One of the great things about technology is how quickly innovations progress, and some of the most exciting ideas in the industry right now are actually reinventions of earlier ideas — think the transition from the telephone to the smartphone, or the transformation of an ordinary vehicle into a driverless car. Read on to learn about five tech products that are in the process of reinvention, and are in the midst of effecting big changes on the technology that you use everyday.
1. Cars into driverless cars
While the car revolutionized transportation, tech enthusiasts have long dreamed of something more: a vehicle that would drive itself. Thanks to advances in processors and sensors, autonomous cars are becoming a reality, with the headlines on the subject led by none other than Google and its famous self-driving Toyota Prius.
Writing for The Atlantic, Ian Bogost reports that Google’s driverless car draws on decades of work by computer scientists, roboticists, and automotive engineers, who have all worked toward the realization of an autonomous car in the hope that such an innovation might alleviate congestion, ease emissions, and reduce the number of car crashes. Early efforts in the field didn’t take the form of the “robot car” we’ve all come to expect; instead, researchers theorized about highway automation systems.
Wired reports that the idea of the driverless car first gained widespread public exposure at GM’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, where the automaker envisioned a landscape of “abundant sunshine, fresh air [and] fine green parkways” where cars would drive themselves. By 1953, GM and RCA had developed a scale model automated highway system and had begun experimenting with electronics that would steer and maintain the proper distance between vehicles. Bogost notes that in 1956, GM unveiled the Firebird II concept car, which would be guided by a hypothetical electric highway.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the cars took control. Researchers at Bundeswehr University Munich transformed a Mercedes van into a self-driving vehicle called VaMoRs, and others at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute turned a Chevrolet van into the first of its line of Navlab cars. In 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched the Grand Challenge competition for autonomous vehicles, and Bogost notes that the early Grand Challenges resembled the Fast and the Furious films more than they did government research experiments. Sebastian Thrun of Stanford took a leave from the university in 2007 to work on Google Street View and later founded the company’s self-driving car project.
Google hired the best researchers from Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and elsewhere to advance the project, and Bogost characterizes it as more of a “parts-assembly project” than the realization of a dramatic, novel vision for transportation. He notes that Google’s real breakthrough was in bringing together top researchers and the best of existing technologies, and posits that the future will be less about technologies themselves, and more about the organizations with the means and will to put them into practice.
2. Television into virtual reality
The future of television is likely to be even more immersive than your favorite reality show or fast-paced action movie. And while tech-savvy TV viewers are enthusiastic about HD and 3D televisions, augmented and virtual reality technology are poised to bring about even more dramatic shifts to how users experience entertainment, from movies and television shows to video games and music.
Writing for The New York Times, Nick Wingfield recently reported that the wait for virtual reality is nearing its end, with Oculus VR expected to bring a product to market before the end of the year, Sony planning to ship its virtual reality headset during the first half of next year, and Valve planning to sell its headset this year. In the process, these companies are making technical modifications to their products to counteract the motion sickness and eye strain that the technology tends to cause in users, a problem that’s proven a significant obstacle for the technology in the past.
Much anticipation and speculation surrounds the initial virtual reality gear, and manufactures are hoping not only that early adopters will be enthusiastic about their products, but that the general consumer will eventually see the technology’s transformative potential. And that depends upon developers and content creators producing the media that will make the power of virtual and augmented reality evident. After Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR, experts including Eugene Chung, Oculus’ head of film and media, told Rolling Stone about some of the ways the Rift and technology like it could shake up the entertainment world. They imagined “frighteningly realistic” video games, live concerts you could attend from anywhere in the world, TV shows and movies that you can walk around in and interact with, and a completely new viewing experience for sports fans.
According to the International Business Times, the immersive nature of virtual reality content was a topic of conversation at the recent SouthWest VR conference, where Edward Miller, head of visuals at 360-degree video app Immersive.ly, said that “Television and games are converging and we need to start looking at the new tools we’ve got.” His sentiment echoes the conclusion of Stanford’s James Cummings and Jeremy Bailenson, who recently published a study on the effect of immersive technology, sharing their findings that virtual reality has far more impact on users than simply improving the sound or image quality of a more traditional medium.
Miller has explored how journalism could have a more dramatic effect when produced for virtual reality platforms by creating a 360-degree video on the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, intended to be viewed on a virtual reality headset like the Oculus Rift or the Samsung Gear VR. But Miller thinks that media organizations should look beyond live news coverage and use virtual reality to reinvent long-form journalism.
3. Watches into smartwatches
While we’ve long worn wristwatches to keep track of the time, the traditional wrist-worn wearable is getting much smarter, with new possibilities in everything from communication to health and fitness tracking. The recent decades of tech history are dotted with attempts to make the smartwatch catch on. As Good Magazine reports, those numerous attempts to create a successful smartwatch include the Pulsar Time Computer Calculator, released in 1975 as the first calculator watch; Casio C-80, which was released in 1980 and featured a stopwatch, calendar, and calculator; and the Timex Datalink, which was released in 1994 in collaboration with Microsoft and attempted to put the functions of a PDA on the user’s wrist.
The original Pebble is one of the most significant smartwatch releases so far. It electrified the tech community and raised millions of dollars in a Kickstarter campaign. Some have speculated that its success had a hand in convincing players like Apple to enter the smartwatch game. Google introduced its new platform, Android Wear, as the software it hopes will power a wide variety of smartwatches, and companies like Samsung, LG, and Motorola have all announced devices running the software.
The smartwatches on the market now revolve around two focal points: the wearable’s connection with a smartphone and its ability to update the user with timely notifications from a variety of apps and utilities. The much-hyped Apple Watch, the device that industry watchers hope will take the appeal of the smartwatch mainstream, displays a similar focus. It also draws attention to the fact that the smartwatch — both Apple’s and any that other companies hope to make successful — will require a killer app, one that will make the wearable devices the next must-have for the general consumer.
4. Telephone into smartphone
While the telephone originally offered a revolutionary way to connect and communicate with other people, the mobile phone made that capability portable and the smartphone leveraged the power of software to create an entirely new sphere of possibilities in services and experiences. With the smartphone, the capability of a device isn’t limited to the ideas of the original programmers of the device, and anyone can create an app that revolutionizes a user’s experience with the device.
In the years since they were introduced, smartphones have come a long way with regard to screen size, processing power, battery life, connectivity, storage capacity, and more. As Mashable reported several years ago, IBM introduced an ancestor of the modern smartphone with the Simon personal communicator, which combined a cell phone and a PDA. In 1999, the first BlackBerry combined a two-way pager with email capabilities. In 2000, Ericsson first used the term “smartphone” when marketing its R380, a device that ran the Symbian operating system, which was the dominant smartphone OS until it was surpassed by Android in 2011. In 2003 the first BlackBerry smartphone was launched. And in 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone, which offered not just a way to communicate with others combined with a device to browse the Internet, but a mobile media center as well. Android phones became available in 2008, and in 2010 there were more Android devices sold than iOS and Symbian devices combined.
Writing for The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo recently reported that the smartphone has become the single, all-powerful tool that has superseded just about any dedicated electronic device, including the camera, portable game system, GPS navigator, and music player. And Manjoo notes that smartphones have further changed the balance of power in the tech industry by creating new categories of capabilities that have eclipsed gadgets as the center of innovation. Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Uber, Lyft, and Apple Pay are just a few products of this shift.
They capitalize on the smartphone to create services and experiences that wouldn’t have been possible with the simpler gadgets the smartphone has replaced, and their success points to a future not of flashier hardware, but of services enabled by innovative software. Hardware companies are embracing flexible software as “the heart of gadgetry,” as Manjoo terms it. Many new devices, from smart home devices to connected fitness trackers, benefit from the phone industry’s supply chain of cheap, efficient computing components. But many also run the risk of being rendered superfluous by a future smartphone that acquires new capabilities, a testament to the power of the software-driven world ushered in by the smartphone.
5. Printers into 3D printers
ZDNet noted last year that until recently, printing on any material was limited to a two-dimensional process. Then in the 1980s, a variety of technologies evolved to add the Z axis and enable machines to build three-dimensional objects from a CAD model or a 3D scan. The process became known as additive manufacturing, and became an important part of the product design workflow as rapid prototyping. The Economist reported some years ago that some in the industry believed that 3D printing will have the same effect on manufacturing that the inkjet printer had on the printed word. When Gutenberg invented movable type printing in the 15th century, printing presses could mass-produce copies of a document, and the introduction of the inkjet printer made it possible to rapidly produce individual documents.
The bulky and expensive 3D printers of the 1990s have gotten smaller, cheaper, and faster, and have evolved to be compatible with a wider range of materials and therefore to be useful for a wider variety of applications. Engineers and designers have used 3D printing to make prototypes quickly and inexpensively. And because software drives 3D printers, a single machine can produce a huge variety of objects with less reconfiguration and cost than traditional methods would require. A 3D printer’s potential to create just about any object the user dreams up also makes them attractive to tech enthusiasts, who envision customizing their own products from their home or office.
Writing for The Consumerist, Ashlee Kieler posed the question of whether 3D printers are the next desktop computer and should be in every consumer’s home. While 3D printing innovations from both startups and established tech companies were a big draw at CES 2015, engineers are still working to convince the general consumer that a 3D printer is a must-have device. Jeni Howard, director of public relations for MakerBot, told Consumerist that “The 3D printing industry today is the computer industry of the 1980s. It’s just starting to go into schools, offices and homes. We’re still in the early days.” While those in the industry are confident that 3D printers will be ubiquitous in all of these settings someday, there are still challenges to be overcome, including the fact that users currently need an extensive knowledge of 3D engineering and design to customize and print their own products.
Nick Allen, the founder of 3D printing company 3D Print UK, wrote for Gizmodo almost two years ago that 3D printing is overhyped. Allen wrote that people “expect the world” from 3D printers with regard to their build quality, price, and usability. He explained, “Imagine you’d lived on a planet that had never seen a car before, and all of a sudden the newspapers start reporting about the car, a vehicle which can do up to 250mph, carrying up to 10 people, and cost as little as $300. All true, but as we know, that’s not the full story.”