Five tech battlegrounds to watch in 2013
James Vincent looks at five tech battlegrounds to watch this coming year.
Although they won’t be available to consumers until at least 2014, a first batch of ‘Explorer Edition’ Google Glasses aimed at developers will be released early this year. Perhaps more than any other single piece of technology Google’s wearable technology has the potential to change society. The lenses project any content from directions to email over our vision, literally overlaying our digital lives onto our ‘real’ ones. In 2012 Google orchestrated a number of high-profile events featuring the glasses, including skydiving and modelling, presumably in an attempt to both hype the product as well as normalise the concept.
The tech industry has long held a flame for wearable gadgets but previous experiments have been almost parodies of convenience, confirming to the public that the form is reserved only for hobbyists and the delusional. Google’s incremental approach – courting developers and drip-feeding media onto the internet – seems designed to solve these issues; simultaneously streamlining the image and the product itself. However, a recent interview with project leader Babak Parviz indicates that this approach might just as equally be a result of difficulty with the Glasses. Parviz states that there’s still “a lot of experimentation going on” and responded to all technical queries with variations of ‘we’re working on it’. Wearable tech still has a long way to go but 2013 should hold some exciting developments.
Ubi (and the Internet of Things)
Kickstarted for just under $230,000 dollars in September 2012, the Ubi is “an always-on voice activated computer” and one of the many gadgets currently promising to turn your house into a sci-fi wonderland of biddable computers. Like Google glasses the Ubi springs from a long-cherished tech dream that has so far been impractical, in this case the ‘Internet of Things’. The definition of this concept has shifted over the years but it is now being linked with a range of small computing devices that can automate your home environment.
The Ubi comes equipped with a number of sensors: temperature, humidity, air pressure and ambient light. While its microphone is sensitive up to 15ft feet, twinned with a wi-fi connection this allows you to conduct Google voice searches as you would with Siri, and plugs directly into wall-sockets though you’ll need an adaptor for the UK. However, as with Google Glasses there is a practicality issue: to get the most out of the Ubi or similar projects, such as Twine requires some not-inconsiderable tech know-how and a lot of enthusiasm – for some people it just won’t be worth the effort.
Not that this will stop the developing ‘Internet of Things’. More consumer-friendly options such as Nest, a slick ‘learning thermostat’ brought to you by the head of the team responsible for the iPod, will also be available in 2013. As projects like these hit the mainstream the concept of programming your own home will hopefully become approachable too.
And if having your smartphone linked up to central heating your seems a little esoteric for your liking, why not hook it up to your watch instead? That’s the idea behind the Pebble, another Kickstarter project but one that attracted over $10 million in funding to create a watch “built for the 21st century”. Behind the hyperbole this basically means you can have apps on your watch. This includes custom watch-faces; vibrating notifications from Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail; controls for any wireless-enabled music players; and programs to keep track of your exercise.
As with the Ubi, this seems like an idea whose time has come, with other competing products coming in 2013 including the Metawatch Strata. Another Kickstarter success story but one that features only a 96×96 pixel display – superior to the Pebble only if lo-fi aesthetic are your thing and the Android-enabled SmartWatch from Sony now in its second iteration. There’s not much to help choose between the SmartWatch and the Pebble really: the latter claims a seven plus day battery life compared to the SmartWatch’s three to four, but also has a slightly less advanced screen – the Pebble’s is E-Paper, Sony’s is OLED; the OLED has a better resolution but is subject to more glare in direct sunlight. Both will support third party applications developed through their SDK.
The battle for control of your wrist will never be as closely-fought or as consequential as the struggle for which phone you buy, but like the Ubi it shows a steady proliferation of technology into all corners of our life. And if projects with the functionality and design-standards of the Pebble are coming to the fore ,then this may not be a bad thing.
The Steam Box (and new contenders in the console wars)
Choosing between PC and console-gaming is similar to choosing between an Android and an iPhone. The latter options represent closed eco-systems where your choices are a bit limited but everything ‘just works’; members of the PC/Android camp would counter this by saying their product is the technologically superior, and the benefits of customization outweighs the extra burden of knowledge required of the consumer. But as with the Android/iPhone divide, it seems that the distinction between PC and console gaming is also becoming less clearly defined.
Reacting against what many have decried as the restrictive environment of Windows 8, Valve’s Gabe Newell announced in an interview with Kotaku his company’s plans to figure out how to make PC gaming work better in the living room. If Valve do develop a games console, a hypothetical ‘Steam Box’ named after the fantastically successful game-distribution platform, it could overturn many of the standard console-paradigms, replacing CDs with downloads; allowing direct Indie game development. Whilst halting other trends that purists decry in platforms from Microsoft and Sony, specifically the tendency of turning consoles into all-purpose media centers; a process that usually sees gaming-functionality pushed to one side.
Although there have been no definite plans announced, a tie-in console from Valve would be logical step. Amazon’s Kindle has shown that a product-ecosystem can be greatly improved with specifically designed hardware; and the success of Ouya, a Kickstarted Android games console costing only $99, indicates that there’s strong demand for a console separate from the traditional triumvirate of Microsoft-Sony-Nintendo. And with the Xbox 720 and PS4 nearing on the horizon 2013 is set to be an exciting year.
Now, it wouldn’t be meandering speculation about shiny future-tech without giving Apple its due. And as much as I’d like wax lyrical about the aesthetic possibilities of iOS7 now that Scott Forstall has been ousted and the anti-skeumorphic Jonathan Ive is in charge, 2013 is more likely to be remembered by Apple-fanatics as the year that Apple TV finally took off.
Although an ‘Apple TV’ already exists it’s nothing more than a content streamer; lacking the ability to browse the web, check your email, or even watch free-to-air TV channels. A true Apple product would be a real game-changer, something that streamlined the standard confusion of cables, remotes, and horribly-designed menus into a single user experience, whilst also providing a new platform with apps and media already available on iTunes.
Through the iPod and iTunes Apple have shown that they are more than capable of revolutionizing lumbering media industries, and though the proliferation of internet-capable TVs indicates an already steady change in how we use our TVs, an entry by Apple into the arena could be as big of a game changer as it was with tablets.
Developing an integrated ‘television-like’ device would also make sense if the company wants to continue its current revenue growth. As Darcy Travlos at Forbes puts it: “A television-like device would serve as the next step-function up in Apple’s growth trajectory, and a catalyst for the next five to seven year product cycle.” Travlos also mentions the important fact that “most people who own one Apple device own an average of 2.6 devices”. The company’s proven track-record in merging its devices into a single ecosystem would surely come into play here, with a TV completing a nearly-full line-up of media technology, a temptingly convenient solution for many. If 2013 becomes Apple’s year for TV, it would probably become Apple’s year all over.Tagged in: Android, Apple TV, facebook, Google Glasses, iphone, iPod, Kickstarter, Kindle, microsoft, Sony, The Pebble, The Steam Box, twitter, Ubi, Windows 8
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