Yes, 2017's biggest tech story was probably about the ways in which social media forced us to rehash old culture wars and question who was guiding our political discourse. Rather than seeing technology facilitate greater communication, economic opportunity, and leisure, it seemed that it was exacerbating our differences, concentrating wealth, and threatening all livelihoods. But there was some good stuff too!
For anyone who loves technology, it was kind of a downer. While we shouldn’t turn away from the challenges that the information age keeps springing on us, it’s understandable to long for a few things that just make you say, “that’s neat!” It’s easy to hope to see something that dazzles you or is so ambitious that in a decade it might just be incredible.
For me, there were a lot of things I saw this year that I thought fit that bill. Some of them, like the sudden mainstream fascination with blockchain, caused me to feel more dread than hope. But others either made me smile, grabbed my imagination, or just showed a ton of promise.
When I say computational photography, I’m using it to refer to the broad range of ways that engineers are working with software to improve digital cameras. Big high-end sensors and fine glass lenses aren’t in any danger of being replaced when it comes to getting the best shot possible, but software solutions are making new techniques possible, and constantly improving small affordable cameras.
Smartphones are getting thinner, but the images they can capture only get better. Software is one of the biggest reasons for that. Apple and Samsung are using software (and dual lenses) to create excellent depth of field effects on their phones, and even big deal directors like Steven Soderbergh and Michel Gondry decided to start shooting with the iPhone this year. Meanwhile, Google’s Pixel 2 camera got our recommendation for its superior HDR processing, and it also is integrating a ton of AI features into its camera software that will only get more useful. And Andy Rubin’s Essential Phone took a lot of heat for its lackluster camera, but software updates have helped it improve over the past few months.
Newcomer Rylo took a shot at GoPro with its first device that combines an action cam and a 360 camera into a pocket-sized gadget with some serious software at an affordable price. It has some of the best image stabilization I’ve seen. And its intuitive editing software allows you to just shoot everything around you to make shot choices and choreograph smooth camera movements later.
Don’t get too excited: Software still has a long way to go before it can approximate the look of the highest-end cameras, and it might be a bit unfortunate to see professionals settling for something that’s just good enough.
Talk about self-driving cars has been around so long that it’s almost mundane. No one seemed to care that Waymo officially abandoned test drivers behind the wheels of its self-driving cars in Arizona back in November. That’s a huge deal. Waymo is launching a self-driving taxi service in the suburbs of Phoenix. For real!
The promise of self-driving cars means more efficient commutes, more free time, fewer traffic accidents, big leaps in AI, and all sorts of other game-changing advancements.
As far as getting these things out to the public goes, Tesla insists that its auto-pilot feature that offers limited self-driving capabilities will be ready to drive itself from California to New York very soon. That means Tesla owners would already have a self-driving car because the company just to push out a software update.
Don’t get too excited: This is a scary economic shift. A lot of people are going to lose their jobs. That’s a big factor in the dampened excitement. Also, with all that extra free time in the commute, demanding bosses are just going to expect more productivity.
Nintendo is good. We started the year with the gloomy death of the Wii U, an excellent console that never took off, and lots of talk about Nintendo’s shift to unimpressive mobile games. It’s hard to stress enough how much it seemed like the house that Mario built might go the way of Sega. Then the Switch happened.
The Switch did what Nintendo does best—it wasn’t too expensive, it offered a single gimmick, and it has some great games. It’s signature feature—going seamlessly from console play on the TV to mobile play—was useful and instantly made sense to millions of gamers. But what was most important is that software developers liked it. Ports of older games like Skyrim and Doom are actually fresh takes because they’re now mobile games that are almost as good as their counterparts on other consoles and PC. Indie developers are flooding the system with excellent games like Stardew Valley and SteamWorld Dig 2. And the games made by Nintendo, like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, exceeded the usual high-quality to be the best reviewed of the year.
It hasn’t even been on the market for a year and the Switch has almost sold as many units as the Wii U. The SNES Classic beat out all the other consoles on the market in sales for two months straight. And the new 2DS XL kept its huge library of games going for the foreseeable future.
While the PS4 and Xbox One are fine systems, their new iterations a virtually identical. This year they put out 4K upgrades that are powerful but don’t inspire very much excitement. Nintendo is different and we need it to keep giving the others some competition and continue being weird.
Don’t get too excited: Fuck it, be excited. Nintendo is good.
Augmented Reality/Mixed Reality
Virtual reality hasn’t really taken off in 2017 the way some had hoped. It’s far from dead, and Oculus is hoping to turn more people on to VR with a standalone headset that costs $200 next year. Still, its isolation, lack of eye-tracking, and tendency to induce nausea, are big hurdles to clear. Mixed reality is so much more interesting in that it wants to incorporate virtual objects and experiences with the real world, solving a lot of VR’s problems and offering different possibilities. 2017 brought us further progress in the field.
In the most modest development, Apple went all in on augmented reality with its new iPhones and ARkit for developers. The iPhone’s capabilities with AR aren’t going to go much further than Pokemon Go-style overlays on real-world environments for a while, but Apple’s slowly adding sensors that will improve the phones capabilities and the most important part is that developers are putting together applications. For now, we can only expect to see some rudimentary redecorating apps and small but useful tools like the AR measuring tape. But remember, the first million or so iPhone apps were just fart simulators. There are also those reports that Apple is planning to drop its AR headset in 2019.
Microsoft has continued to quietly plug away with work on HoloLens, its mixed reality headset. Developers have had their hands on the early prototypes for quite some time, and they sporadically showed off cool demos that were inspired by Super Mario, Lemmings, and Portal. Microsoft also made some baby steps with a line of inexpensive but impressive VR headsets in partnership with other companies that simulate how mixed reality might work.
And finally, Magic Leap showed off its long-delayed mixed-reality headset and promised its coming to developers in 2018. It’s not as bulky as we feared and based on reports it appears that virtual objects will have a sense of permanence and presence we’ve never encountered before.
Mixed reality wants you to blow holes in the walls of your living room with a laser gun, have a pet cartoon dog that permanently roams around your house, build virtual sculptures on the coffee table, fill your surroundings with as many monitors as you can ask for, and allow you to walk down the street in the real world alongside avatars of people who are sitting in their living rooms.
Don’t get too excited: Mixed reality has a long way to go, so don’t expect to be walking down the street with the Iron Giant anytime soon. And let’s face it, the world promised in Ready Player One sounds pretty awful, so the longer we have to think about this the better.
Adobe is the most exciting tech company that few people consider to be very exciting. Quick, try to name the CEO of Adobe. You can’t do it. But Adobe has changed our world dramatically. Without Photoshop, Twitter wouldn’t be half as interesting, and Premiere helped pioneer the consumer-level editing software that allows the idiot stars of YouTube to pound out two videos a day. Adobe’s products have also been used for good things that I can’t remember right now.
In 2017, Adobe showed off a lot of cool tweaks for its existing products and teased some new ones. It introduced a new version of Lightroom that’s been well-received, and finally killed Flash, for good. Premiere got some new “immersive video” features that will help out when you’re working with 360 video.
But, Adobe’s commitment to developing uses for artificial intelligence has been where the real potential for the future comes in. Little changes like powering Lightroom’s auto settings with AI turned a not great feature into something that’s pretty useful. Photoshop is getting a “select subject” tool that promises to make tedious lassoing and masking obsolete when you’re cutting out the main subject of a photo. And the tool that’s most exciting to me is the new “Cloak” project. It promises to allow you to remove elements and subjects from a video.
And of course, we’re still waiting on that “VoCo” tool that was demoed at the end of last year. It’s like Photoshop for sound and is capable of making someone’s voice say anything. Yes, it’s terrifying, but it’s also pretty cool.
Don’t get too excited: Fake news is only going to get harder to identify.
Yes, motion capture has been around for years, but it’s getting really good on multiple fronts. Hollywood has continued to advance mocap technology to capture subtle performances. This year’s finale of the Planet of the Apes trilogy was probably one of the best examples of the form yet, and it was fascinating to see that film’s movement choreographer, Terry Notary, perform his ape routine without CGI in the arthouse film The Square. Not to discount the work of the Apes’ CG animators, seeing Notary’s uncanny ape impersonation coming from a flesh and blood human actually gave me a greater impression of the subtleties that motion capture tech is picking up these days.
But the leaps that impressed me most this year in mocap were found in video games. CG cutscenes in video games are usually a chore. The story, acting, and stilted character movements usually bore the hell out of me. This year, you could see everything starting to come together in games like Uncharted 4, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, and standing above all the rest, Melina Juergens’ performance in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. I haven’t even finished Hellblade because it freaks me out so much. For that, the game’s designers and writers deserve plenty of credit, but it’s Juergens who really makes it sing. Ninja Team used a unique pre-visualization system that allowed them to view her full character model, and direct her performance in real time. It’s a marvel.
Things are only going to get better. Say what you will about James Cameron’s Avatar, it pioneered a lot of effects techniques that have spread through the industry. The three (!) sequels are reportedly utilizing a new mocap system that can capture actors underwater. By the time Cameron’s finished we’ll be seeing motion capture on steroids.
Don’t get too excited: “Princess Leia: a Star Wars Story starring Carrie Fischer.”
Smartwatches as medical devices
The Apple Watch might be the most boring thing that Apple has ever made, but the grand plan for it, and smartwatches, in general, isn’t boring at all. More than anything, these glorified messaging machines might save our lives one day.
2017 was the year that the Apple Watch got good, and it was also the year that the FDA approved the first medical device accessory. The Kardiaband is an add-on that can detect an abnormal heart rate. What’s more, a UCSF study found that Apple’s built-in heart monitor could detect an abnormal heart rate with 97 percent accuracy when an AI-based algorithm called DeepHeart was used in conjunction with the device. The same team behind that study later found that the Apple Watch-DeepHeart combo could detect sleep apnea with 90 percent accuracy, and hypertension with 82 percent accuracy. Both of those conditions are quite a chore to detect with the current methods.
It’s still early in the quest to make a smartwatch a magical medical wizard that brings a silver bullet to preventative medicine, but we’re getting there.
Don’t get too excited: Privacy issues abound, and we’re going to have to work them out before this technology matures, not after.
Guys, aliens. News cycles last about 12 hours these days, so we’ve all moved on from the New York Times breaking the news that the Pentagon has a kinda secret program to study possible UFOs. The author of the article, later on, spoke to MSNBC and expanded on a passage in his piece that mentioned “modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that … program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena. Researchers also studied people who said they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for any physiological changes.” He claims that the government hasn’t been able to figure out the origin of these alloys. That’s not to say they come from aliens, but they are some new tech.
It also turns out that the guitarist from Blink 182, Tom Delonge, founded an organization that’s that working on getting more classified information released—his partner in the organization is the guy who ran the Pentagon’s UFO program. Delonge recently told the New York Daily News that alien alloys are just the tip of the iceberg. He says that one government scientist has been working on what he calls “engineering the space-time metric.” “It’s like a time machine,” he said. “You get into this craft and you turn it on — boom! — you’re in China in one minute as a ball of light.”
There’s probably some sort of normal explanation here, but let me have this dammit.
Don’t get too excited: There’s never a guarantee that aliens come in peace, but I, for one, welcome our alien overlords.