Richard Cree 7 Mar 2018 01:19pm

Transformational technology trends

The pace of technological change is accelerating and, thanks to some brilliant science fiction writing, we have a glimpse of what the future might hold. But what do today’s gadgets and toys tell us about the tech trends shaping the world? Richard Cree explores the story they tell
Caption: Changing your home and how you travel

GadgetS: Nokia sleep pad, Philips headband

The tech story: using biometrics to keep healthy

There has been considerable effort put into monitoring personal health. We all use more gadgets every day, from fitness bands to smart watches, that can keep an eye on fitness. Health insurance firms are using them to nudge people towards healthier lifestyles. Counting steps was the preserve of fitness freaks, but now we all track them. Sleep is another focus. The Nokia Sleep Pad monitors the amount and quality of sleep. It can also wake you up more gently. Meanwhile, the more controversial Philips headband does all that but can also whisper key phrases into your ear as you sleep. Although, as more than one reviewer noted, this means you can programme it to keep waking you up and ruin your sleep by chattering in your ear all night.

Gadgets: Echo, Apple HomePod, Google Home Smart speaker

The tech story: the power of a voice

For the time being the focus is on your voice, not your face. Even HMRC is testing voice as a password technology and the push to control all aspects of home gadgetry via voice control was certainly in evidence at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), with the most common theme across all categories being the race to cram Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri compatibility into gadgets.

These systems remain largely built around a smart speaker for now. But with three of the world’s most influential technology giants competing to become the standard home automation platform by showing its approach is the most advanced and offers the best value, it is fair to assume there will be significant advances in this area in the years ahead.

Joining up and integrating various gadgets around the home is the next phase. For now these virtual assistants will have to be content playing DJ, or controlling lights and plugs and occasionally doing our shopping. Using the voice as a remote control might be fun for a while, but is it advancing humanity?

Gadget: Intel Vaunt

The tech: augmented reality

Google did some damage to the concept of smart glasses. And if one of the biggest tech companies can’t get something like that right, who can? If Intel’s new venture succeeds, the answer might be another of the world’s biggest tech companies. Vaunt is the latest take on smart glasses, and being built around a tiny Intel processor, they look almost like normal glasses. The scope of what they can do has been narrowed to a heads-up notification display that delivers key messages and prompts into the near-field vision. It incorporates some interesting ideas, allowing wearers to flick away or open messages with an almost imperceptible shake of the head. Discretely checking your phone may be about to get easier.

Gadget: Apple iPhone X

The tech story: your face as a password

A feature of mobile phones today is the high quality of their cameras. And it is not just in our pockets. From the CCTV on our streets, to monitors in shops and restaurants, to our laptops and desktops and even throughout our homes (hello, smart fridge), this potentially Orwellian state makes civil liberty campaigners uncomfortable, but also opens up possibilities, most notably for facial recognition. And this technology is one of the most striking aspects of Apple’s flagship iPhone X.

While it’s not that long ago the US tech giant paraded the TouchID fingerprint identity sensor as the latest word in security, now fingers and thumbs are passé. The iPhone X is one of several new devices to rely on facial recognition, with Apple’s Face ID technology setting another benchmark in mobile security.

Meanwhile, restaurants and retailers are going all Minority Report on us, with trials of advertising tech able to target messages based on recognising individual consumers. Diners at a KFC in the Chinese city of Hangzhou are able to pay for food by smiling (potentially a tough call in a KFC), while US retail giant Walmart has a patent to use facial recognition to identify – and presumably fix – customer dissatisfaction.

The technology is literally opening doors, via doorbell cameras that use facial recognition as a key. As cameras spread throughout the home, expect more facial recognition to come to market and become the standard way to unlock secure gadgets.

Gadget: Huawei Mate 10

The tech story: the intelligent phone

In many episodes of the Netflix series Black Mirror, the plot revolves around a protagonist’s relationship with mobile technology. This is no accident. With every passing week, we become more dependent on smartphones. Once just for communication, they have developed into hubs that are central to our digital lives. And the next evolution of the phone is here, as it moves from smartphone to what Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei Consumer Business Group, described at this year’s CES as “the intelligent phone” – with more native artificial intelligence (AI) capability. Even though the best of the current crop, such as Huawei’s Mate 10 and the iPhone X, boast AI capabilities, they are a way off being game changers – although the market will surely use them to deliver more intelligent apps in the years ahead.

It won’t be long before phones will join the data dots to anticipate user behaviour. If you like your automated stereo system to play music when you get home, why wouldn’t you be OK with it drawing data from your phone, selecting the perfect track based on data sources, such as information from how busy your diary has been, the meetings you’ve had and any plans you have for the evening? It may even be able to judge your mood from the tone of messages you have posted online or emailed.

Gadget: Nest

The tech story: integrated homes

In the race to be the central home controller, who would have thought the central heating thermostat was going to be in pole position? Nobody, until the arrival of the Nest learning thermostat. Perhaps inevitably, Nest was acquired by Google’s parent company Alphabet, which has used its financial muscle to set about reinventing a bunch of previously unsung home products, making them smarter and able to work together. Things such as smoke detectors and security cameras, motion sensors and thermostats have been given the treatment and more will follow. Controlling lights via smart light bulbs, kettles and other small appliances via smart plugs, not to mention monitoring the food in your fridge with special cameras (such as the Smarter FridgeCam, for example) is now commonplace. The real power lies in smart integration, as these gadgets join up, work more coherently and “learn” from previous patterns of behaviour to anticipate that you might need a boiled kettle about 30 minutes after your smart alarm has woken you gently from your carefully monitored sleep.

Gadgets: Tesla, Audi A8

The tech: autonomous vehicles

Some of the most enduring, and erroneous, predictions for what the future holds often relate to personal transport. While some of the in-car technology that will allow self-driving vehicles is here, the infrastructure (and regulatory framework) hasn’t quite kept pace, and public scepticism remains high.

Technology entrepreneur Elon Musk believes Tesla is different from traditional carmakers, seeing itself as a tech and software company. So no surprise it should be one of the first to offer an autonomous driving mode. Audi has done the same thing with its new flagship A8.

Self-driving, self-parking and indeed self-organising cars are all within reach thanks to the Internet of Things, which allows them to communicate with each other. It means each car can interact not only with other cars to make sure they don’t collide, but also with intelligent infrastructure. Which gets us on to the issue of infrastructure investment. Cars will know where to find the nearest parking space, something that will be easier if cars are allowed to organise themselves, moving along to not leave gaps. This supposes private car ownership will continue, although there are already signs it is on the wane in urban areas. It’s possible the idea of car ownership could become as outdated as that of owning a horse.

Cars are already closely linked to our mobile devices, communicating with them and potentially controlled by them (does summoning an autonomous Uber from a phone sound far-fetched?). The system will know your diary, be aware of any meetings and the required departure time and the best route to take.

Gadgets: WD My Cloud Home, Cozy

The tech story: the personal cloud

There’s no question that we all have bigger digital footprints than ever and more reason to worry about how safe all that data, all those photos and treasured digital memories, might be. On top of this, many of us want access to these files in various locations at once and not many of us believe that the old solution of saving them onto a disk or USB stick is really fit for purpose anymore.

This is where the cloud comes into its own. And while there are some large technology companies in this space you might have heard about, there is also a new trend for more personal, home-based services. These combine the comfort and security of home-based, hard-drive storage with the portability and accessibility of the cloud. Such home cloud systems are obviously flogged by home computer storage firms such as WD or Seagate, with WD’s My Cloud Home being one example. French start-up Cozy, meanwhile, has launched a cloud-based personal admin system that takes away the frustrations of lots of different logins for all those utility bills.