From smart watches to smart homes, a look at how emerging technology will change our lives in the new year.
Google Glass is a connected device that brings information to users just when they need it. Still in development, it could hint at what consumer technology will look like in 2014. Credit: Google
After we finished our meal and cleared the dishes on Christmas, family and friends stayed in their seats – probably too full to move – laughing and sharing stories. And, in keeping with a relatively new tradition, we passed around our gadgets and marveled over the technology we found under the tree.
Most of the gifts were simple: phone cases that extend battery life, and wristbands that track personal fitness. A fingerprint scanning phone aside, nothing screamed “futuristic” or signaled a profound change in consumer technology.
But everyone, from my youngest cousin to my grandparents, wanted to get their hands on these intriguing devices. We are all fascinated by technology that makes our lives simpler, faster, or better.
And coupled with this fascination is curiosity: inevitably every Christmas someone asks me, “So, what’s next?”
Things You’ve Come to Expect, Perfected
To answer the question, I think back to a trip my family took to Boston for the holidays in 2007. Six years ago, I had asked for one of the coolest phones on the market for Christmas – the LG Voyager.
The LG Voyager was considered a powerful device just six years ago. Comparing it with smartphones today, it is a reminder of how quickly consumer tech advances. Credit: Verizon Wireless
Far from the smartphones of today, Verizon’s flagship ‘feature phone’ only boasted a few modern features: it came with a keyboard for sending text messages, could play music, and (kind of) browse the internet.
One blustery morning, we braced the frosty air in search of Boston’s Faneuil Hall, a few blocks from our hotel. Eager to get into the warmth of the marketplace quickly, I pulled out my new phone and put it to its first real-world test: navigation.
I remember being amazed LG was able to shoehorn a GPS unit into such as small device. Verizon had run a holiday ad campaign highlighting their “VZ Navigator” app, which came bundled with the phone and promised easy, turn-by-turn directions. Proud of my new gadget and confident in the Voyager’s abilities, I assured my family I would have us at our destination in no time.
Several minutes later, the Voyager still had not recognized my input. By the time it finally located Faneuil Hall and plotted the route, we were cold and frustrated. It felt like a broken promise.
Fast forward to today, smartphone maps have been perfected. Type Faneuil Hall into Google Maps – go ahead, even misspell it! Instantly you are greeted with multiple routes and modes of transportation. It’s a shining example of how far consumer tech has come.
But even in 2013, there were a few of these “broken promises.” Apple and Samsung told us “instant sharing” was a reality, with their AirPlay or NFC radios. But neither method “just works” – at least, not yet. Mobile payments and wearable technology also feel half-baked at the moment. Expect that to change in 2014.
‘Ambient Information’ Reaches Critical Mass
Just as you’re about to leave your desk, Google Now pulls up real-time traffic and weather information. In 2014, we will do less searching, because our devices will bring the information we need right to us. Credit: Google
At the peak of the dot-com rush, search-engine companies set out to tackle a growing problem with a simple idea: make the vast amount of data on the internet accessible and searchable.
More recently, they have taken this idea one step further: bring information people need right to them, without searching.
Google CEO Larry Page presents his vision for a world of “ambient information” at the Google I/O Conference in 2013. Credit: The Guardian
It’s a concept called “ambient information.” Wondering how soon you’ll be home? Debating whether you should bring an umbrella? Tech companies big and small are working on bringing you just the right information at just the right time.
You might have seen the start of this in 2013. iPhone users can swipe down from the top of their screen at any time to see up-to-the-minute traffic and weather. Similarly, Google Now brings location-specific information right to Android devices. All without searching.
In 2014, both the scope of ambient information, and the number of people with access to it, will skyrocket. Exploring a new neighborhood? Your phone will recommend the best nearby restaurant. Just finished a run? Your phone – or perhaps, your watch – will tell you how many calories you burned. And this year, ambient information is no longer a convenience reserved for the few. Nearly every smart device shipping this year will support it.
So don’t be surprised if “Googling it” becomes a thing of the past. In 2014, you already have the information you wanted.
The Watershed Year for Connected Devices
Nest Lab’s “learning thermostat” improves your home’s environmental efficiency and learns your habits to keep you comfortable. Credit: Nest
Imagine this futuristic scenario: As you arrive home, the front door identifies you and automatically unlocks. You walk inside; the thermostat kicks on, adjusting the temperature to your liking. The lights turn on, brighten and dim as you move about. You sit down on the couch, and the television instantly turns to your favorite program.
Now consider that all of this is already possible. In 2014, more people will use these connected devices than ever before.
Nest Labs, a young company in Palo Alto, is re-inventing household appliances to make our homes more comfortable and energy efficient. Another Californian firm, Fitbit, is helping people lead healthier lives by giving them the power to monitor their activity. Both are spearheading the growing connected-devices movement, and will continue to pioneer innovative, affordable products in the new year.
Larger players have thrown their hat in the ring as well. Microsoft’s new Xbox One has aspirations far beyond gaming: it’s poised to seamlessly integrate every device in your living room. Google continues development of Google Glass, and both Apple and Google could easily ship a mass-market wearable device this year.
Still years away from living in the world of “connected everything,” 2014 will be the year you start seeing these devices in your day-to-day life.