The most disruptive technologies in 2012 include energy storage technology no one thought would ever work, gesture-based interfaces that will make touch screens look as quaint as floppy disks, and computers and connectivity so cheap they’re adding billions more people to the internet. For a technology to make it onto this list, it didn’t have to be invented in 2012; in many cases, it’s enough that there was a significant development this year in its journey toward rewriting our relationship with machines and each other.
1. Controlling computers without touching them
Leap Motion, Pointgrab, Elliptic
In June I wrote that Leap Motion, the company responsible for a $70 add-on to any computer that could replace every input device save the keyboard, was about to launch the most disruptive technology since the smart phone. About the size of a packet of gum, the Leap is an outwardly simple device that can determine the position of any object in its field of view to a resolution of a hundredth of a millimeter, the company claims. The result is a sensor that could enable ultra-precise gesture-based interfaces with sufficient variety that they are likely to make interacting with a computer through a trackpad, mouse or touchscreen seem antediluvian. As I noted at the time:
…Leap operates in three dimensions rather than two. Forget pinch-to-zoom; imagine “push to scroll,” rotating your flattened hand to control the orientation of an object with a full six degrees of freedom, or using both hands at once to control either end of a bezier surface you’re casually sculpting as part of an object you’ll be sending to your 3D printer.
Since the company revealed the Leap, it has been overwhelmed by demand from developers who are now working with it to apply its technology to everything from education to medicine. For the everyday user, Leap means being able to move a cursor on a screen simply by lifting a finger an inch or so off the keyboard and pointing, as well as a thousand other potentially more complicated gestures, all of which can be accomplished without the sweeping arm movements or impractical ergonomics of previous gesture-based systems.
Other companies are working to bring gesture-based interfaces into computers through a variety of competing technologies. (Leap uses a pair of cameras and a handful of infrared lights, but the company’s “secret sauce” is apparently its software, which runs on the computer rather than the Leap sensor, and processes what those cameras see.) Elliptic Labs, for example, uses ultrasound transducers and tiny microphones embedded in PCs to “see” where a user’s hands are in the same way that a bat uses echoes. PointGrab, on the other hand, has a camera-based technology that is already available in gesture-controlled televisions, and it’s about to debut in PCs from Acer and Fujitsu. Pointgrab’s system isn’t as accurate as a Leap, but it has the advantage of working with any device that has a forward-facing camera.
2. Fusing the real and the virtual
Google Glass, car windshields from GM and Daimler
Whenever there is a piece of glass between a person and the world, there’s an opportunity to put information on it. Augmented reality (AR), as it’s known, is the way we’ll fuse the virtual and the real worlds, supplementing the screens on our mobile devices with screens that know what we’re looking at and can superimpose anything a computer can display. The potential applications are endless: Software that displays the names and bios of people we meet; turn-by-turn directions that appear to float in the air before us; glasses that superimpose ads on the world, or block real-world ads if we don’t want to see them.
Google did a lot of marketing this year for Project Glass, its effort to put a single small, transparent display on a pair of otherwise lens-free eyeglasses. (The company reckons that Glass will be on sale by 2014.) But it won’t offer full-blown AR. Google Glass can give you directions or display a Google Hangout, but to convincingly superimpose virtual, three-dimensional objects on a person’s view of reality, it would have to know the position and orientation of his or her head to a degree of precision that has yet to exist outside the laboratory. Google’s engineers know this, so initial models of Google Glass consist of a display meant to hover just outside a user’s field of view, rather than fill it.
A convincing fusion of the virtual and the real might arrive sooner in cars than in glasses. Able to carry more processing power, better orientation sensors and an all-encompassing display—the windshield—our vehicles could become home to a new level of immersion. These kinds of “heads-up displays” have existed in aircraft for decades. And if that seems like a recipe for distraction, all the companies working on this technology, from GM to Daimler, emphasize that the first goal of augmented reality displays in car windshields would be increased safety (paywall).
COMPRESSED AIR BATTERIES
3. The world’s most cost-effective energy storage
The story of LightSail Energy is a litany of surprising facts. In a field dominated by male engineers, its founder, Danielle Fong, is a 24-year-old woman who dropped out of both middle school and (later) a PhD at Princeton. And the company’s technology takes an energy storage technique no one thought was workable—compressed air—and adds a simple physical trick inspired by something Fong read in a century-old book. The problem Fong solved is that, due to basic physics, when air is compressed, it gets hot, up to 1,000°C. That means most of the energy that could be stored in compressed air is lost as heat. Fong’s solution was to add a fine mist of water to air as it’s being compressed, and then to recover that water and use it to store the heat energy generated.
The result, LightSail claims, is a technology as efficient as batteries—it will supposedly return up to 70% of the energy put into it—but significantly cheaper. This combination of price, simplicity and build-it-anywhere flexibility has attracted investors like Bill Gates and, in the company’s $37.5 million Series D financing round, the investor (and PayPal co-founder) Peter Thiel, who usually makes a point of avoiding clean energy.
LightSail sells its technology not merely as a way to store renewable energy for when it’s needed, but also as a way to displace a lot of the new power plants and electricity transmission infrastructure that the world has planned. The idea is that putting affordable energy storage exactly where it’s needed could eliminate spending on both, regardless of whether the energy is being produced by renewables.
AUTONOMOUS ELECTRIC VEHICLES
4. The end of cars as we know them
Arcimoto, Google driverless car
Companies—like ExxonMobil—that argue that electric cars won’t go mainstream until they have the same range as conventional vehicles aren’t taking account of changes in how we use cars that might make their range less important. And critics who say self-driving cars won’t catch on because they don’t offer a big enough advantage over driving yourself miss the fact that in many cities, people prefer to rent a fully autonomous vehicle by the hour than to own a car themselves. (We call such vehicles “taxis”.)
2012 is the year it occurred to at least a handful of observers that at the intersection of these two trends is something truly startling: A future in which cars are no less ubiquitous, but the way in which we use them more closely resembles mass transit.
The logic, briefly, is that self-driving cars could be much safer than conventional vehicles because they’ll crash less. That will allow them to become much lighter as they shed the crumple zones and crash cages typical of today’s cars. Lighter vehicles, like the three-wheeled Arcimoto, which is technically a motorcycle, can go further on batteries. They’ll also have lower maintenance costs because they have fewer moving parts (no gearbox, for instance).
Now, there’s an obvious chicken-and-egg problem here. If the only way to become light enough to make battery power a viable option is to have fewer safety features, then autonomous electric cars have to be less susceptible to accidents. To be less susceptible to accidents, they have to be isolated from conventional cars with their erratic human drivers. To be isolated from conventional cars, they need to be widespread enough to have their own lanes and roads. And to be that widespread, they have to already be light enough to make battery power viable.
“Ultimately, you’re just going to hit a button on your smartphone, a vehicle will pull up, you’ll get in. And once you start to get a lot of [autonomous electric vehicles] on the road, they can do things that no cars can do. They can flock together, they can be more efficient in terms of how they use energy; so what we’ll see is a dramatic reduction in congestion, smaller lanes, a dramatically reduced need for parking lots, and better utilization of our urban cores. Within the next 20 years the potential for just a fundamental reboot of the topology of our cities.”
ULTRA-CHEAP WEB DEVICES
5. Five billion people with internet access
Jana, Jolla, Facebook, Datawind and countless Shenzhen manufacturers
“The thing to look for in the next year is that you have one to two billion Android handsets coming on-line,” Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen told Quartz recently. “We’ve never had the ability in our industry to reach five billion people with a computer and now we have the ability to do that. That’s big.”
Since 2000, the number of mobile phones in the developing world has increased by 1,700%, and now many of those people are upgrading to smartphones with data plans that cost as little as $2. The price of an internet-capable smartphone has now fallen to $50, and in India it’s possible to get tablets like the Aakash 2 for half that. The explosion of smartphone adoption in China, which is now consuming the devices faster than the US, has created openings for unconventional mobile companies like the Finnish/Chinese Jolla. It’s also cementing the dominance of internet giants like Facebook, who have created stripped-down versions of their sites that can be used on a basic feature phone, and persuaded mobile providers to give people access to those sites for free.
What does it mean that another one or two billion people are encountering the internet for the first time? If the value of the network is proportional to its size, what happens when most of Earth’s inhabitants can tap into a common pool of information and contacts? New internet users aren’t going to necessarily translate into profits for companies like Facebook, but whole new businesses that can reach billions of people, like Jana’s marketing and payments platform, are being synthesized from even the most primitive mobile networks.
But this is also a story about education, economic development, opportunity, government transparency and even revolutions—all of which, pundits argue, could flow from this level of connectedness.