From self-driving cars and domestic robots to virtual reality and space tourism, we’re about to enter a new technological age.
By Marc Saltzman
Anyone remember Rosie, the robot housekeeper who pottered around The Jetsons in the 1960s? “I swear on my mother’s rechargeable batteries” she once joked, when asked by her “boss” to keep a secret.
While we’re getting closer to being serviced by our very own domesticated humanoid robots, who will wash our dishes and make our beds, Bill Gates might have been a few years off when he predicted a “Rosie” in every home by 2025. Even so, now it’s a matter of “when,” not “if.” In fact, many tech experts—including yours truly—predict robotics will be the Next Big Thing. And thanks to popular television shows such as Humans and Black Mirror, we’re getting a sneak peek at what these creatures might look like. For better or worse.
Domestic robots that promise to do our menial tasks are but one of a plethora of emerging tech items. With that in mind, this article takes a look at some of the other amazing tech trends on the horizon. Check out these extraordinary up-and-comers…
Internet of Things
The “Internet of Things,” or IoT, refers to next-generation devices that will happily talk to one another.
Instead of running as separate entities, they will be a synchronized group of interconnected “things” that will transmit and/or receive information from each other and additional external devices using some kind of wireless technology.
Each device “on the grid” will communicate via M2M (“machine-to-machine”) connectivity—goodbye human input. Imagine the magic of your smart home automatically opening the garage as it senses you pulling onto the street after a long day at work. In addition, you will be able to initiate the connection to prepare the fridge for a fresh batch of groceries or to manually adjust the temperature of your home from the dashboard of your Benz.
Tap an app on your smartphone to have your espresso machine prepare a steaming cup of Jo before you head downstairs. Or how about a front door that’s clever enough to scan your face and let you in without a key? What a brave new world!
Given the fact that human error accounts for almost 95 per cent of road accidents, perhaps we ought to rely more on our vehicles to keep us safe?
That’s the idea behind “autonomous” cars. Also referred to as “driverless” or “self-driving” cars, these vehicles are capable of sensing what is present in their environment. They will navigate around obstacles, obey traffic laws and reach a preselected destination—rerouting themselves to avoid congestion, accidents or construction.
Self-driving vehicles are only allowed in four U.S. states at this time, but all the major car companies are avidly researching, developing and testing the technology’s potential. Even Google is in the race to create the best driverless car. Speaking of which, Google’s prototypes have clocked more than two million miles in California and Nevada to date. Of note, human drivers have been responsible for their only accidents!
“Semi-autonomous” technology is already a fait accompli in many of today’s vehicles, especially in the luxury brands. These smart(er) cars simply assist the driver rather than take complete control. Examples include blind-spot sensors that beep if they detect another vehicle; vibrating steering wheels to warn the driver that he or she is drifting or making a lane change without signaling; cars that can parallel park on their own; and those that automatic apply the brakes if the car is coming up on a slower vehicle too fast.
It’s been nearly 60 years since the first manned space flight. And soon, some of us will be taking our annual leave and heading off on a vacation in space.
Yes, space tourism has had a few false starts—including tragic crashes of test flights—but leaders such and SpaceX are determined to reach their goal. Daredevils with plenty of extra cash will have the chance to experience the thrill of the true weightlessness of space and savour breathtaking views of Earth from 100 km (70 miles) away.
We’re not talking about trips to the International Space Station or the moon anytime soon, but seeing our world’s curvature could very well be on your bucket list. Return tickets are said to cost a mere US$200,000, but I expect prices to drop significantly as more competition (and time) work their magic.
Products such as the Cube printer ($1,099) from 3D Systems let you print 3D objects in your home. Today we can create action figures, a smartphone case or snazzy cufflinks, but the process is still tricky, costly and slow. Plus, you can only print one or two colours at a time.
Expect considerable and rapid improvements. Soon, there will be an inexpensive 3D scanner/printer—a gadget that can analyze a 3D object, replicate it and print it—in every home. Your neighbour could come over with an interesting coffee mug in her hand, and by the time she leaves you will have been able to knock off an exact duplicate of it. Or imagine you’re getting ready to go out on a Friday night and realize you just have to have a bracelet that goes with your dress. Order it on Amazon, and the site will immediately send the print instructions to your device—it could be ready before you step out the door.
As I’ve suggested in a previous Homefront article, the Ekocycle Cube 3D printer will soon recycle your empty water bottles and turn them into new plastic objects on demand.
Watch out—the robots are coming! In fact, they’ve already arrived in first- or second-generation applications. Non-humans have helped to build the car you drive and been tested in healthcare- and customer service-related product trials. If you’re an early embracer, you might have a Roomba vacuuming the floors in your home. No need to feel threatened, you’re not out of a job just yet… as Isaac Asimov suggested more than 70 years ago, we’ll one day have domestic helper robots around the home to do the things we simply don’t want to do.
As the name suggests, “humanoid” refers to robots that resemble a human being. You can expect artificial intelligence and embedded internet connectivity, with the benefit of important date reminders. (Imagine the convenience, and potential insensitivity, of being reminded of your wedding anniversary and having a robot will order something lovely for your significant other on your behalf. Hmmm!) Perhaps a better use would be to ask your humanoid a question or give it a list of commands with tasks to complete. In time, you’ll be able converse naturally with your robot, schedule tasks and receive just the timely or relevant information you need.
Other robots will be specialized to help or care for the elderly, and perhaps some will work alongside your grandchildren or great-grandchildren at the office. I’d say they will be worth their weight in gold if they can do the banking, pick up the dry cleaning and deliver lunch right to my desk.
Virtual reality headsets and holodecks
Many a sci-fi lover has dreamt of stepping onto a Star Trek-like “holodeck.” These immersive virtual-reality (VR) rooms will let you and the kids live out the fantasy of your choice (or as a downloadable program).
Perhaps we’re inching closer to this science fiction becoming a reality with ongoing projects such as Cave2, a University of Illinois at Chicago reality cave made up of 72 3D LCD panels arranged in a 320-degree shape. This next-gen experience involves special glasses that tell the computer which direction the player is looking in, allowing the panels to immediately display “relevant” content.
Even before that’s perfected however, VR headsets are ready to debut—beginning with the Samsung VR coming in fall 2015, followed by Sony Morpheus for the PlayStation 4. What promises to be the granddaddy of all wearable VR headsets, Oculus Rift (now owned by Facebook), will debut early in 2016.
VR uses high-resolution widescreens in front of your eyes, 360-degree imagery matched to your head-tracking and spatialized audio. All of this tricks the brain into thinking these 360-degree worlds are real. VR might focus on immersive video-game experiences to start—making you feel as if you are “in” the game—but there are many other applications, including education, training and therapy. After spending considerable hands-on time with the Oculus Rift VR headset at the recent E3 Video Game Expo, I can confirm this technology is truly worth the hype.
Finally, we are thankfully beginning to rely less on non-renewable sources of energy (oil, gas and coal) and fully embracing alternative sources, such as solar, wind and geothermal. Solar, in particular, is a completely free, clean and renewable source of energy, and it’s found in abundance.
It is worth noting that there are about 174 petawatts of incoming solar radiation in the upper atmosphere, excluding the 30 per cent reflected back to space or absorbed by clouds, oceans and land masses. Harnessing this energy has been a challenge, but breakthroughs are certainly in the offing. You might have heard of Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered plane that is circling our world. Or how about the massive boats that use solar energy to power their electric motors. MS Tûranor PlanetSolar set a record in 2012 for being the first such vehicle to circumnavigate the globe.
The sun could help power your car, too. Ford showcased its solar-powered electric car concept at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show. This modified version of the C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid uses solar cells on the roof of the vehicle, along with an optional solar-enabled carport to expedite the charge. Ford suggests that the sun’s rays can power roughly 75 per cent of all trips made by an average driver.
Marc Saltzman is a recognized expert in computers, consumer electronics, video gaming and internet trends. You can see him on CNN, CTV’s Canada AM, and on Cineplex movie-theatre screens across Canada. Follow him on Twitter @marc_saltzman.