As advancements in technology are happening at an exponential rate, it has become increasingly difficult to keep up with all this innovation around us. Sectors that have traditionally been slow to innovate such as transportation, medicine, architecture, and education are starting to experience breakthroughs at an unprecedented rate. As a designer in tech, I’m constantly thinking about how novel applications of technology can make new contributions to the way we communicate, learn, and engage with our complex surroundings. Here’s a glance at five nascent technologies that are quickly moving from science fiction to implementation.
Virtual and Augmented Reality
Virtual reality is no longer just a dream of techno-futurists. It has come a long way since crude prototypes emerged in the 1980s, created primarily for gamers. Now disciplines that have traditionally been slow to adopt new technologies are starting to use VR and AR. Architects are starting to use it to show clients their designs in immersive 3D before a single nail is driven. Doctors are using it for surgery prep and patient education. Even artists are experimenting with it to bring new dimensions into their work. In the video below, legendary Disney Animator, Glen Keane, uses virtual reality to extend his canvas and discover new drawing capabilities.
While virtual reality seeks to transport you to an entirely different world, augmented reality overlays information over the world that you are already in. One of the more exciting products I’ve seen so far is the HoloLens by Microsoft, which is a wearable holographic computer that adds content to your field of vision. Imagine having a video chat with family members who live across the globe but appear as if they are sitting across the table from you. Or how cool would it be to explore a new city and as you wander the streets you could view buildings as they existed 100 years ago?
3D & 4D Printing — Sharper, Stronger, Larger
3D printing is completely changing the way we design and manufacture our world. Some experts have even predicted that companies like Nike will be mostly software companies in a decade, where 3D printing technologies will allow everything to be customized and produced close to you. Consider the instance when you wear out your running shoes and rather than drive to the mall to search for new ones, you print out a brand new pair on your home 3D printer.
Imagine how the slow and expensive process of constructing a building could be improved by 3D printing. Architects could upload their designs and have building-sized 3D printers construct everything on their own. A company in China has already created a printer that can build 10 full-sized houses in one day, all from construction waste. Engineering firm, Arup, is also developing 3D printed structural components that will allow for buildings to be much more organic in shape — designs of which could never be realized with traditional construction methods.
Some designers are taking 3D printing to an entirely new dimension. Skylar Tibbits, a researcher at MIT, has created what he calls 4D printing. He posits that an object could automatically change its shape or self-assemble when confronted with a change in its environment, such as moisture or temperature. Imagine underground infrastructure that could repair itself when damaged or running shoes that could grow cleats when running on grass!
The automotive industry is on the verge of its biggest revolution in 100 years. The majority of cars today are recognizable because their configuration is an outgrowth of 20th century technological constraints such as engines in the front, side mirrors, forward-facing seats, and static dashboards. But as these elements become obsolete, cars are becoming blank canvases in which designers can rethink the entire system of how vehicles are created inside and out. Add in the rapid improvements being made to electric cars and battery charging technologies, and that creates a recipe for massive disruption in the transportation sector over the next few years.
Mercedes recently released a self-driving concept car that looks to redefine how people interact with vehicles on the road. As our cities become much denser, there will be increased competition for public space. Roads will have to become much more inclusive of all forms of transit. Recognizing this, the designers of the Mercedes F-015 concept car equipped the exterior of the vehicle with an array of LED indicators that expresses what the car knows, sees, and expects from others around it. For example, when it senses a person trying to cross the street, it projects its own digital crosswalk on the ground, as if to say to the pedestrian, “I see you, it’s safe to cross now.”
The Evolving User Interface
Humans are not meant to be hunched over tiny keyboards for all hours of the day. The 2002 sci-fi film, Minority Report, gave us a vision of what the next generation interface could look like. Now John Underkoffler, the engineer behind the futuristic UI in Minority Report, is bringing a similar technology to market. Underkoffler predicts that the next big change, or quantum leap in computing, will be a radically new user interface. These UIs will be much more fluid and dexterous than what we have today, and will allow many more people to collaborate at once. Elon Musk is also rethinking how his engineering teams at Space X could design more directly in 3D. The system employs a number of technologies such as Leap Motion and Oculus VR, allowing designers and engineers to be navigate 3D models in a much more expressive way — vindicating them from the crippling postures required for prolonged keyboard use.
Internet for All
Many people don’t realize that there are four billion people around the world without access to the internet. There are currently just two methods of connecting to the web: broadband and wireless. These existing methods have very limited access in rural and impoverished areas because they require massive infrastructural systems.
Projects including Project Loon and Internet.org are in the works to help connect billions of people very soon. Project Loon involves launching balloons high into the atmosphere to create expansive wireless internet access. The Internet.org project plans to deploy solar-powered drones that will fly uninterrupted around the globe for years at a time, bringing internet access to remote regions.
These are just a few breakthroughs that are worth following in the coming years. Will we all be parading around in driverless cars wearing goofy VR headsets next year? Probably not. But it’s inspiring to see how these milestones could help improve complex fields that are in desperate need of innovation.