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What does the technology hype cycle say about consumer trends?

We have been publishing the 10 Hot Consumer Trends for eight years. In many predictions, we have been right. In some, we have been wrong – like, way off the charts wrong. However, even our worst misses may yet hit the bullseye. They just need to shoot through the technology hype cycle. Read on to find out.

Man wearing VR glasses
Michael Björn 

Head of Research Agenda and Quality at Consumer & IndustryLab

Category, topic & hashtags

Our trends are based on consumer surveys, primarily of early adopters of internet technology. So, when we are seemingly off the mark, this more than anything implies a gross mismatch between consumer expectations and what technology can deliver to the mass market.

When you look at predictions from half a century ago, there were always flying cars somewhere. Didn’t happen. But still, people’s imaginations tend to become the template for the direction of future product development. And maybe sometimes it just takes longer than expected – after all, it is only now that we are starting to see flying cars.

This is what we can call the hype cycle, the idea that high expectations are not initially met but then the tech is instead realized at a later stage. It was originally thought up by Gartner.

Car in parking

Were we too premature to write off flying cars?


Why does the hype cycle happen?

It is easier to understand when you think of us humans as lemmings. All day long, we run in the same direction without much afterthought and when a new technology starts getting talked about by some influencers, often others start talking about it too. Before long, since everyone is talking about it, the idea somehow spreads that this amazing new technology will soon be upon us. After all, why else would everybody be talking about it?

In hype cycle parlance, that would put us at the peak of inflated expectations. No wonder that consumers also get affected – and, in fact, especially so if they are early adopters of technology.

One such peak happened around VR back in 2016. The consumer version of the Oculus Rift VR headset was finally released that year – and I say “finally” due to the dramatic buildup of expectations after Facebook bought the Kickstarter project for $2 billion in 2014. After all, can you think of any other company that defines the tech mass market more than Facebook?

VR in front of large screen


Advanced internet users were naturally ready to take the next step. In 2016, we talked about how virtual gets real - not only because 8 out of 10 wanted at least one of the VR services we asked about, but also physically in the sense that over 50 percent thought holographic screens would go mainstream within 5 years. That would be in a year from now. Not likely to happen.

Another peak relates to AR. After the release of Pokémon GO in 2016, Magic Leap became all the rage with their talk about using lightfield technology for AR glasses. By 2017 they had raised $2 billion in funding – although valuations of the company were much higher. Again, we took the logical next step in our 2017 trends and among other things had a trend called augmented personal reality. This introduced the idea of the world around us in everyday mobile life becoming totally subjective and personalized. We stated that consumers wanted to use AR to change the world into something that reflects their own personal moods. Around 2 in 5 wanted to change the way their surroundings look and even how people appear to them. More than a third also wanted to edit out disturbing elements around them, such as graffiti, garbage, or even badly dressed people. Shocking, right? But even today, with Minecraft Earth releasing in early access, that still seems like a stretch.

The trough, the slope and the plateau

But let us look at this in terms of the hype cycle.

The reason why it is so easy for us to dismiss these ideas just a couple of years after we took them seriously is that for VR and AR we might right now be in what is called the “trough of disillusionment”. This is the stage where early products – as hinted at above – fail to deliver on the lofty promises and don’t find mass appeal. The bang simply isn’t loud enough for many to shell out the buck.

But luckily the tale doesn’t end there. In fact, it has two more stages. And herein is why I like the hype curve theory despite some people (rightly) criticizing it for not being a cycle and for being quite subjectively formulated.

First, there is the “slope of enlightenment” where some companies start getting their products right. Next, this is followed by the so-called “plateau of productivity” where the mass market at long last happens.

In other words: all that stuff could happen. It will just take more time and maybe be a bit less amazing than we first imagined it to be. Personally, I honestly believe that all of these trends – including some even more outlandish ones, such as the mind sharing trend we had all the way back in 2014 – will in fact be even more amazing than imagined once you factor in their societal impact beyond the pure tech perspective.

But how long will it take? Five years? Ten years?

This is something we are currently factoring into our work ahead of the next consumer trends report. That report is soon here – but what about the due date of the trends we focus on? Watch this space!

The next installment of the ConsumerLab trends will be released on December 10th.

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