Technology Trends in 2013

Internet

In the second quarter of 2013, Akamai found that 24% of those people with internet connectivity in the United States had speeds higher than 10 Mbps, allowing them to stream audio and high definition video with relative ease. Globally, the percentage stood at 14%. Numbers are hard to come by, but of those, only a tiny fraction had speeds near 1 Gbps. Google Fiber with speeds up to 1 Gbps for $70 is available in just three cities in the United States: Kansas City, KS, Kansas City, MO, and Provo, UT. In these locations and a few other cities where competition is stronger, various broadband provides are introducing speeds in excess of 100 Mbps. According to Ars Technica, other U.S. cities are demanding gigabit speeds, including Los Angeles, CA.

Meanwhile, local and global 4G LTE mobile continued to be built out, resulting in significant coverage. According to GSMA Intelligence, there are now “230 commercial LTE networks across 88 countries.” Globally there are 176 million LTE connections. With average mobile speeds over 10 Mbps, LTE has resulted in an increase in mobile video and other applications that require higher speeds. In 2013, several carriers began testing or announced plans to test LTE-Advanced, which will improve average mobile speeds to near 100 Mbps. Meanwhile, SK Telecom launched just such a network in the world’s most advanced mobile communications market, South Korea.

In a three-part series (1, 2, 3) Quartz insisted the “internet of things” is really coming in 2014, and in doing so acknowledged the technology in 2013 was still in its hype stage. Whether or not the term is widely recognized by the public, it is clear that the “internet of things” has in fact arrived and is rapidly improving. What the articles highlight is how the basic infrastructure for the internet of things has vastly improved, in terms of cost, speed, size and energy requirements. Implementation is the activity going forward.

GE introduced their own marketing term for the internet of things; in the following video, “machine sensor technology, connectivity, and data analytics” combine for the  “Industrial Internet“:

Digital Media

Apple’s iTunes Radio arrived on September 18, 2013, just one of several services and business models shaping the digital music industry this year. Consumers seem to be much more comfortable with subscribing to music, and the music industry seems much more comfortable providing their content to various services and various business models. As the most mature of all digital media industries, music has become available on various platforms and devices for purchase, subscription, or free with ads.

Digital video seems to be following similar trends, but new media companies began to produce their own original video content to make their platforms more appealing. Netflix, for example, enjoyed Emmy-winning success with its original series and announced plans for much more content, including four Marvel-based superhero series. Amazon has begun producing original series on its platform, Hulu has done the same, and Microsoft plans to as well. Meanwhile, Google with YouTube continues to fund original programming while emphasizing channels of content.

This trend requires consumers to adopt various hardware and apps to gain access to original programming from these new content providers, and it allows new media companies to directly competes with existing content providers like HBO and the television and movie studios. Conspicuously absent from this trend is Apple, which simply hosts content and apps to access this content from other content providers. The Apple TV, in addition to offering access to music, TV shows, and movies purchases and rental from the iTunes digital retail platform, also includes apps to access content directly from Netflix, HuluPlus, Crunchyroll, YouTube, Vimeo, Vevo, Crackle, PBS, and Yahoo! Screen, as well as channel services like HBO Go, ABC, ESPN and the Disney Channel that require subscription to cable television, along with a few channels – WSJ Live, SkyNews, and Bloomberg – that don’t.

Other hardware platforms take the same approach. The newest video game consoles from Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony bring together a similar mix of services to the television, and the same uneasy alliance with cable companies allowing channels to be streamed over the web only if the user already subscribes to them. No one in 2013 was able to change this model despite frequent rumors.

While many Ultra HD (4K) televisions and monitors with 3840 x 2160 pixels resolution were introduced and rapidly fell in price, very little 4K content was available for them. Netflix announced that it would begin streaming 4K video in 2014. Netflix did improve the video quality of some content to Super HD and 3-D in 2013 for customers of internet providers that agreed to host Netflix video servers within their own data centers.

Metaverse

The Metaverse as defined by the Metaverse Roadmap project in 2007 included four components: virtual worlds, mirror worlds, augmented reality, and lifelogging. Lifelogging with wearables and virtual words and augmented reality through various eyewear were the major development efforts and newsmakers in 2013. Augmented reality applications, virtual worlds and mirror worlds were much less newsworthy this year. Further progress in these seems to be waiting for the development and consumerization of hardware with more natural interfaces. For example, augmented reality through smartphones and tablets can be interesting and fun for demonstration purposes but have not yet become indispensable to users; augmented reality glasses may be more useful.

Helping the internet of things along, a variety of lifelogging devices and services arrived in 2013 including updated hardware, improved sensors, and new attention toward wearables as a form factor set for rapid growth. New medical devices like the Scanadu Scout were demoed and will soon provide additional details about our health. In the process, consumers have become much more comfortable with attaching devices to their clothing and bodies that track their every move.

As long as the data tracking was for personal and private use, that is. Spawned by the release of classified material from the NSA by a former contractor Edward Snowden, passionate discourse raged all year about how information is gathered, often through our cutting-edge consumer electronics, and how it is used.

Meanwhile, new types of wearables rapidly gained in hype during the year, including eyewear like Google Glass and Oculus Rift. While these devices are not available for general purchase, a growing number of developers and other early adopters wore them this year. From monocle-style glasses like Glass and Vuzix’s M100 to full-on heads-up displays like the Oculus Rift, several companies were actively raising money for and developing augmented and virtual reality eyewear. Meta’s upcoming Space Glasses seems to take the technology to the next level: in addition to  two virtual displays for each eye, Meta developed what they call the “first holographic interface” by adding gesture recognition hardware.

Even before these eyewear are available to consumers, the industry and developers are already blending the virtual and real in a variety of ways. Augmented reality devices add an additional layer on top of reality, while virtual reality devices generally confine the experience to a virtual reality realm. William Steptoe demonstrated an Inception-esque Wonderland of realities in the following video:

Steptoe combined a stereo camera rig with an Oculus Rift to bring augmented reality into virtual reality, suggesting a mind-boggling future of people transitioning through various layers and mixtures of realities.

One drawback of the Oculus Rift is that other than keeping track of the user’s eyes and head, it is unable to track the rest of the user’s body. Users can use their head to look around the virtual scene, but they cannot walk through it without also using a controller. To address this limitation, various companies turned to crowdfunding in 2013 to raise money for continued development and commercialization of treadmills (Virtuix Omni) and tracking suits (YEI Technology PrioVR).

Smartwatches were less successful wearables. The Samsung Galaxy Gear arrived to poor reviews and amidst rampant rumors of an Apple “iWatch” that never materialized. Qualcomm also introduced a smartwatch, the Toq. These smartwatches are not intended to replace other devices, but act as accessories for smartphones, providing a limited subset of information to the user at a glance. It remains unclear how successful these devices will be with consumers and what capabilities and use cases will be most valuable.

Where does the Metaverse stand at the end of 2013? The Metaverse demands ubiquitous sensing in the environment and on our person. With the rise of the internet of things and rapid improvement in how we interact with the new medium, a fully immersive Metaverse – one that “will quickly subsume all other mass media and internet-enabled services, including the web” – suddenly seems closer than ever.

Hardware

The stunning success of the smartphone continued in 2013 with 1.5 billion people now owning these devices. That’s 22% of the global population, according to BI Intelligence, and now surpasses the number of people who own a personal computer; after all, the smartphone is a personal computer, just more mobile and in many respects more capable. Tablets continue to grow quickly as well, reaching 6% of the global population more quickly than smartphones reached the same milestone. How to get these devices into the hands of the next one billion? Rapid sales, competition, and dropping prices all suggest it won’t take long.

Ultra HD televisions and monitors dropped rapidly in price in 2013 while some took on new, expensive and huge curved forms. Tablets and smartphones added thinner and higher resolution screens (often bigger screens with higher pixels-per-inch) and biometric capabilities such as the “Touch ID” fingerprint identity sensor in the home button of the iPhone 5s. Laptops, desktops, and dedicated music devices continued to decline rapidly in units sold, and what remains continued to get thinner and lighter. Apple’s new Mac Pro suggests a new direction for desktop computers: strict focus on powerful workstations for people who need them, capable of driving several large and higher resolution monitors, but in a much smaller form factor and novel (cylindrical) shapes. For everyone else, post-PC devices seemed to be sufficient.

Intel’s Haswell and competitor CPUs and GPUs continued to demonstrate Moore’s Law while focusing on using electrons more efficiently. Various companies continue to promise universal memory systems coming in the next few years, but hard drives, SSD’s, and RAM continue to improve, albeit at a slower pace than previous years. Adoption of SSD in consumer electronics, for example, continues, but capacities in these devices were not generally increased this year. Capacity in Post-PC devices seems to have settled between 16 and 64 GB, with a few devices like Apple’s iPad air and second-generation iPad mini offering a step up to 128 GB.

Likewise, cameras on the back of smartphones and tablets seem to have plateaued at between 5 and 13 megapixels, and the front cameras remain at much lower resolution. Improvements to the cameras did take place in 2013, but elsewhere, such as the increased size of sensor pixels and sapphire lenses.

Robotics

The DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials on December 20 and 21, 2013 in Homestead, Florida provided a fantastic opportunity to “calibrate” our expectations about humanoid and other robots. According to DARPA Program Manager Gill Pratt as quoted by IEEE Spectrum in their article “DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials: What You Should (and Shouldn’t) Expect to See“:

“I think part of the good that can come out of the trials is that we’ll actually help calibrate the public to what the reality is in this field.”

And our expectations were certainly calibrated. Although the robots were extremely slow, spending much of their time simply calculating their next move, a surprising number earned several points in the eight-challenge event, and a few were highly successful with nearly all tasks. The top team was SCHAFT, a Japanese company recently purchased by Google. Their bipedal robot earned 27 points out of a possible 32.

Three other teams scored at least half the possible points. The top eight teams will receive funding from DARPA to continue improving their robots and prepare for the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals set for December 2014.

Earlier in the year, Rethink Robotics introduced Baxter, a torsorobot with two arms safe enough to work side-by-side with humans in the manufacturing industry. Layoffs and a minor pivot late in the year suggest interest in robots that are safe and relatively easy to train is tempered by their limited capabilities and slow speeds.

The trouble at Rethink Robotics is not likely evidence of trouble with the robotics industry as a whole, however. The industry seems to be heating up as Google, Amazon, Apple and other big tech companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars to improve industrial robots and purchase robotics and related companies.

Medicine

Animal models continued to revealed new circuits of molecular and genetic activity that promise rejuvenation in old organisms and multiplicative extensions of lifespan if tweaked as embryos. For example, providing NAD, a chemical that decreases as mammals age, to older mice improved communication between a cell’s nucleus and its mitochondria, resulting in a rejuvenation effect. For the laboratory model C. elegans, the combination of two mutations resulted in a quintupling of lifespan.

The distance between animals models and human trials still seemed astronomical, however. For humans there were a few interesting developments, including promising news in gene therapy as problems faced a decade ago have been addressed, Science’s editors selected cancer immunotherapy as their “Breakthrough of the Year”, and efforts have begun to commercialize CRISPR, a promising technology for editing genes. The ability to edit and write genes instead of just reading them is perhaps the single most promising development of 2013.

Google announced a new company called Calico that “will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases.” The company has already brought together an impressive group of scientists led by Art Levinson, but little is known about their approach to this research or what their roadmap might be.

New Organ officially launched a $1 million dollar Liver Prize, with the goal of creating “a bioengineered replacement for the native liver of a large mammal, enabling it to recover in the absence of native function and survive three months with a normal lifestyle.”

Setbacks occurred. The United States Food and Drug Administration demanded 23andMe halt their genomic analysis service. Recent studies also confirmed that these services are still in their infancy as results vary and provide questionable information to consumers who may not understand these complexities.

Infectious diseases remain challenging despite vaccines and other measures developed to slow their spread. Anti-vaccination advocates continue to negatively impact national health in the United States: measles cases tripled in the United States and most of these cases were attributed to communities who refuse vaccinations. Many parents also continued to resist vaccinating daughters against the HPV virus despite recent research confirming the vaccine’s effectiveness at lowering infection rates. The U.S. National Institutes for Health (NIH) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) called off another HIV vaccine study in human trials due to ineffectiveness.

Works Cited

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet living in Tucson, Arizona. His poetry has been published in Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey and Fairy Tale Review’s “Fairy-Tale Files“.