2017 feels like the year when various technologies that have been around for a while but weren’t ready for prime time finally hit their stride. Here are six trends to watch for over the next several months.
This has been around for years, but was brought into the mainstream when Apple debuted Siri on the iPhone 4S in 2011. Siri has been lagging, though, with new competitors like Amazon’s Echo line of products (not available in Canada yet) and Google Home (only kind of available in Canada unofficially) bringing natural language interfaces to the masses. Even Microsoft is getting into the game with its own virtual assistant, Cortana, found on every Windows 10 PC. The ultimate goal is the voice-activated computer from Star Trek, which can be called up from anywhere and asked to do anything, and we’ve never been closer to that goal than we are now. The real reason 2017 is the breakout year for voice assistants is that they finally actually work – in my experience with the Amazon Echo, it understands me every single time with little to no effort on my part. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, almost every product boasted integration with either Amazon or another company’s voice assistant; look for this technology to go from novelty gimmick to default interface in no time.
Yes, this is the year of the “smart” toothbrush, garbage can, shower head, hairbrush, or anything else you can think to stick a wireless transmitter into. Did you want to use an app or voice commands to yell at your garbage can to open and close? Simplehuman has a model that meets your needs. What about a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth hair brush that can analyze your technique and let you know what you’re doing wrong? Meet the Hair Coach, a hairbrush/technology collaboration between L’Oreal and Withings. If these things sound ridiculous, that’s because they are, but that’s not going to stop every marketing division of every company from slapping Bluetooth on their products and calling it a day. Just because something is a trend, doesn’t mean it’s a good trend. Nobody needs a Wi-Fi garbage can.
THE CONNECTED HOME
Here’s where “smart” devices actually make sense – not in a toothbrush – but in a light bulb, garage door opener, thermostat, or television remote control. Imagine a world where your thermostat knows that you’re nearing the end of your commute (thanks to your smartphone’s GPS) and it automatically turns your house to the desired temperature. As soon as you pull into your driveway, your garage door opens. You walk into the house and your lights come on. You sit down on your couch and say, “Alexa, turn on CNN,” and your TV turns on, switches to the correct input and changes the channel.
This isn’t some far-flung Jetsons future, this is possible right now. Nest and Honeywell both make thermostats that connect with your phone and a variety of other connected home devices. Chamberlain makes a smart garage door opener, and Phillips has an entire assortment of smart light bulbs under the Hue line. As for the voice-activated CNN scenario, Logitech’s Harmony Hub can integrate with your smartphone, your TV remote, and an Amazon Echo to provide exactly that kind of functionality.
Even Apple is trying to get into the home automation game by tying together all these products from different manufacturers under its HomeKit initiative, which lets you use your iPhone and/or Siri to control all your connected stuff. These kinds of things used to require professional installation and would cost thousands of dollars, but in 2017, you can pick up everything you need for a few hundred bucks from your local Best Buy.
VIRTUAL & AUGMENTED REALITY
2017 is the year that virtual reality finally goes mainstream. Last year we had complex, expensive products like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive that required high-end computers and cost thousands of dollars for a serious rig capable of good VR. Now, we have mainstream, affordable options like the Sony PlayStation VR, and even smartphone VR accessories like Google Daydream, which adds a VR headset to your phone for only $99. The really interesting stuff, however, is augmented reality, with devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens letting you alter your perception of the physical world around you. Look for a lot of improvements very quickly in this space.
TRULY WIRELESS EARBUDS
We’ve had Bluetooth earbuds for a while, but 2017 is the year when truly wireless earbuds – that is, earbuds that are two separate pieces with nothing connecting them – finally break into the mainstream. Yes, they look a little silly, reminding me of Bluetooth earpieces from the early 2000s that made everyone who wore them look like a jerk. But once you get used to the freedom of using them, it’s hard to go back. European companies like Bragi were early to the market with expensive options that weren’t all the way there, but with the release of Apple’s AirPods, expect a slew of competitors to pop up in no time.
Forget about 4K. You’re not going to notice the difference, no matter what desperate TV makers try to tell you. Just like 3D (a gimmick which is now thankfully on its way out), 4K is a solution in search of a problem. The real leap in TV technology is a thing called HDR, or High Dynamic Range. In simple terms, HDR makes brights look brighter, darks look darker, and colours look deeper and more natural. It makes everything on your TV look not just “clearer” but more real, and it’s far more noticeable than the extra pixels you get with just 4K. If you’re in the market for a TV in 2017, don’t buy one that doesn’t have HDR.