Tis the season when we gather together, hold our loved ones close, reflect on our lives, and take stock of the many blessings we have. It’s a process that makes identifying all of those things we don’t currently have (but should) a whole lot easier.
OK, that might sound a little crass. But while the spirit of the holidays moves us to reflect back, the spirit of innovation insists we keep our eyes fixed ever forward; as holiday tensions go, this one’s actually pretty healthy. Like houseguests, new technological innovations are a lot more exciting while they’re en route to you than once they‘ve arrived. (Look down at your iPhone, for instance: Bo-ring.)
With that, what follows is a short wish list for the coming year in tech. Will the Santa of 2016 dispatch his festive fleet of drone-deer to lovingly place each treat beneath my holographic tree? A boy can dream.
Lucky children of all ages will be rubbing their eyes in disbelief (and likely fatigue) this year, as Samsung’s Gear VR headset makes its big holiday push. Samsung first introduced its consumer level virtual reality headset last year, and went through several iterations that suffered from limited compatibility (the headset accommodates a selection of mobile phones to serve as its screen) and preventative pricing. This past month, Samsung announced a lighter, cheaper version of the Gear VR, priced at $99 and able to run with a number of Samsung phones (including the Note 5, S6, S6 Edge, and S6 Edge+). It’s one giant leap for virtual reality, which spent most of the year teasing the masses from the periphery of development circles.
As for what’s to come in 2016, I can hardly stand the wait. With consumer curiosity fully piqued by the Gear VR and the barebones Google Cardboard, virtual reality is primed to go full-blown mainstream. Next year will see the anticipated release of Sony’s PlayStation VR (formerly known as Project Morpheus), the HTC Vive, and the headset that (Kick)started it all, the Oculus Rift. (Also keep an eye on up-and-comers like the Bangalore-based Absentia’s Tesseract headset.)
Meanwhile, augmented reality (VR’s little brother that stands to grow a lot bigger) is readying to be all up in your face next year. Where VR immerses users in a total digital environment, AR takes a more transparent route, superimposing digital objects and information upon the world around you. Be on the lookout for developer versions of Microsoft’s HoloLens, an as-yet unnamed competitor from Asus, as well as AR advancements from the labs of Facebook to the Google-funded Magic Leap.
There’s understandable uncertainty swirling around the question of whether average Americans are up to the challenge of safely piloting unmanned aircraft. With holiday sales of consumer drones estimated to be up near 400,000, an FAA task force has already issued a list of recommendations toward regulating the rising swarm. (For right now, the standard rules apply: drones should be less than 55 pounds, and be flown within one’s line of sight no higher than 400 feet and at least 5 miles from an airport.)
For most ground-level consumers, the biggest thing to land in 2016 will be GoPro’s quadcopter drone, which CEO Nick Woodman described as the “ultimate GoPro accessory.” Based on name recognition alone, GoPro could snag a good chunk of a market prepared to take off.
While drones have mainly been used for aerial photography (and simulating flying skeleton ghouls), corporations are already working on drone-based delivery systems for online purchases. Alphabet (nee Google) hopes to have its pilot Project Wing in the air by 2017, and Amazon is currently wrangling with the FAA to realize its ballyhooed Amazon Prime Air service (which will aim for deliveries in 30 minutes — as well as your doorstep). These new uses could still be a ways off — so, for now, you’ll still have to pick your kid up from day care yourself.
DRIVING MS. LAZY
If you’re very well-behaved, 2016 may be the year that paves the way for self-driving cars. Companies like Tesla, Nissan, and Honda are all hard at work on the technology, and Google has already hit 2 million miles with the fleet of rejiggered Lexus SUVs and “koala car” prototypes it has dispatched into the streets of Austin, Texas.
And while self-driving cars will likely face even more regulatory hurdles than drones, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has given signs that the inevitable rise of the vehicles will steer the conversation. “I want the posture of our agency to be obviously vigilant on the safety front,” he told a reporter, “but I don’t want our agency to be skittish about innovations that are out there.”
One report predicts that by 2020, we’ll see more than 10 million self-driving cars on the road (and ideally staying there). The technology still has a ways to go. One video of a 2014 competition sponsored by Hyundai shows self-driving cars severely struggling with the hazard of light drizzle — and should be enough to temper your impatience. You might have to wait a few years for your first empty Uber to pull up, but the next bus is only 20 minutes away.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe
.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.