I was thinking of doing a “best of” column from the year just past, but chose instead to focus on some technologies that, while not necessarily fully developed, pointed toward significant change in the future. Here is a look at 2012 products that encapsulate serious trends.
• Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga sports an odd name but it’s significant, as is Microsoft Surface, as a solid entrant into the bewildering new space the industry is now trying to fill. We’re looking at laptops armed with touchscreens that can operate in conventional keyboard mode or, when re-configured, become tablets. The IdeaPad Yoga sports a 13-inch screen, a 720p webcam, and built-in Wi-Fi, running Windows 8 as its operating system. With its excellent keyboard, it’s a functional ultrabook, meaning its performance is fair but not state-of-the-art. But the sheer functionality of the Lenovo hinge technology makes this hybrid a winning design.
• Windows 8 signals Microsoft’s change of direction in responding to the success of mobile devices from Apple and other manufacturers. We’re going to learn a lot in coming months about how well the new operating system can handle desktop, laptop and smaller device functions, and whether a touchscreen has any serious value on larger, fixed PCs. The idea of standardizing on a single operating system across all devices including your smartphone sounds logical, but is it attempting to shoehorn too much into one software package?
• 2012 wasn’t a revolutionary year, but it did produce one potential breakthrough. Leap Motion’s new interface technology gives up both keyboard, mouse and touch. Instead, you use hand gestures in front of the screen to manipulate the cursor, making things happen like Tom Cruise in the film “Minority Report.” It’s scarily effective, tracking all 10 of your digits, which allows a fine-grained control that Leap-enabled software should be able to exploit to killer advantage. This may answer the question about the value of touchscreens on larger PCs. With Leap Motion in the background, handling many basic computer chores is like waving a magic wand.
• Now that drivers seem to think that mobile devices are made to order while operating their vehicles, we could use some help from the tech sector on collisions. Volvo’s new “City Safety” technology, available on a limited number of its models, uses so-called LIDAR to combine radar and laser sensing to stave off fender benders and diminish the effect of those collisions that do happen. And we’re beginning to see adaptive cruise control on models from Audi, Mercedes and others that automatically maintain a set distance between vehicles on the highway. This is not flashy tech like the latest iPhone but widespread deployment could wind up saving lives.
• Keep your eye on Google’s Project Glass. We’re looking at a set of eyeglasses that could fundamentally change how we deal with our surroundings by projecting virtual reality data on the lens. Maybe the future isn’t an ever-slimmer smartphone but a new pair of specs that lets you do everything from getting email to imposing overlays on city streets to find where you’re going. The larger story is that taking ever-shrinking tech with us changes the equation. As mobile tech grows in power it’s also going to fade to near invisibility as it melds with our clothing.
• It sounds bizarre, but mark my words, the era of “life-logging” is about to begin. It’s when we use technology to record not just isolated moments but large chunks of our lives, taking advantage of the phenomenal storage capabilities now available on the desktop and the cloud. Memoto.com grew out of a Kickstarter project, meaning funding came in from all over the Internet for this camera that combines photos and GPS and snaps two photos a minute. Slip it around your neck and use Memoto’s no-button technology to capture and organize your pictures, building a database of material that will never let you forget a name, a face or a location.
• Samsung Chromebook is a brisk salute in the direction of cloud computing that boots up off the Internet and runs all your applications on other peoples’ servers. The PC industry likes to focus on the high end, where superb machines like the MacBook Pro with Retina are available, but the computing revolution continues welling up from below, with lowering prices and Net-based applications that become available wherever you’re connected to the Internet. We have a ways to go before this technology is as supple as we might like – this is a secondary PC for sure – but I expect more machines tapping inexpensive cloud software to achieve a solid market niche.
Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.