Editor's note: As part of the 20th anniversary issue of TechTalk, I thought I would include an article I wrote in 1999 -- at the turn of the new millennium (back in the time of 1G phones when even flip phones had not yet been invented). In this article, I predict the development of the smart phone, of mobile event apps, mobile event agendas replacing paper ones, mobile conference alerts, event networking apps, event messaging, mobile audience polling/voting, mobile attendance tracking for CEUs, group collaboration apps, mobile registration, participant engagement apps, mobile video streaming and more.
We are in a revolution that will profoundly change our lives. We have barely just begun, but, when fully adopted, it will transform society as surely and profoundly as did the printing press or the invention of the wheel.
Fasten your seat belts, however. The industrial revolution took about 200 years to work its way into society. This new revolution, the “digital revolution” fueled by the tremendous information and networking power of the Internet, will take no more than 20 years.
We are very early in this adoption curve, however. Half of 377 million global Internet users have come on line only in the past two years. Most of us are still just trying to figure things out! We still are on “square one” but, once society figures it out, and once we fully digitize the business and communication process, whole new worlds open up.
As we start this new millennium, it is a good time to speculate on some of the changes we will see in this coming decade. This article will dust off the crystal ball and look into the future of business and meetings. The Jetsons (from the futuristic cartoon TV series of the 60’s), in many ways, are not as far off as we think.
3G, the Widget and other Technology.
Two characters, 3G (short for third generation), represent a tsunami of change that will make today’s cell phones seem as antiquated as the old black rotary-dial phone or even the hand-cranked ones our great-grandparents used. Fundamentally, 3G is a protocol that represents global high-bandwidth wireless Internet access. Current cell phones operate at 9.6 kbs. The 3G standards will be 20 to 200 times faster – far faster than today’s PC modem connections. With this speed and use of miniaturization technology, a whole new range of options open. Your cell phone will morph into a wireless palm device, a video camera, a video phone, a still camera, a Walkman, a pager, a television, a radio, a geo-positioner, a credit card (with a micro payment system for parking meters, vending machines, etc.), a wireless web browser, and much more.
With the growth of G3, in a few years, the following scenario will be entirely possible: Your “widget” (Wireless Internet Device for Geo-Positioning, E-commerce and Telecommunications) will alert you of an upcoming business dinner appointment. The widget will automatically check to make sure your most recent calendar is clear. It will send out a v-mail (video-mail) confirmation to the person you will be meeting and to your spouse as a reminder that you won’t be home for dinner. Upon receiving a return v-mail acceptance, it will make the dining reservations based on your preferences, restaurant proximity to both parties, restaurant table availability, and recent food critic ratings. The widget will provide a high-resolution map display with step-by-step audio driving directions to the restaurant for both parties and will send departure reminders based on current traffic conditions to ensure on-time arrivals. If a traffic tie-up occurs en route, the widget will reroute you to the optimal detour based on immediate traffic conditions and automatically relay the new arrival time to the restaurant and to your dinner guest. On the way, the widget will provide CD-quality music programming (any song that has ever been recorded) transmitted to your high-fidelity car speakers, or, if preferred, a synopsis of the latest market trends and background of the company of the person you will be meeting. During the meeting, any conversations and verbal agreements can be automatically recorded, transcribed and translated if desired. The widget can also be used to provide graphic support (interactive, high-resolution, 3-D, multimedia slides) or just to share pictures of the spouse and kids. After the sumptuous meal (there a some things you just can’t digitize), you will use the widget to double-check the bill for accuracy and then to beam payment from your bank account. All tax-deductible transactions, of course, will be recorded and for automated tax returns at the end of the year.
This “widget” will have a huge impact on the meetings industry as well. These scenarios will be possible as well:
  • Conference programs and announcements: The old “dead-tree” (a.k.a. paper) programs will give way to electronic announcements and onsite programs. These programs will be customized based on user preference following one-to-one marketing principles. They can be dynamically updated based on programs changes that may occur. Speaker bios and high-resolution video clips will help sell the event and help the attendee decide what is the best session for them. Using foldable display technology (prototypes for “electronic paper” are currently under development by the MIT Media Lab), you will be able to pull out your high-resolution, touch-sensitive and voice-sensitive web browser from your pocket, and unfold it like a piece of paper, and access the latest program or any other document that you have. Show dailies will become history, as the current show information will always be available.
  • Exhibits and show management: A high-resolution, interactive floor plan and product directory using this same folding display that will be provided and updated wirelessly via the Internet. The product directory, sorted by your preferences, will provide full multi-media product presentations and a calendar to set up appointments with exhibitors based on: your calendar, the exhibitors’ calendars, your ranked product preferences and the most efficient path through the hall. Credit card or bar code scanning for lead retrieval will become a thing of the past, as all contact information will be beamed by the widget.
  • Networking: There currently exists a wireless networking device from Shockfish designed to enhance networking options and a whole range of other wireless meeting products. You can, for example, enter your preferences, and determine who around you in a 10 to 20’ radius, matches your preferences. You can then use these devices to find out the names, a picture and background of the people you are surrounded by and identify the best match with whom to strike up a conversation or to network. This type of technology could easily be transferred to the widget of the future. Eventually, even the need for name badges may be eliminated with heads up-display technology that recognizes the individual approaching you and unobtrusively displays the person’s name, company, and title on the inside of your glasses or contact lens.
  • Message centers: As everyone will have immediate access to automated, filtered email or v-mail, the need for message centers will be eliminated.
  • Audience polling, voting and group collaboration: Brahler is among several excellent companies that provide wireless audience polling devices for meetings and conventions. These devices are very helpful for audience members to vote or respond to questions with the results immediately displayed for all to see on a screen. They can also be used for anonymous or individual voting. As a presenter, I wish I had these devices with every audience to be ability to immediately gauge audience response to a variety of questions. “Widget” devices, in the future, could be used in the same capacity eliminating the need for an outside service to provide it. Also, all evaluation and survey forms will be replaced for immediate, accurate and fully compiled feedback using these devices.
  • Registration: In the future, you may never have to fill out another form. Your contact and payment information will automatically be transferred wirelessly. If a session is sold out, you will be automatically waitlisted and notified as soon as a seat becomes available. Continuing education units (CEUs) common for many conferences could also automatically be tracked.
  • The meeting room: The talking head is dead. The days where a single speaker standing behind a lectern in one-way information flow will go away. Attendees armed with widgets or similar devices will have the ability to interact and customize programs to a far greater degree than ever before, and they will insist on doing so. Agendas and program content can be developed collaboratively by all of the attendees. The whole format of meetings will change to take advantage to the strength of face-to-face group communication such as brainstorming, collaboration, relationship building, etc. assisted by these devices.
  • Videoconferencing: Stepping back and looking at the broader picture, the ability for high-quality wireless picture-phones (one of the widget’s capabilities) will provide the ability for instant teleconferencing and will bring people from around the world closer than they have ever been before. Some meetings will be eliminated (a coast-to-coast flight for a 4-hour business meeting for example). However, new ones will be created. The Internet in general, and this new technology, will expand our circle of contacts. Fundamentally, this revolution is not a technology phenomenon -- it is a communication revolution. Never before has it been easier to communicate globally, and, as social animals, we like to get together with contacts and friends at meetings.
It is not known what standard or final form these widgets will take. They will likely be in many forms based on our customized needs. It is a certainty, however, that this next generation of wireless devices and the ones that follow have the potential to dramatically transform our lives as business and meetings professionals. Most of the scenarios described above are in development at the current time. As these developments are adopted, what will have seemed science fiction in the past will become science-fact. The Jetson-like transformations will be come commonplace revolutionizing our business practices.

Corbin Ball, CMP, CSP, DES is a speaker and independent third-party consultant focusing on meetings technology. He is an inductee into the EIC 2018 Hall of Leaders. With 20 years of experience running international citywide technology meetings, he now helps clients worldwide use technology to save time and improve productivity He can be contacted at his extensive web site Corbin Ball & Co. – Meetings Technology Headquarters and followed on www.twitter.com/corbinball.
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