Ask a technologist when the amazing new wizardry they’re working on will become a product available to the mass market and they’ll inevitably say, “five to 10 years.” By that reckoning, we should have everything from teleporters to cold fusion power by 2025.
Despite that funny truism, there are some technologies whose trajectories can indeed be reasonably predicted, especially if the forecasting period is limited to the shorter five-year time frame. With that in mind, here are some gadgets and gizmos we’ll likely be shopping for in 2020.
The race to get self-driving cars on the road is, pardon the pun, picking up speed. Google has been pioneering the effort for years, with much success. The company’s autonomous vehicles have logged more than a million kilometers in test drives with only a handful of accidents—all of which were the fault of other, non-robot drivers, according to Google.
Traditional automakers including Nissan, Audi and Toyota are developing self-driving cars as well, while newer technology outfits are also getting involved. Ride-sharing company Uber, for one, has been on a hiring spree for robotics researchers. A recent report from investment firm Morgan Stanley also sees electric carmaker Tesla deploying robot vehicles by 2018.
Uber’s efforts are particularly noteworthy because they will likely result in self-driving cars that can be summoned via a smartphone app, which would subvert the whole idea of owning a vehicle.
“We’ll be shopping for a new ride each day rather than for a new car every few years,” says Seattle-based futurist Glen Hiemstra.
The technology is mostly already there, with many robot car features—such as lane detection and inter-vehicle communication—slowly creeping their way into human-driven cars. It’s mostly regulators, insurance companies and lawmakers who need to catch up.
Virtual reality first became a reality in the 1990s, but it never caught on because the graphics weren’t very good, the headsets were bulky and expensive and they made wearers nauseous.
All of those problems have been solved and, just as with self-driving cars, there’s a veritable gold rush happening. San Francisco-based startup Oculus, bought by Facebook last year, is leading the charge with its Rift headset, followed by the likes of Sony, Samsung and HTC. The VR market is expected to be worth US$30 billion by 2020 as a result, according to analysis firm Digi-Capital.
The Oculus Rift is due in early 2016 at an expected cost of $300 to $500. Video games are likely to be the first big hit applications—the Rift will ship with an Xbox One controller—but they could prove to be small potatoes. Concert and sports promoters are looking at selling virtual tickets to their events and even the International Space Station is considering installing a VR camera rig for virtual astronauts to use.
Buying VR headsets will “be as common as shopping for a cellphone by 2020,” Hiemstra says.
Ultra high-definition televisions, or 4K because of their horizontal resolution of 4,000-or-so pixels, are only just starting to pick up steam with consumers, but ultra-ultra HD—8K, for 8,000 pixels—is already, er, in the picture.
Market analysis firm IHS expects shipments of 8K TVs to hit one million units by 2019, from a tiny 2,700 this year. Driving the shift will be an increasing desire for bigger and bigger screens. The whopping picture resolution of 8K, and 4K to some extent, isn’t really noticeable on smaller displays.
Most of the demand will come from an unexpected place.
“We can be confident that a combination of enhanced local panel production and consumers
eager for the latest technology will make China the driving factor in 8K television growth,” IHS principal analyst Paul Grey wrote in a recent report.
Internet of Things Butler
The “Internet of Things” is the hot buzz phrase right now, and it’s only going to become more prevalent. Covering everything from digital door locks to “smart” toothbrushes, the IoT represents the connection of everything around us, hopefully in a meaningful and useful way.
By 2020, the average household is likely to be overrun by these connected gizmos. Without help, keeping track of and managing them all is likely to be far more trouble than they’re worth.
“If you’ve got lots of things that are connected that all talk to each other, that’s a massive problem,” says Claire Rowland, lead author of Designing Connected Product: UX Design for the Internet of Things. “It starts to get really overwhelming.”
Rowland expects us to be shopping for an Internet of Things “butler,” which could take the form of a device that manages other devices or, more likely, an Internet-based service. We’ll tell the online butler our usage and security preferences and it will learn from them and manage our devices accordingly.
Made famous on Star Trek, the tricorder is a science-fiction device that can instantly read vital signs and diagnose illnesses. It’s also on the verge of becoming a reality.
Computer chip maker Qualcomm will in early 2016 award the first ever Tricorder X Prize to the device that comes closest to realizing the sci-fi ideal. And there are many impressive contenders, including rHealth, which can diagnose 22 health conditions from a single drop of blood.
Similar devices are the Cue, a $300 gizmo whose disposable wands can test saliva, blood and nasal mucus for influenza, vitamin D levels and fertility. There’s also SCiO, a palm-sized scanner that can determine the molecular makeup of just about anything.
By 2020, many of these devices will be tiny, inexpensive and ready for prime time. Quick, somebody call Dr. McCoy.