2016's Most Eye-Popping Futuristic Tech
By Eric Griffith, PC Magazine, 20 December 2016.
By Eric Griffith, PC Magazine, 20 December 2016.
This is the 33rd year PCMag.com (and before it, PC Magazine) has looked back at the year's technological excellence, and - as expected - 2016 contained the most mind-blowing innovations to date.
In the past, technology like the silicon chips that graced the first generation of personal computers were enough to rev our innovation engines. Today, they are museum piece relics of a long-lost era. It's hard to believe that some of the items that have come out this year, be they actual products or concepts with the potential to change computing, might some day be relegated to the same small spot in history. Today, the items you're about to read about loom large in the view of what's to come.
Below, we'll give you a quick glimpse of what the staff at PCMag consider the year's major innovations. While many touch upon personal computing and even mobile use, some go far beyond that - even into space. The next few years will tell the tale, whether all these inventions continue to impress, or whether they fall by the wayside to be forgotten. (We did once proclaim the Palm webOS a major piece of tech excellence even as the era of the iPhone was underway; we can't all bat 1,000.)
1. NETWORKING: Home Mesh Wi-Fi Networking
It wouldn't seem like Wi-Fi could do much more than get faster and reach farther, right? Well, ease of setup and better coverage - things that generally seemed the antithesis of networking - are also nice. That's where the new mesh home network products are changing things for home users. Led by upstarts with names like Eero, Luma, Plume, and Almond, they're not quite ready to replace your souped-up home router yet.
However, unlike the old days of tossing a repeater into the mix to boost the original signal to dead spots, mesh networks will let you place hardware in multiple spots and instantly create a mesh connection across the home for any device to connect to. That many of these devices also follow the Google OnHub approach of controlling the network with a user-friendly mobile app (rather than esoteric browser-based dashboards) is the icing on the wireless cake.
This is nothing totally new - cities were trying mesh networks a decade ago and quickly saw wireless carriers overtake them in popularity. But the smaller footprint of a home and the new tech making it work so smoothly mark it as something the big boys will have to try. Google and Netgear are already in the game. Your next router will probably put you there as well.
2. COOL GADGETS: Nike HyperAdapt 1.0 Self-Lacing Shoes
There is no greater prognosticator - or maybe it's a driver - of future tech than the film Back to the Future Part II. Last year, as the flick turned 30, all the talk was of the hoverboard, even in our previous version of this story. This year, in celebration of that film's use of its trademark to show Michael J. Fox in self-lacing sneakers, Nike finally made self-lacing trainers that actually work.
The first set, called HyperAdapt 1.0, sell for US$720 (or US$4,500 on eBay). They look better than the high-top moon-shoes McFly tried in the movie - these look exactly like everyday sneakers, in fact. The electro adaptive reactive lacing (EARL), aka "Power Laces," run across the front (not criss-cross); put your foot inside, the laces tighten. Push a button, they loosen. There is a lithium-polymer battery in the heel, none of which broke (or caught fire!) in testing. A charge lasts a couple of weeks; charging happens with a little magnetic puck that sticks to the bottom and takes around three hours. A look inside is pretty interesting.
This could be just the beginning - it's likely Nike will keep shrinking things to put in the shoes, so they become the next wearable health tracker. That should make for a much more accurate step count. Next year we get a Mr. Fusion, right?
3. SMARTPHONES: Moto Mods
LG couldn't do it, nor could ZTE. Even the mighty Google pulled the plug on the promising Project Ara. So-called modular mobile phones - where you can take out and add modules to expand functionality on a handset - were dead in the water. Then, along came Moto Mods from Lenovo's Motorola Mobility division.
Mods are not exactly like Ara; they attach to a connector on the phone (in this case, only the Moto Z and Z Force ) to offer up new accessories like backup power, projectors, car docks, even a speaker (from JBL no less) and a Hasselblad camera with 10x zoom lens (video above). There is talk of everything from an extra e-ink display and throwing 5G into a mod modem to bringing in Google's Project Tango AR. This isn't like attaching things to your iPhone Lightning connector, such as a Mophie. Mods (in most cases) magnetically merge onto the phone body like a new back. Motorola and Verizon even want people to help them determine new Mods to make (you have until Jan. 31 ).
Modular add-ons are an idea that needs to happen; we hope to see some other phone makers (hey, Samsung, looking at you!) jump on this in the coming year.
4. SPACE EXPLORATION: EM Drive
Newton's Third Law (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction) is impossible to break, and reacting against the vacuum of space means producing thrust for a vessel is not as easy as it looks in the movies. So the news that NASA had tested and peer-reviewed the Radio Frequency Resonant Cavity Thruster (aka the EM Drive) came as a shock. First designed in 1999 by inventor Roger Shawyer, the EM Drive is a "reactionless thruster" - a chamber full of microwaves producing zero exhaust to push anywhere, yet somehow creating thrust.
A NASA Eagleworks Laboratory test produced results. Maybe. How? Maybe dark matter. Or, the fundamentals of physics as we define them today are meaningless. It could have all been a screw-up. (Science Alert has an excellent rundown of the issues.)
Peer review in a science journal (in this case, Journal of Propulsion and Power from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) isn't exactly the same as sending a ship into space with passengers like Jennifer Lawrence. That's a long way off, if ever. The next step will be actually testing the EM Drive in space. China is already working on it in satellites; so is Italian engineer Guido Fetta, who created the similar Cannae Drive. Until the results are in, you can continue to agree with physicists who call BS, but we have our fingers crossed.
5. AUGMENTED REALITY: Google Tango
This was the year augmented reality, or AR, hit the map. It certainly got a mainstream introduction with Pokemon Go, as hundreds of thousands of players used an AR app to find the critters in the real world. But a much better indicator of what AR can do for people and where it's heading came via Google's Tango, which appeared on exactly one phone this year, the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro. The handset is unique for having two cameras on the back - a requirement for the depth perception an app needs to map out an indoor location. Once that's done, other AR apps for Android can do things like stick a dinosaur in the room with you, or let you play virtual dominos. Our review revealed the Tango apps are not ready for primetime; the phone is little more than a way to show off what Tango can do right now. That may be limited, but the potential will be something else entirely. Far beyond hoping to find Pikachu around the corner.
6. GREEN TECH: Tesla Solar Roof
Another year, another new tech promise from Elon Musk and Tesla. Last year was the Powerwall, the US$7,000 battery to power homes by collecting solar energy. This year, Musk surprised everyone with Solar Roof, or photovoltaic panels installed on a home's roof instead of standard asphalt shingles, slate tiles, or even terra cotta.
In fact, they look exactly like those roof styles, but with a layer of glass on top that's invisible unless you're close up (a smooth glass tile option will also be available). The tiles will provide protection from the rain and collect energy from the sun.
To be fair, it's not a new idea, but many of the companies that tried to introduce the concept have since died off, according to Greentech Media. Musk and Tesla (working with SolarCity, which Tesla purchased to make this happen) may prove to be different, and not just because of the Tesla brand recognition. Musk claims they'll be cheaper than the "dumb roof" of today, at least some day. They can even be warmed up to prevent snow/ice buildup.
Eventually, the power from the roof will be stored in the Powerwall (now with double the storage, up to 14 kilowatt hours), and used to power your car. Elon wouldn't mind if that vehicle was a Tesla, of course.
7. SUPER FAST TRANSFER: Silicon Photonics
The first mention of "silicon photonics" in the original PC Magazine was back in July 2003, as part of a Hot Technologies to Watch story. Intel claimed some breakthroughs in 2010, and last year IBM said the same. But in June 2016, Intel finally brought the technology to market.
The tech marries the silicon chip (Intel's raison d'être) with lasers, making an optical-based transmission medium capable of 100 gigabits per second. It works with existing Ethernet and telecom products and is going to make speeding things up in data centers - the initial and main customers for silicon photonics transceivers - incredibly easy. Data centers need it to replace copper lines that can't keep up, and to avoid using fiber optics that are getting costly. The transceivers don't even cost that much to power. It will make using the cloud so much faster that eventually it may feel like a local hard drive. No word yet on if the tech will ever come to consumer products, but it's a pretty safe bet that a decade or two from now a smart home will be using photonics as well.
8. VIRTUAL REALITY: "Merged" Reality
We've covered augmented reality, but what about virtual reality? We're headed into post-Oculus Rift territory soon, where VR won't be tethered to a single dedicated space - like that area next to the computer. Think Rift without the cables, or Google Cardboard/Samsung Gear VR with some actual power beyond a smartphone. That's the quick way to consider Project Alloy, an Intel project that places all the 3D and what Intel calls "merged reality" (VR + AR) processing in one head-mounted device.
The AR part comes from using RealSense cameras mounted on the headset, so the essentially blinded wearer can still interact with the real world as depicted in the lenses, because the headset knows your position relative to objects and structures and even people nearby. That means VR games can move, but you don't accidentally walk into a wall or kick a coffee table. Plus, you could use your hands to grab things in that "game."
Intel will offer Alloy as an open hardware platform sometime in 2017. Qualcomm also plans to offer a similar platform based on its Snapdragon VR820 processor. Not to be forgotten, Facebook-owned Oculus is also experimenting with a standalone merged reality (MR?) headset (codename: Santa Cruz).
9. HEALTH: Nanotech Patch Monitors
It's weird to say "it's a good year to be a diabetic," so I won't say that. Let's just say the technology that fights the disease is making big strides, including an artificial pancreas from Medtronic, coming out in 2017, which received FDA approval this year.
But this phone-sized system that constantly monitors blood sugar and administers insulin automatically isn't the big breakthrough. For that, we look to something smaller. The journal Nature Nanotechology published an article by South Korean researchers looking into a "graphene-based electrochemical device with thermoresponsive microneedles for diabetes." That's essentially a patch using our favorite still-nascent material, graphene. But while graphene is still a bit too uniform to work in some ways, it's perfect in other ways - like acting upon individual cells to administer drugs without needing things like needles.
10. IMAGING: Smartphone Scanning Apps
There has never been a lack of iOS or Android scanning apps. But most of them do nothing more than take a picture with the phone's camera, which is more than enough in many cases. But try to take a picture of an old photograph and you'll quickly see the limitation - the glare alone will make you crazy.
Somehow, PhotoScan by Google Photos avoids that. The app lets you hold your phone over a snapshot (or next to one - try it with pics on a wall), tells you how to move around the picture just right, and voila, captures a pretty decent digital replica of a pic that once only existed on paper. It'll even take out the background (mostly). It's an elegant solution to a problem we've had for far too long.
Same goes for the sheer lack of 3D scanning on the mobile device - until the guys behind the Eora 3D finished their successful crowd-funding campaign. It's the opposite of a 3D printer - place an object on a Bluetooth-controlled turntable, mount your phone on the scanner, which projects a green laser on the object spinning, and creates a 3D digital model via an app. The power comes from the camera and processing on the smartphone, to take full scans of small objects. For larger objects, just move your phone around them, and Eora will stitch the images together to make a 3D wireframe; no turntable required. They claim an accuracy down to sub-100 microns.
11. VEHICLES: BMW's Motorrad Vision Next 100 Motorcyle
There was a time when big tech names thought entire cites would be rebuilt for Segway scooters, the dork-mobiles that wouldn't tip over.
How will they feel about a motorcycle that takes out the danger of driving on two wheels by making sure the vehicle can't tip over in any road conditions? BMW claims its new electric concept cycle, the Vision Next 100, does just that.
The concept brings to mind one word: TRON. But there are joints on the bike that don't exist in current cycles; turn the handle bars and more than just the front wheel turns with it. Mainly, it's all about safety, especially for novices looking to never tip. BMW even claims it's so safe that riders don't need a helmet - only the face visor with heads-up display (HUD). Even that is controlled by eye movements.
And part of the experience is also the suit, which might look cool but has features itself, like an inflatable neck to stabilize the driver's head at high speeds. The suit helps with navigation, vibrating in the arms and legs to help direct the driver.
12. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: DeepMind Speaks, Dreams, and Plays
There was no lack of AI breakthroughs in 2016. MIT had an AI that was learning to predict what image would come next in a sequence - perhaps the start of our robot overlords making movies in the future. An AI built on a Raspberry Pi 3 playing a fighter simulation game beat an actual experienced combat pilot. Even the new Amazon Go cashier-less store coming to Seattle next year uses some AI and machine learning to track customers and what they take out.
But in 2016, nothing did more to push the boundaries of AI than DeepMind. Based in the UK and bought by Google (now Alphabet) for US$400 million a couple of years ago, DeepMind was on a tear this year. It beat the top player of the 2,500-year-old game of Go - last bastion of human gaming superiority. It also likes StarCraft, as seen above. It navigated subways, helped doctors, started to dream, and perhaps most importantly, moved to perfect a computer's ability to speak like a natural-sounding human. In a very nice move, the company is open sourcing DeepMind Lab, an entire AI platform, so other members of the AI community can build on it. Where will it all go? Eventually, DeepMind may be able to tell us all by itself.
[Source: PC Magazine.]