What did 2012 do for technology?

There’s little doubt in my mind that 2012 will not be marked in red in the technology history book for it was certainly not a revolutionary year so far as cutting-edge technology and its development is concerned. There weren’t any major, path-breaking breakthroughs, and readers are free to disagree but only by providing concrete evidence. I would think history will look at 2012 as a year of plodding progress on the emerging technology front, a milepost rather than a ground-breaking phase.

No doubt though, the year did see some concerted effort across the globe on the technology front, the results of which may impact mankind perhaps a year, five years or even a decade down the line. A bulk of the research and development work revolved around computing, personal entertainment, health and medicine, and around those things, which, for lack of a better title, can best be described as lifestyle.

So for the purpose of this article, and in the interest of brevity, I shall stick to explaining on what 2012 did for technology in the following five sectors: computing, consumer electronics, the internet, artificial intelligence and work, play and everything in between.

Computing

Here, I would say, we saw IT companies making some fairly decent advances with tablets, flexible screen boards, pico projectors, retinal screens, fabric-embedded screens, 3D chips, voice recognition technology such as Siri, Google Glass, and at the risk of being booed by the anti-Microsoft lobby, computing software like Windows 8.

Tablets: Let’s start with the recent avatar of personal computers, the tablet. 2012 saw some good progress on this front. Almost every company including Apple finally got its act together. This was also the year, I feel, of the mini-tablet. In October last year, Apple released its iPad 3 and what it claimed to be a smaller, ‘affordable’ version, the iPad Mini (the jury is still out on the affordable bit). Apple was clearly reacting to the market demand for cheaper tablets, though not necessarily smaller ones. Overall, 2012 saw tablet prices reducing by half and even more, around the world. Yet, the question whether it represents the future of personal computing remained unanswered.

I list the top 5 tablets of 2012, in no particular order: iPad 3, the 7 inch Kindle Fire HD, the Asus Vivo Tab RT, the Windows Surface RT and the Google Nexus 7.

I have mentioned the five here because in my view, all of these are the corner stones of the various technologies that run tablets, and retain the promise of truly changing the way the world uses tablets in the immediate future. Whether they ultimately manage to do that depends of course on the respective manufacturers and user response.

Volumetric Screens: Next on the computing list is the volumetric (3D) screen. For those of you out there who are unaware of what this means, here’s a quickie — we all know that existing two-dimensional flat screens do not offer true depths while viewing, even if the software being used is 3D rendering. A TV with volumetric display, on the other hand, enables more than one viewer to watch a 3D screen without changing the angle of sight. Which means you can sit anywhere and not compulsorily in front of your 3D TV, to watch it without blurring. Volumetric display requires a very different process — from the time the scene is recorded to the manner in which it is displayed on a TV screen, ensuring the full effects of 3D.

2012 saw a lot of work being done on the volumetric display technology front. Because of which, very soon, perhaps by end of 2013 itself, we may as well be talking of voxels, rather than pixels (the latter is today the smallest component of a digital image).

Flexi-displays: The technology that may enable all of us to have flexible display screens on our computers and TV sets is third on my list. 2012 saw scientists getting closer to the by-now, 20 year pursuit of making flexible displays, combining polymer and metal foil substrates with thin film transistor backplates.This will replace the traditional glass display surfaces. Again, because of the kind of progress made on this tech front by scientists and hardware manufacturers, maybe in 2013, such screens may become a commercial reality.

Online reports seem to suggest that electronics giant Samsung seems to be the leader in the pack on the flexi-screen front. The Samsung Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note 3, due for release in 2013, may come equipped with such displays. As compared to traditional glass displays, flexible displays promise to be more durable and harder to damage, and devices having them will also be slimmer and lighter and could also be bendy. So all of you who are prone to scratching the glass surface of your mobile computing devices, this will be a relief.

Pico projectors: Next on my list are those tiny projectors than can be embedded in mobile phones or other hand-held devices. I feel the technology driving pico projectors is not being given the respect it deserves. These have been commercially around from end-2009 but 2012 saw the release of hordes of them by many leading manufacturers of computing devices.

Some notables: In mid 2012, Microsoft Research showcased its wearable multi-touch projector, which you can drape over your shoulder that can project on any flat surface. Several other Apps too were released like the PoP Video add-on that turns the iPod and iPhones into pico projectors for just US$99.

Electro-textile: 2012 also saw some body of research work done on wearable devices, especially fabric embedded chips. These also go by another name: electro-textile. Thanks to the R&D we saw in the year that’s just over, inserting silicon chips into fabric or shoes will not be such a difficult thing anymore.

Progress on this front was always hampered by that one problem – keeping the chip intact even when the fabric was stretched. Experts now believe this to be licked. At the start of December, a materials scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Andre Studart demonstrated a new flexible electronic fabric that looked like a translucent Band-Aid to the TechNewsDaily over Skype, stretching it at both ends. The strip held firm, it did not break. To ensure this, what Andre and his team did was to introduce a soft, stretchy material that integrate stiff parts like LED, and protects those parts from stretching. Those in the know predict that this ‘wearable’ tech will be commercially available within five years.

Retina web: Last year also saw the computing tech world take some more strides towards a Retina web. The release of the Retina MacBook Pro by Apple only served to bring this technology a little closer in our day-to-day lives. A quick clarification – Retina Display is a brand name used by Apple for liquid crystal displays but almost everyone in the digital world uses the word ‘Retina’ as a generic name, much like Xerox and photo copying.

Suffice to note that retina display instruments do not allow the human eye to notice image pixilation (where the image breaks up into pixels) at a given viewing distance. In November 2012, the US Patents Department approved Apple’s application and Retina thus became the latter’s trademark. Apple competitors like LG are said to be working on similar technology.

Windows 8: At the risk of inviting the ire of software geeks who think otherwise, I think Microsoft’s Windows 8 Operating System (OS) is going to change the world of computing. After three pre-releases between 2011-12, the Windows 8 software was made commercially available everywhere from October 2012.

The new OS is aimed at improving user experience on mobile computing devices like tablets, and has been designed specifically to counter Android and iOS software. It has incorporated several new, emerging technologies – the USB3.0 port, near field communication, cloud computing and new security features such as malware filtering. Admittedly, Windows 8 has so far received a mix bag of reactions – users seem to have appreciated its new features but are generally critical of its Start screen and its touch screen features, which they claim are ‘confusing’. My take: it’s the first, radical OS we have seen in a long, long time, so give it a break. Users will get the hang of it real soon.

Google Glass: Google on the other hand, has developed and given the world a different kind of vision — Google Glass. This earned it one of the best invention of 2012 tag by Time magazine. Project Glass is a research and development programme by Google to develop an augmented reality head-mounted display, meaning you can wear your PC on your eyes. The operating system software used in the glasses will be Google’s Android. The prototype was shown to the world in June 2012.

Voice recognition technology: Before I sign off from this segment, I would like to speak of voice recognition technology. It all started with Apple’s Siri, that speech controlled personal assistant in the iPhone 4S. Siri has launched a mad race between manufacturers to get a clone, or even something better. Google Inc, Microsoft Corp, you name it, everyone wants a Siri copy in their products, and much of 2012 was spent in trying to develop Siri rivals. Both, Google and Microsoft are said to have invested heavily in these programs to be integrated soon in their products like mobile phones. 2013 will see a lot many people asking their Siri-like virtual assistants for updates on weather and the way to the nearest burger joint.

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