The year 2016 may at first sight, not go down in history as the most eventful year in technology but in my mind it was a very interesting year of many emerging technologies. It was like a confirmation of a world that is going to be transformed. I guess 2016 was the year of the building blocks. Here are few points on the state of some interesting technologies at the end of 2016.
If one single thing deserves to be named a hit in 2016, it must be augmented reality smartphone app Pokémon GO. This can hardly be considered a breakthrough technology but for some reason it managed to catch people’s attention. This craze caused all sorts of situations where people would wander around to find Pokémon creatures. Groups of people could be seen behaving weirdly in public places. Some pointed out the health benefits of people running around, while other pointed to safety hazards, for example when people drove around catching Pokémons. For Nintendo, the maker of the game, the financial benefits were good. The stock soared and the company became more valuable than Sony.
As for the most fun hardware device of the year, I would say Snap Spectacles. These are colourful sunglasses with a camera. The interesting thing about this wearable is that they are sold in vending machines that are not so widespread and published, which adds a mystery element. The scarcity of the Snap Spectacles makes them sought after items.
Other, perhaps more anticipated devices in 2016, were the Virtual Reality (VR) headsets. New headsets came to market like Oculus Rift, HTC Hive, and Sony Playstation VR to name a few. Many games were released and many game studios are turning to VR. Still, we are in the early stages of this technical wave (see article Through the VR desert). VR is mostly associated with games, which is understandable. However, VR has huge implication in other fields. Enterprise VR is just about taking off, helping businesses do a better job. We can expect to see applications in architecture and design, real estate, medicine, education, and manufacturing.
Video was also very important in the passing year. On Facebook alone, there are around 100 million hours of videos watched every day. The year saw more widespread use of 360 degree videos where you can change the picture by moving your smartphone or tablet. For desktops, the mouse can be used to swing the view point. The BBC technology show Click, aired an whole episode shot in 360 format. This format has be called the “gateway drug” to VR. What is driving this is the dropping cost in cameras.
The year 2016 marks the end of the Smartphone era that started in 2009 (see article Long Live the Smartphone). Over the past few years, new features and improvements made people switch phones every one or two years. But now with Apple 7 released in September 2016, the new phone was incremental. Sure it was better and faster, but not the same rate of improvement as earlier in the wave. However, that did not stop the Fanboys from waiting in line, again.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone released in August 2016 got even more press, but for a reason they might not have liked. The phone had a battery fault and could explode. Companies started to ban the phone in their offices and they were banned on public transport and on airplanes. Samsung had to recall the phones. The whole fiasco will cost the company billions.
The year 2016 also saw developments in voice assistant devices. Amazon released Echo a couple of years ago and this year Google added Home. These devices sit in your home and listen to everything you say and, when asked or directed, they will answer or respond to your requests. Common tasks are playing music, changing lights, and just answering questions. Amazon is expected to sell 5.2 million units in 2016, up from 2.4 million in 2015. The strategy of offering a voice assistant like Alexa may be devilishly cleaver since, according to Business Insider, Echo owners increased their spending on Amazon by 10% after buying the device.
Having a device like this in your house might sound creepy and it is. TechCrunch reports that the police in Bentonville, Arkansas, are asking for data from an Echo device to help solve a murder. At least, the advice is to not plan or commit any crimes while the device is active. I guess the same goes with cheating on your spouse.
Alexa and Home are just one application of AI, artificial intelligence (see article AI is the New Electricity). The year 2016 was the year AI became recognised as really working. Finally after 60 years of hopes and disappointments, interesting solutions are finding their way into everyday services. This was the year DeepMind’s AlphaGO won the Go match with Lee Sedol. The important trend is that the tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and IBM, are offering services to build AI products. This means that startups have access to enormous computing capabilities without substantial investment. We can expect more AI to enter applications in the coming years.
Of course there are other building blocks, like the Internet of Things, Blockchain, robotics, and drones to name a few, that also advanced during the year. All of these building blocks are ready for innovators to take and use to build new technologies. The 2017 and beyond should be interesting.