(Courtesy of USA Today.com)
Blistering fast wireless networks, digital assistants that are, well, everywhere, and a coming out bash for augmented reality.
These and other technologies mentioned here, some of which are already familiar but really just getting started, are worth keeping an eye on in 2018. And not just these. You can bet we’ll also learn about innovations in the months to come that are for now, completely under the radar.
Just about all the freshest developments will exploit advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, promising to allow the tech we engage in day to day to become that much more useful.
We’ve been hearing about the next generation of speedy wireless or 5G for quite some time now, and 2018 is at least when some of you will begin to get a taste of what 5G potentially means. One major early 5G test comes in February at the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games in South Korea but 5G trials and nascent deployments are hatching in the United States as well.
Still, you’ll want to keep your expectations in check. Lightning fast phones that exploit 5G networks will not be a 2018 story, certainly not in a major way. Instead, the initial 5G installments will involve what is known as “fixed wireless,” essentially broadband alternatives inside the home, with mobile 5G coming later.
Verizon recently announced plans to offer commercial 5G service in three to five U.S. markets in 2018, Sacramento was the only one named. The company estimates the market opportunity for initial 5G residential broadband services to be approximately 30 million households nationwide.
AT&T is on Verizon’s heels, running its own 5G trials. T-Mobile is laying out its own 5G framework for 2019 and beyond.
When it does arrive, the broad consensus is that 5G will go well beyond just the blazing fast phone in your pocket. It will influence everything from self-driving cars and the IoT (Internet of Things) to virtual reality and remote medicine.
The ubiquitous digital assistant
You’re already chummy with Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Assistant , Google Home speakers, and possibly third party speakers resting on your kitchen countertops and bedside tables. Such voices not only deliver news and weather, play music and answer basic queries but also increasingly help you voice-enable your smart home.
You can expect these and other chatty AI digital assistants—I’m speaking of Microsoft Cortana, Apple’s Siri, Samsung’s Bixby—to continue to spread their voices elsewhere, into TVs, fridges, smart watches, headphones, cars, even the workplace. There’s already been movement in these areas, and at the upcoming CES trade show in Las Vegas, I expect to see numerous examples of further progress.
How will the digital assistants evolve? For starters, they’ll sound more human. You’ll come a bit closer to having a real conversation of sorts with them. The Google Assistant, for example, can already now process multiple requests at once. For example, you can say something like “OK Google, turn down the lights and turn up the music,” and have the Assistant oblige.
Efforts are also underway for assistants to get to know us better. What’s our mood, what are we really trying to accomplish?
As part of its Hot Consumer Trends for 2018 report, Ericsson’s head of research Michael Bjorn says more than half the users of intelligent voice assistants believe we will use body language, intonation, touch and gestures to interact with tech, just as we do with people.
Steve Koenig, senior director for market research at the Consumer Technology Association, the organization that runs CES, expects an expansion of voice shopping in the New Year, which he describes as the “fourth sales channel,” after stores, online and mobile.
The voice-driven smart speaker category itself continues to bear watching. One obvious product of interest will be Apple’s premium $349 HomePod, which was supposed to have shown up by now, but is delayed. Samsung is reportedly working on a smart speaker with Bixby that could arrive by mid-year. Too little, too late? Perhaps not. Gartner projects that the voice-enabled wireless speaker market will reach $2.1 billion by 2020, up from $360 million in 2015.
The most intriguing feature in Google’s new (otherwise disappointing) Pixel Buds is real-tine language translation through the Google Translate app. Bjorn of Ericsson sees possibilities for all sorts of enhancements through augmented hearing approaches.
Consider that noise-cancelling technology has been used in headphones for years to drown out sonic distractions in the background. But what if your earphones could learn which people in a room you want to hear more clearly, and, conversely, which folks you’d like to mute? For such a development to become more of a reality, Bjorn says, earphones will need to be made more aware of our intentions and allow for more direct user control. He also suggests that we may end up sleeping with some earphones, if only to block out the noise from a partner who is snoring.
While consumer interest in virtual reality seems to have waned to some extent, augmented reality could pick up steam in 2018. Apple and Google have thrown their respective weighs around their ARKit and ARCore developer platforms. Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft are also banking on AR.
“CES 2018 is finally when AR starts to take the spotlight,” Koenig says. He predicts a “landslide” of AR apps. “I think we refashion the mobile experience from a head down, pinching and swiping kind of dynamic to more of a heads-up, handset-up AR orientation.”
For the uninitiated, the AR experience lets you interact with digital characters and objects that appear to be inside your still-visible real live environment.
Don’t narrowly think about AR requiring a boost from some killer app like the summer-2016-craze Pokémon Go—though that couldn’t hurt and is certainly possible. Instead, expect to see the technology show up as an added feature on a gaggle of gaming and e-commerce apps that you already regularly use without AR.
Meanwhile, despite high profile failures such as Google Glass or even Snap Spectacles, don’t rule out the reappearance of some sort of AR-capable eyewear, though whether that happens in 2018 or later remains to be seen.
Rise of robotic companions
Even before The Jetsons, robots of all types have long fascinated people of all ages. And now we could be finally be at the dawn of welcoming them into our homes as companions.
Indeed, most robots used in homes today are either toys, or task-oriented—think Roomba and other robotic vacuum cleaners.
A breed of social robots along the lines Kuri from Mayfield Robotics, Buddy from Blue Frog Robotics and Jibo from a company of the same name might change the game. Social robots of various types might snap family pictures, remind grandma to take her meds, or read aloud to Junior.
Meanwhile, it isn’t a stretch to think some digital assistants might lend their brainpower and personalities to a robotic creature. “At what point do these conversations that we’re having with digital assistants…become relationships?” Koenig asks
Pushing computing to the edge
You don’t have to follow tech closely to recognize the profound impact that cloud computing has had on society during this past decade. Under cloud computing, computers have largely been centralized in the Internet or what is referred to as the cloud. But the proliferation of IoT, connected sensors, autonomous cars, drone delivery, and so forth is driving a hot topic among technologists known as “edge computing,” where computing gets spread out all over the place, and brings the intelligence locally or closer to the source, largely in the name of speed. No one is suggesting that cloud computing is going away. But TECHnalysis Research analyst Bob O’Donnell says that in terms of how the computing architecture and things are built and the means by which we interact them, a shift towards edge computing is a big deal that “fundamentally changes everything.”
Like it or not, it was a bold move recently when Apple ditched the Touch ID fingerprint scanner on the iPhone X in favor of facial recognition through Face ID. It’s unclear if Touch ID also falls by the wayside on all future iPhone models, but I wouldn’t be shocked were that to be the case. For now, top Samsung Galaxy phones still let you use a fingerprint to authenticate your identify while also providing iris scanning and facial recognition schemes.
One intriguing report to emerge earlier this month showed that Samsung filed a patent on a system that can recognize you by reading your palm. I’m not predicting we’ll see it on the Galaxy S9 phone that’s expected to debut in the first half of 2018. But if we’re now in the business of reading palms, I suppose anything is possible.