2015 predictions for changes in our digital lives
Arts and technology writers and thinkers offer predictions for our digital lives
After it initially halted release of "The Interview'' in theaters, speculation rose that Sony could go straight to streaming markets, a move that would help push video on demand (VOD) into the big time that no one in the film industry wants to admit it already is. Things seem to be working out that way. Beyond launching an initial limited release in theaters, Sony will stream the film on Google Play, YouTube Movies, Microsoft's Xbox Video, its own website, and possibly other services. But even before "The Interview" imbroglio, 2015 was already shaping up to be the year that VOD and home viewing started leaving theatrical exhibition in the cultural dust. In August, Netflix plans to debut "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend," a sequel to the 2000 hit, on its service and in limited IMAX release. More tellingly, the firm has announced a four-film Netflix-only deal with comedian Adam Sandler; even if those projects don't turn up before 2016, it's clear that the 90-day wall between the theatrical release and VOD is crumbling. This year, the science-fiction drama "Snowpiercer" went to the on-demand market two weeks after it opened in cinemas — and made double the grosses with home viewers. Because Hollywood really likes money, expect further experiments in 2015, as well as much gnashing of teeth from the multiplex chains. At what point does the theatrical economic model stop making sense? We may know sooner than we'd like.
Thanks to an unshakable fear that their own gossip-laden e-mails (not to mention business strategies and classified documents) will be leaked to the world, the people of 2015 will finally decide that it may not be a good idea to have a copy of every message sent stored forever online. A new e-mail tagline will be popularized, stating: "In order to conserve our collective personal and professional reputations, we recommend you permanently delete this e-mail upon reading. Seriously." The upside of all this ephemerality is that many more people will end up getting to "Inbox Zero," causing a marked increase in the gross national happiness of the planet. Whether it is embracing iMessage and WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption features, or following the Electronic Frontier Foundation's recommendation to use super-secret apps like SilentText, TextSecure, and ChatSecure, 2015 turns out to be the year that message encryption (and deletion!) goes mainstream. If you are under 21, this new year will validate your obsessive use of SnapChat as visionary and path-paving to your future career in national security or Hollywood.
Between more style-friendly wearables and Apple's effort to integrate personal tracking data with HealthKit, we'll see a new surge in consumer wearables and personal tracking data in 2015. In its first year out, the Apple Watch might only be a luxury gadget for early adopters, but careful attention to personal style preferences marks a notable shift in wearables design. Withing's Activité tracker pushes wearable design even further into the classic watch aesthetic to hide tracking outputs to the smart phone interface. And products like Ringly, a connected cocktail ring, will hide helpful alerts in a relatively stylish accessory. The biggest limitation for wearables thus far has been their long-term value in providing insights into more complex, interacting patterns of behavior because their data exists in proprietary silos. iOS's HealthKit promises to connect all the data streams about our body together in one place, addressing this gap in making personal data meaningful. The success of HealthKit will lie in its ability to make this data meaningful and actionable. Even Fitbit does not yet offer insights into how my steps affect my sleep, even though they are tracked with the same device. HealthKit launched with iOS 8 in 2014 with very few integrations, but we will likely see much more activity in 2015.
The breakout success of "Serial," the single-case chronicle that spun off from the wildly popular public-radio program "This American Life," doubled as a debutante ball of sorts for podcasts. Although podcasts have been around since at least 2005, interest in them tended for years to be limited — partly because early on the downloading technology was something of a hassle and partly because much of the content was lackluster and amateurish. But after improvements in both, popularity has been on the upswing, with weekly consumption up 25 percent year over year. Enter "Serial," whose success will only pave the way for more. One area to watch is public radio, which has been a breeding ground for podcasts as they allow for greater flexibility in the development process than programs that would fit into the broadcast day (they don't have to restrict themselves to a particular length, for instance). In 2015, Boston's public-radio stalwart WBUR will begin developing its own suite of podcasts separate from its already subscribable radio offerings; listeners got a preview of "Dear Sugar Hour," inspired by the beloved advice column written by local author Steve Almond and "Wild" memoirist Cheryl Strayed, in December, and the station will begin regularly producing "The Check-Up," hosted by CommonHealth writers Rachel Zimmerman and Carey Goldberg, later this winter.
The Internet of Things is officially a thing. Of course, what that thing is, exactly, remains to be fully realized. The consumer marketplace is only just beginning to explore the frontiers of "smart" devices, sensors, and M2M (machine to machine) communications. But the recent rise of wearable tech (from Fitbit to the forthcoming Apple Watch), and a surge in the popularity of home automation doodads (hope that robo-thermostat you got for Christmas is fun) signal a growing desire among us for an Internet fixated on us, rather than the other way around. In 2015, we're likely to see beacon technology graduate from IoT buzzphrase to full-on omnipresence. Using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth Low Energy signals, tiny affixable computers called beacons can sense your location and deliver hyper-localized information or services to your phone (and more likely in 2015, your smart watch). Some sexier ways to imagine the implications of a beacon-studded world include rooms that light up or cool off as you enter them; or a display in a dressing room that suggests shoes to go with that nice skirt you're trying on; or rival stores employing competing beacons to offer you a lower price as you walk past; or a smart headset for blind pedestrians that uses networked beacons to relay step-by-step navigational info from street crossings to delayed buses. Apple's own iBeacon technology and standalone beacon companies like Estimote (who team beacons with even smaller devices called "nearables") are poised to have a big impact in 2015. Who knows where we'll be this time next year? (Oh yeah. Beacons.)
Every year, cities collect mountains of data on everything from traffic accidents, to trash collection, to the latest rodent sightings. In 2015, cities will turn that information into smarter, data-driven policies that improve communities and efficiency. The open-data revolution has already inspired cities like Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville to launch websites that make the information they collect transparent to the public. But in moving beyond just transparency, they still face two challenges. If datasets don't "talk" to one another across borders or agencies, the value is limited. In 2015, Greater Boston cities will need to plan data standards together to ensure consistency. The second involves finding ways to engage communities with data to have a voice in policymaking. In this area, there are at least two groups focused on connecting the public with their cities' data. Open Data Discourse, or ODD, connects storytellers, artists, data visualizers, analysts, and others who care about specific policy issues to city and nonprofit data. ODD hosts monthlong contests that help cities gather insights from their data and give participants a chance at cash prizes, development resources, or even a job offer from contest sponsors. Winners of ODD's latest contest involving street safety and traffic accidents in Cambridge will be announced at Microsoft's NERD Center on Jan. 9. DrivenData tackles open, big data by pitting data scientists against one another. Currently they are hosting projects to compare spending across school districts, predict who will return to donate blood, and measure progress toward reaching the UN's Millennium Development Goals.