and smart speakers. Voice seems to be the way the digital wind is blowing, but only time will tell whether Facebook can have the last word.

3. AI comes to the rescue in disasters

Natural disasters claim untold lives every year, and with the world’s climate becoming increasingly erratic, the threat from wild fires and tsunamis continues to grow. However, a growing band of AI start-ups are emerging that are dedicated to taking on the disasters — and saving lives.

Companies such as Geospiza Inc and Once Concern Inc are developing software that can predict where and when tragedy might strike, highlight parts of cities vulnerable to damage and help emergency services identify those most likely to need assistance. Worries remain about aspects such as the reliability of the base data, but predicting disaster relief is definitely worth putting some weight behind.

4. Retailers mustn’t lose the human touch

As our ability to collect and crunch data becomes ever more refined, it’s tempting for brands to throw every digital solution in their toolbox at each and every problem. However, new research by PwC, shows that, in retail at least, customers demand a big slice of human interaction to go with their digital diet.

It appears that most people fear brands are hiding behind tech and letting the human element whither. However, when used properly, tech and data are the perfect partner for retailers, allowing them to ditch the model of the ‘average’ customer and leverage insights to craft the best possible personalised shopping experiences. This actually brings things full circle by enabling retailers to serve up a uniquely human touch.

5. Your driverless delivery is ready for dispatch

Just when you think you’re losing interest in driverless vehicles something pops up, and all the fun possibilities start running through your head again. The latest to tickle my autonomous automobile funny bone is a US scheme for a driverless grocery delivery service from the partnership of Kroger and Nuro.

The driverless Prius that currently turns up with orders is soon to be replaced by a dedicated delivery pod called the R1. It’s difficult to unpick the practical benefits from the novelty, but with every new driverless venture the potential seems to grow. I quite enjoy that chat with the Ocado driver about incongruous product swaps, but who knows, build some voice capability into those delivery pods and I could be sold.

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