With New Technology, It’s Important to Separate Trends from Fads

In the world of technology, we’ve grown to embrace disruption as being a positive thing; it is the new banner of progress.

As our efforts continue to upend industry after established industry at accelerating rates, it’s safe to say we’re making good on our promises. But disruptors are not impervious to disruption themselves, and certainly many failed enterprises (tech and otherwise) might tell you that the ultimate factor in their demise was not the introduction of product alternatives, but rather their own failure to identify a trend and act.

There are several challenges when it comes to identifying trends, one of which is mistaking them for a fad. For our purposes, let’s define a “fad” as being “a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal”—and there are countless examples.

Take the meteoric rise of Fidget Spinners this spring. Or last summer’s 100-million-download smash hit, Pokémon Go. Zeal doesn’t even begin to describe the fervor surrounding cultural phenomenons like these, and yet most analysts will tell you each have had their heyday, and are now on the decline. Their peaks have passed, and while Pokémon does still have an active daily player base, both are apt to go down in history as hugely successful fads, not long-term institutions of popular culture.

Of course, where there is lightning in a bottle, there are going to be large numbers of entrepreneurs and executives seeking to replicate and ride a wave of popularity into big profits. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, lightning never strikes twice in the same place—and this is the danger of following a fad as though it were a trend: everyone is jumping from the same cliff, but only Niantic, Nintendo and The Pokemon Company get the soft landing of $1.2 billion in revenues.

There is much to be learned from any fad, though, and typically this information will guide us more clearly as to the trajectory of a greater trend.

For example, when we look at the Fidget Spinner craze, it would be easy to write it off as “just one of those things” that our kids liked. But if we scratch the surface a little deeper, there is potentially a trend here around physical tools that help children focus in a highly distracting digital world. Likewise with Pokémon Go, the fad is less important than the trend of bridging the gap between physical and digital experiences. With that perspective, there is new terrain, products to be developed within those trends and disruptions to be engineered.

Take virtual reality, which has experienced its share of trips around the hype cycle. Consumers and tech execs alike have eagerly followed the news stories, the social media frenzies, the product placements, the trade show launches but, at least within the consumer market, ultimately the expectations have exceeded the reality.

As consumers we’ve been promised Tron for 35 years, Lawnmower Man for 25 and as we approach the release of another major VR-hyping film, Ready Player One, we’re still short of seeing people living their lives in a fully immersive digital universe. But while plenty of products have come and gone in this category, and the field is littered with what could legitimately be called fads (Virtual Boy anyone?), what can be gleaned about the overarching trend?

As with augmented reality games and cheap trinkets, it’s worth going a bit deeper and looking at what the hype is signalling. In the case of virtual reality, the fads keep coming because there is an authentic trend towards building technologies and applications that bridge the physical-digital gap. In this case, however, the fads are primarily sticking to the consumer/videogaming space—which of course makes sense given the gargantuan potential of a significant hit.

If we adjust that lens and take a look at VR in the business-to-business arena, this is where we start to see a trend. Goldman Sachs issued a report which stated that the global VR industry would be worth up to $182 billion by 2025—and that only one-third of that heft will be associated to video games.

Multiple industries, from medicine to real estate and ecommerce to architecture are already being impacted by VR technology. And it’s precisely because a trend can be followed into more niche environments, that this success is becoming possible.

In our own case, we knew that the architectural industry was a space where providing immersive experiences to communicate the abstract world of design just made sense. Our clients utilize our technology every day to help speed up decision making, improve customer experience and close more business. And when you can identify tangible business results like that, it speaks to the advent of trend versus a fad.

It’s important for innovators to examine these lines between fads and trends. By doing this in the area of VR, we’ve been able to create a sound business model through developing our own niche within a growing trend.

So whether it’s children’s gadgets, app development or virtual reality, it’s important to track the hype—but don’t always believe it. And, more importantly, take some time to look beyond it to see if there might just be a far more exciting trend it’s bringing to light.

Robert Kendal is the Managing Director of Yulio Technologies.