The week of January 3, 2016

The future—and present—of technology

By Jesse Hicks

Every January, the tech industry and accompanying press gathers in balmy Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. CES is a massive trade show and excuse for the nerds to take over Vegas—and for tech journalists, it’s supposed to be something of a crystal ball in which to descry the Future of Tech. That’s a debatable claim, and much ink is perennially spilled over the question, “Does CES matter?” But rather than wade into that stale controversy, in this week’s issue of the Kernel, we decided to ask, apropos of but separate from CES, what is the state of tech going into 2016?

It’s a big question, no doubt; “technology” can encompass everything from baby monitors to smart appliances to fire, the original technology. Wandering through the vast, cavernous showrooms of the Las Vegas Convention Center during CES is a good way to remind yourself that there’s more “tech” out there than any one person could possibly know—or really, care about. So at the risk of setting ourselves up for a “trends that weren’t in 2016” article 12 months from now, we’ve decided to focus on three broad topics.

First, AJ Dellinger looks at the Internet of Things. The IoT, as it’s affectionately known, is supposed to have been on the verge of arriving for years now, prophesied most often in futuristic images of a Jetsonsstyle smart home that responds to your every whim. It even reminds you to pick up milk—before you even know you are out of milk. Talk about the Internet of Things, in addition to that clunky capitalization, always comes with a surfeit of exclamation points, but as Dellinger points out, the IoT is already here: It’s just not that sexy. It’s already here in boring, behind-the-scenes work like just-in-time shipping and inventory control. It’s slowly seeping into things like connected lightbulbs and smart appliances, but the smart home of the future remains distant on the horizon.

Selena Larson looks at another oft-hyped technology, virtual reality. With VR company Oculus selling to Facebook for a cool $2 billion and Google offering a virtual reality headset made of cardboard, are we seeing a return of an idea that’s failed to catch hold so many times before? If so, what might it actually look like in use? And how does it relate to another emerging technology, augmented reality? Obviously the future is unwritten, but Larson offers us a glimpse of what it might look like.

And finally, Mike Wehner looks at “wearables,” the vague category covering everything from Fitbits to the Pebble Time to the Apple Watch. (Recently, you could say, “wearable” has settled on your “wrist.”) It’s another technology that boosters see as full of potential but seemingly hasn’t quite caught on. As with IoT and VR, part of the problem seems to be that no one knows exactly what to do with wearables yet. If a Fitbit is essentially a smart pedometer, at least that’s a clearly defined purpose; smartwatches still invisibly shackled to your phone have less obvious usefulness. But, as Wehner points out, as it becomes possible to build a smartwatch that can stand on its own, with cellular connectivity and a long-lasting battery, that may change.

Enjoy the issue.

Illustration by Tiffany Pai