2014 in digital: how close are we to the sci-fi future we were promised?

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Digital Brain

Ever since I was a kid — growing up in the 80′s — I have been bombarded with images of the future. The typical stuff that 70’s and 80’s sci-fi imagined was flying cars, aliens, teleportation, time travel, holographic virtual worlds, sentient computers and robots. Lots of robots.

Now that I am actually living in the future I am sad to report to my younger self (in a message I cannot send to him, thanks to time travel having failed to be invented) that very little of these wild ideas have come to fruition.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we do live in a kind of science fiction world, one that lacks the sheer awesomeness of interstellar space travel but which is nonetheless more incredible than anything ever experienced by human beings. And the pace of advancement is so rapid one has to read technology news every day to keep up.

Consider that for a moment. If Zite or Flipboard existed in the early 20th century – perhaps even the late 20th century — the algorithms would have struggled to announce one life-altering technological advancement in a year. Now, in and amongst the interminable release of photo manipulation apps, there are massive breakthroughs if not daily then at least weekly.

So as we stand at the start of 2014 let’s take a break from the usual humdrum of predictions about the rise of mobile and look at the five most sci-fi things we’re likely to experience this year — or soon thereafter.

1. Heads up displays

Google Glasses

It’s been a couple of years now since we first heard about Google Glass — the wearable displays that overlay a computer and internet layer on the real world. So far only a small number of people have had access to the device and, one imagines, part of the reason for that is it just don’t work that well yet.

2014 is the year we’re being told these things are going to be available for the consumer.

Google is not the only company eyeing this new way of interacting with computers (there’s the Lumus DK40 for example) — but they are certainly the ones with the most cash. Whether heads up displays (HUDs) really do grab the imagination of the world the way the iPad did remains to be seen. Wearing weird looking glasses may not be everyone’s idea of a fashion statement. However the ubiquity of the mobile phone tells us with certainty that people want frequent engagement with the online world. There seems little doubt that some kind of integrated experience — Glass or not — is around the corner.

2. Smart living rooms

Tablets and TV

I hate the word “smart” actually ––because it’s been corrupted by overuse for many things that are not smart at all. Having said that, the average living room is about to get a whole lot smarter.

The release of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox ONE — to say nothing of various TV sets, both rumoured and real — is changing the way we engage with the hardware that entertains us. The Xbox in particular — with all its current flaws — can recognise your face, respond to intricate gestures and obey your voice. That’s not too far off what the computer on the Starship Enterprise can do.

There is no doubt that home entertainment is one of the most important battlegrounds for consumer electronics and internet companies alike this year. Your lounge is about to transform — both in terms of the range of content you have available and how you interact with it.

3. Virtual Reality gaming

Virtual Reality

Yeah, that old chestnut. The promise of immersive gaming environment has been around for at least 15 years. Bulky headsets that look like the bastard offspring of an eye mask and a snackwich machine turned up at raves and computer shows for years, but the effect of wearing them was disappointing.

The fundamental problem was the computers were just not fast enough to render impressive graphics in anything like the real-time we are used to from our eyes and brain.

The Oculus Rift is making huge waves in the tech space because it seems to be on the verge of getting this right. Watching the reactions of people trying it out should make us all pretty excited. How exactly they solve all the challenges posed by being immersed in an environment you can’t physically walk through or touch remains to be seen. Developers already have this thing in their hands – and 2014 may well be the year the rest of us get it.

4. Gene therapies

I recently heard a researcher from Wits University talk about recent progress in gene therapy and genetic manipulation. While this is not a classic “tech” subject it has a chance of changing our relationship to many dreaded diseases.

There are (apparently) trials underway on Parkinsons, HIV, various cancers, muscular dystrophy — and many others. The basic idea is that a defective gene is replaced by a new, healthy synthesized one using a virus. And some of the results are startling. Stories of cured cancers and bodies freed of all kinds of ailments are becoming more common.

The beauty of gene therapy is that it is not a treatment, it’s a cure. And a permanent one. Of course ethical and safety concerns arise in these discussions -– and the same delusional hippies that oppose vaccination will no doubt be up in arms -– but these treatments are closer than we realize.

2014, to be fair, will probably not be the year that the mass availability of effective gene therapies occurs. But it might be the year that the public starts to understand the promise that these new treatments offer — cheap, quick, painless and more effective than any medical treatment in history.

5. Driverless cars

Autonomous driving

Those crazy Googlers have made a lot of noise about their driverless car programme — and the company does seem to have demonstrated some success in that area. But this year Audi demonstrated an A7 with “autonomous driving technology” that while a little less ambitious is still firmly steering in the same direction.

Why exactly we’d want our cars to drive themselves is partly about safety and partly about efficiency. Computers are good at calculating things like speed and routes which should mean less congestion and fewer annoying drivers. They’re also better than us at avoiding the kinds of slip-ups that result in accidents.

Or, they will be. Right now a company like Audi is just offering to give the driver a break at low speeds. Kicking back with a glass of wine and a good book are still a long way away; and by then we might be flying around in Elon Musk’s hyperloops anyway.

Still we can expect some degree of self-driving start to appear in production car models soon, at least to assist the driver in doing a better job. I predict that this will coincide with a renaissance in in-car entertainment as we start getting internet-connected radios and other devices onboard as we drive.

I’m not sure, that said, that even Google can calculate the movements of minibus taxis.

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