2021 will be the year of being thankful that the world hasn’t completely ended. I don’t want to hear any “we were promised flying cars”-style whining. The new year will be all about rethinking how far we’ve come, where we’re already going, and how much we’ve been getting wrong along the way.
There will be plenty of exciting updates to our gadgets and gear that come every year. Better smartphones and laptops will certainly be in the cards for 2021. And we’re excited about those too! But for this guide, we’re focusing on something else.
What will be truly new? What do we really need from tech? How can we Frankenstein together a bunch of old stuff to make something fresh? Here’s what’s at the top of our minds when looking ahead to the tech we’ll see in what will surely be the best year of our lives.
One normal thing that happened this year was the release of a new iPhone that Apple touted as the “best iPhone ever.” People either wanted a new phone or they didn’t and Apple made a bunch of money. New iPhone releases have been very same-y for several years—iterative improvements are made to the screen, camera, and overall performance while a lot of innovation under the hood never gets the chance to make an impression. In 2020, the iPhone 12 Pro was like that, but its introduction of a LiDAR scanner to the smartphone could start to pay off in interesting ways over the next year.
Since the ‘80s, LiDAR has been employed in various ways to map the world. The tech bounces lasers off of objects to gather distance information and the resulting data can be processed to build an image of an environment or a physical item. Most of us are familiar with the LiDAR scanners that are perched on top of self-driving car prototypes. Some Android phones have employed LiDAR-like tech but Apple put LiDAR scanners in its top iPhone and iPad models this year as part of its push to make Augmented Reality a common and useful tool.
Yes, I know that Apple talks about AR every year and all we ever get is apps for placing virtual furniture in your living room or riffs on Minecraft. But LiDAR is bringing in a lot more data for devices to work with than would be the case with simply relying on a camera sensor and that means we’re all gradually getting some pretty powerful world-mapping tech in our pockets that used to cost around $75,000 for a unit the size of a food processor.
For now, the LiDAR helps the iPhone’s camera deal with tricky low-light autofocus situations but developers are just getting a feel for what it can do in AR. Theoretically, we could all have the ability to make a quick 3D model of any space we find ourselves in. Maybe you notice an obscure sculpture at a museum that you love. In the very near future, you’ll be able to easily give the sculpture a casual scan and 3D print a model of it for display in your home. The tech’s basically already here for that last example, it’s just not very convenient or simple to pull off.
Both AR and 3D printing are glaring examples of technology that has languished among professional specialists and obscure hobbyists since becoming available to the public but LiDAR is a jolt in the arm that those fields needed. Apple’s deployment of LiDAR and research into its integration with consumer products promise big leaps in its assumed-to-be forthcoming AR headset and its self-driving car that is rumored for 2024.
Maybe don’t get too excited: The real sci-fi possibilities being promised by LiDAR won’t come to fruition in 2021. LiDAR is enabling tech that was already supposed to be here to get better at what it does, and it gets us closer to the day that we’ll be blown away by a new tech demo the way we were with smartphones.
Easily the most exciting technology of 2021 is the coronavirus vaccine. Or more accurately, the coronavirus vaccines. After a year of lockdown, the vaccines are our passport back to normal life and the single best contemporary argument for the essential nature of developing science and tech.
When it became clear that the covid-19 pandemic was a global problem that was unavoidable, we were told that it takes an average of 5-10 years to develop vaccines and that there was no guarantee that a vaccine for the coronavirus would even be possible. Now, the FDA has issued emergency use authorizations for both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna covid-19 vaccines and other companies are still working diligently to bring their products to market.
We still don’t have any guarantees on the long-term effectiveness of the vaccines and supplies are limited, so we’re not out of the woods, yet. But the quick development and deployment cycle showed us that science is capable of surprising us when experts set their minds to achieving a common goal. It also reminded us that pandemics pose a significant and immediate threat to the world’s health and economy.
Hopefully, world leaders will wake up to the national security threat that pandemics represent, and adjust their priorities accordingly. We’ll likely see innovations in unexpected areas over the next year, as we refine our approach to cold chains and accelerate our use of robotics for practical purposes while trying to get the vaccine to every human who wants it. In the meantime, the situation is a great opportunity to think about how we can work together as a planet to mitigate climate change. The whole thing is like the moon shot but really depressing and awful.
Maybe don’t get too excited: Getting everyone vaccinated in the U.S. alone could extend beyond 2021 and it could take years on a global scale. It also seems like we have a lot of leaders who haven’t learned a thing from 2020.
Imagine a reality in which no news articles are accompanied by an image of a forlorn and isolated young person with the word “password” projected on their face. Imagine no roundups of the worst passwords of the year. Another world is possible.
Whether it’s a thumbprint, an eyeball, or a huge string of characters generated by a locally-encrypted system, a password is a password is a password. So, maybe reports of the password’s imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated. But we’re getting closer to leaving behind a password system based on 8-10 characters with an embedded numeral and unique character.
2020 was the first time I was shared in on a work document that included passwords that made my eyes bug out. I’ve grown to expect the standard “Gizmodo420Rules69" style of password but this document included selections that were long, entirely random, and used a lot of numbers. The reason for this sudden use of responsible password hygiene was the widespread adoption of Apple’s password generator. (Yes, Android has a similar feature that was released first.)
Password managers have existed long before Apple’s system was released, but having a dedicated feature to store encrypted logins locally within a trusted ecosystem has made it more appealing than ever to lose the traditional password. On the business side of things, Microsoft said that 150 million people are using its biometric systems to log-in on enterprise networks and the company predicts that other tech like physical securities will see greater use next year.
2020 was one of the worst years ever for cybersecurity. Ransomware attacks have exploded as more work moved online and we saw what may be the greatest cyber-intrusion on the networks of the U.S. federal government in history. Weak or stolen passwords have been tied to 81 percent of data breaches in past research. This is unsustainable.
Maybe don’t get too excited: There will always be some form of password. We’re just refining our approaches.
Without a doubt, the biggest change to how we approach remote work will be the willingness of bosses to consider it a viable option. (And, hopefully, consider hiring people who’ve been left out because they can’t regularly work in an office.) Over the last year, the covid-19 pandemic forced workplaces to try working from home and various factors came together to push workers to move around. The office is not dead, but supervisors taking a hardline against reasonable remote work might finally be an endangered attitude.
With the imposition of remote work for many people, we were able to see that the infrastructure to support a mobile workforce still needs a lot of work. ISPs around the world strained to handle the leap in data being transferred on their networks. Our home wireless networks buckled under the load of everyone in the house being logged on at once. Ransomware attackers exposed workers susceptibility to social engineering. And we all found out that video chat definitively sucks.
A lot of innovation in remote work will come down to a personal level. Bosses will need to change their approaches to the office and workers will have to adapt to the communication challenges that arise when we aren’t gathering all of those in-person social cues.
The broader adoption of 5G and wifi 6E will help us mitigate traffic jams on networks but congestion will only increase as more professions gain the ability to work remotely. Advancements in robotics and AR have made remote surgery a legitimate possibility and in-person surgical training is becoming less necessary. We expect to see more of this in a range of fields and we expect a whole new set of problems that will need to be solved along the way.
Even extremely remote work is becoming easier. Advancements in battery tech are coming at an incredible pace and there’s less need to plug-in than ever before. A recent industry survey found that prices for batteries have fallen by 88 percent in the last decade. And battery researchers, like the much-hyped QuantumScape, expect the next few years to bring enormous advancements in the lifecycle, charge time, and combustibility of batteries.
Maybe don’t get too excited: Remote work means creating even more data for the big tech ghouls to parse, chop, and monetize. And we should expect a boom in workplace monitoring software that is quite a bit more invasive than your boss occasionally looking over your shoulder at the office.
“Excited” is not the word we’d use to describe the feeling we had this year when Elon Musk gave the world its first glimpse of his cyber pigs. More appropriate descriptions of that moment include horror, revulsion, and existential dread. But 2021 is the year that we’ll be able to admire the advances we’ve made in our understanding of the brain from afar.
Musk’s Neuralink wants to implant chips into our brains that could allow us to interact with devices using nothing but our thoughts and could, on a theoretical level, even induce hallucinations that would render screens obsolete. But brain interfaces don’t have to be so invasive and unnerving. As 2020 came to a close, NextMind launched its dev kit for its headset that allows users to issue commands with their brainwaves. By most accounts, it works. And at a cost of $399, it’s tech that’s essentially available to anyone who wants it.
Research into the ways that the brain functions is also fueling the development of Neuromorphic Computing, an approach that aims to create a computing process more closely modeled on the human brain. It’s a nascent technology that promises faster speeds for retrieving and processing information while using a fraction of the power needed for traditional processing. These brain computers won’t be shipping in iPhones any time soon, but we expect to hear more and more about the progress of this future tech in the new year.
The robots won’t kill us in 2021, AI won’t become independently sentient, and the idea of humans creating an artificial brain at this moment is laughable. So, there’s never been a better time to comfortably keep up with brain tech.
Maybe don’t get too excited: Cyber pigs.
There are few better examples of tech that’s been around for ages but finally found its moment than the giant video walls that are being used on the set of The Mandalorian. The technique of plopping actors in front of a screen to give the impression of an artificial environment goes back decades in Hollywood, but advances in display tech, CGI, real-time rendering, and camera tracking have made it possible to do things that were relatively unheard of even a couple of years ago.
The Mandalorian just wrapped its second season and most viewers are probably under the impression that the series is a throwback to the good old days when Star Wars used real sets, practical effects, and living humans in costumes. The reality is that most of the show is shot in a warehouse in Los Angeles using a huge video wall system by ILM that’s considered the state of the art in the industry.
The Phantom Menace kicked off a couple of decades of Hollywood trying to make CGI look good while actors stood in front of a green screen giving dead-eyed performances. But now, pre-rendered environments can be displayed behind the actors in a way that makes them feel like they’re more present in a scene and directors have much more freedom to move the camera around on impulse just like they were shooting a movie on another planet. Just as important is the fact that the actor’s environment is creating natural lighting that makes the final combination of IRL footage and CGI feel much more natural and seamless.
At $15 million an episode, The Mandalorian still costs a lot to produce but nothing like it could’ve been accomplished just ten years ago. And while we dig ourselves out of the pandemic hole over the next year, this tech could make it easier to keep epic productions in a confined space with proper social distancing protocols. We’re running out of content, dammit!
Maybe don’t get too excited: Hollywood is addicted to huge budgets that either lose $200 million or bank a $1 billion. Even though clever use of big LED walls could give filmmakers more breathing room to make more medium-budget projects that might take more risks than a typical franchise offering, studios will probably just get more bang for their buck on the same tentpole products. Still, we look forward to the day that an indie production can afford its own big ass video wall.