This is where we’re at. This is where we’re going.
"Gadgets are back."
That phrase has basically become an in-joke here at The Verge, because it’s so obvious that the technology industry has reached an inflection point. The smartphone has dominated attention for so long and spawned so many other industries that it felt that’s all there would be. Everybody had a one-track mind, even if that track has led us into beautiful and strange new vistas.
But eventually, the track hit the coast, and now we’re looking for where to go next. We spent so many years creating the pieces that made the smartphone possible, but it turns out those pieces can make so many more things — things that we’re just now beginning to figure out. Tablets came first, but now there are electric skateboards, intelligent thermostats, flying cameras, virtual reality headsets, and wrist-mounted computers.
Gadgets are back. And they are messy, complicated, and sometimes terrible. But they’re also wonderful; full of potential that everyone can see and nobody has achieved. That’s why we are launching Circuit Breaker, because tracking all the strange new things happening in technology day-to-day is going to be a blast. We don’t have to wait for the slick and integrated Next Big Thing, we get to watch it get built together in real time.
But before we do, we wanted to see where we’re at before we embark toward where we’re going. All aboard.
The notion of wearing technology on our bodies is not a new one; you could even argue that the smartphone falls into the category of wearable tech, since a lot of us treat our smartphones like an appendage. But wearable tech goes much deeper — in some cases, literally — and much weirder than the common smartphone.
A smartwatch that tracks biometrics and also pings you when your Uber has arrived and also pays for your overpriced coffee? Check. A "smart" sports bra, or a pair of pants that can measure electromyography, something that usually requires multi-thousand-dollar equipment? Check. WiFi-connected glasses (or headsets) that display contextual digital information about the world around you? Check. A "patch" that can measure UV exposure, unlock your hotel room door, or act as an interactive tattoo on your skin? Yup. A magnetic chip implanted in your finger that lets you perform some pretty great party tricks? We’ve done that.
Wearables are trying to do almost everything you can imagine
To be sure, some of these are fringe cases. When most people think about wearables right now, they’re mainly thinking Fitbit, or maybe Apple Watch. The former over the past eight years has helped pioneer the whole connected-fitness movement, and became a bellwether in an industry that still offers surprisingly little sales data: once Fitbit — the Kleenex of fitness trackers — went public in 2015, there was suddenly a benchmark for success. Apple Watch, while still widely acknowledged as a first-gen device, has achieved a cachet that few other smartwatches could.
Meanwhile, Google’s Android Wear operating system is showing up on everything from blinged-out Huawei smartwatches to dedicated surf watches. There’s also Pebble, the upstart that turned a successful Kickstarter campaign into a series of smartwatches that are way better than something you’d expect a tiny company to be able to create.
Wearables are the ultimate expression of data collection
So are these things just Tamagotchis on our bodies, or the next big wave in "personal" computing? It depends on who you ask. Some wearables have woefully weak battery life for a gadget that you’re supposed to wear on your body every day and forget about. And almost all makers of wearable tech devices grapple with user retention, which is to say: how can we make them so people don’t toss these things into drawers in three months and actually forget about them? Even analysts seem confused — albeit bullish — on where it’s all going: IDC estimates that the worldwide wearable-device market will reach a total of 111 million units shipped in 2016, while Gartner predicts 274 million wearable electronic devices will be sold in 2016.
But in an era of tech when more data than ever is being gathered, transmitted, and analyzed, wearable gadgets are the ultimate expression of that data collection. And because the sensors in wearable tech not only go on our bodies, but can also fuse with them, or possibly exist within them, it is arguably the most personal form of technology at the moment. Wearable tech is certainly still defining itself — but it’s usually the undefined spaces where things can be the most exciting.
In the world of gadgets, the smartphone is king. It's frequently the most used and most important device in our lives; I can’t think of a single more important gadget from the past 10 years.
Beyond its own necessity, the smartphone enables countless other gadgets in our lives. That hot new smartwatch on everyone’s wrist? It doesn’t exist without a smartphone to connect to. Want to use a smart thermostat in your house? You’ll be programming and controlling it with your phone. Same goes for your car’s infotainment system, which will most likely be powered by a phone in your next car.
Smartphones are so ubiquitous and integrated into our lives that they may even seem boring at this point. Changes from model to model are incremental at best, and the smartphone you bought two or three years ago likely does most, if not all, of the same tricks as the one that came out a week ago. You could argue that the software that powers the smartphone is more important than the device itself, and you’d probably be right!
But if you push past that sameness, you can see how the smartphone is still a super interesting and powerful gadget. Smartphones are so important to the business of most technology companies that more resources are devoted to improving them than anything else. Each of the modern phone’s major parts — the screen, processor, camera, design — is packed with cutting-edge technology and innovative ideas. We have phones with curved screens, phones that can react to how hard you push on them, phones that can keep pace with nearly any compact camera, phones that can be virtual reality headsets, and so on. If you’re not thinking of the smartphone as a gadget anymore, well, it’s probably time to reconsider.
The last thing I expected to see onstage with Mark Zuckerberg at this year’s Facebook developer conference was a drone. And yet, there it was: the small, white quadcopter, hovering stage left, live streaming video of the billionaire CEO from above. It was a striking reminder that while drones may never be as ubiquitous as smartphones, there is something uniquely compelling about the possibilities they open up for filming and photography, and we should never underestimate the appetite humans have for new ways of looking at themselves.
The most prominent consumer drone-production company in the world, by a wide margin, is China’s DJI. No other drone company is getting special retail placement from Apple or appearing onstage with Zuckerberg. Its Phantom line of camera drones has long been our favorite model, and the latest iteration, the Phantom 4, puts DJI’s drone in a class of its own.
DJI has the pole position in the drone race
Beyond that, there are a lot of consumer drones that can offer reliable flight, crisp footage, and some great autonomous features. Many drones can follow you, orbit around a subject, or follow a preprogrammed path to capture the perfect shot. Drones from 3D Robotics, Hexo+, and Yuneec don’t yet have sense and avoid, so you need to mindful of your surroundings, even if you’re letting them do the flying. But they have a wide range of features that make it much easier for beginners to start flying, and for professionals to up their game.
Most commercial drones now offer a way to connect the live stream to goggles or a headset. This allows you to fly from the perspective of the drone, or FPV. It’s a thrilling experience for any pilot, and it’s also the foundation for drone racing, an increasingly popular sport. A recent event in Abu Dhabi handed out over $1 million in prizes, and ESPN has now signed on to broadcast a number of races. Meanwhile the owner of the Miami Dolphins has gotten together with a group of venture capitalists to fund a league created by the man who created another sporting phenomenon, Tough Mudder.
But not all drones are just flying cameras for consumers. Corporations are looking for wild new ways to use them. So drones are likely going to start playing a role in most people’s lives soon, even if they don’t go out and buy one. They have already been used to deliver packages in West Virginia and Nevada. Australia is about to begin a pilot program for delivering mail by drone. Most importantly, both Google and Amazon have invested heavily in developing drone-delivery programs. The goal is to use these autonomous aircraft to deliver packages far faster and more efficiently than today’s ground transport can. If the FAA adopts the recent recommendations from its working group, as it has in the past, this vision will take a big step toward becoming a reality.
The FAA will decide the future of commercial drones
Citizens across the Southern United States will also see drones take flight this summer, replacing insurance inspectors who check rooftops for damage from hail and wind. State Farm is the first major insurance carrier to publicly announce a drone program, but others are sure to follow. Anyone who lives along a rail line controlled by BNSF may also catch the sound of tiny rotors buzzing, as drones fly missions to inspect miles of track.
Drones are evolving in parallel to driverless cars, and both represent the integration of powerful robotics into our society; moving beyond the factory floor, to our roads and skies, guided by artificial intelligence and computer vision. I’m not sure the consumer drone market will see a product anytime soon that has universal appeal, a flying smartphone if you will. But we are looking forward to covering the way drones will transform the way we work, live, and play in the years to come.
It’s easy to underestimate how much the world of audio entertainment has been impacted by the mobile revolution. Speakers and headphones don’t improve at the same exponential rate as silicon chips, and other than some gradual shifts in aesthetic trends, they pretty much look the way they used to back in the ‘90s.
But so much has changed. Physical media like CDs has given way to wireless streaming, and music ownership is being supplanted by all-you-can-listen subscriptions. The big multi-speaker array at home is now more likely to come from Sonos than Sony. Bluetooth is everywhere and portable wireless speakers are a dime a dozen. Even old speakers can join the wireless age through dongles like Google’s Chromecast Audio.
Headphones are the most important audio gadget
The biggest change happening right now is our increasing preference for headphones over speakers. This is the logical consequence of the broader move from desktop computers to mobile. As the rise of Beats Audio has also shown, headphones are fashion items as well as musical gadgets — and unlike a pretty speaker, they can be shown off anywhere and everywhere. And we’re finally beginning to see true wireless earbuds hit the market — expect a lot more of them in the coming months.
The world today is more urban than it’s ever been, with the human population concentrating into densely packed cities. In this environment, the discreetness and portability of headphones is of paramount value, and all the major trends in technology also point to headphones becoming even more fundamental and ubiquitous than they already are.
Headphones aren’t a monolith, however. Just in-ear buds can vary in size, shape, technology, function, and price dramatically — from cheap Bluetooth models to expensive, multi-armature pseudo-jewelry pieces — while over-the-ear variants go from $5 to in excess of $50,000. The choice is bewilderingly large and the quality isn’t always consistent, but that’s what makes audio technology such a fun field to explore. Headphones are remarkable for their ability to be both prosaic, everyday tools and romantic gadgets that excite and uplift the listener’s spirits.
Virtual reality is one of the most exciting categories of consumer electronics in recent memory, but also one of the most frustrating. The whole concept of head-mounted virtual displays is at least half a century old, and the first big wave of VR products hit in the 1990s, ranging from super-expensive professional-grade headsets to toys like the Nintendo Power Glove and Virtual Boy. But the current enthusiasm for virtual reality was started largely by the Oculus Rift, a $300 PC-powered VR headset that appeared on Kickstarter in 2012.
The original Oculus Rift was a clunky, low-resolution device, but it impressed almost everyone who tried it — so much that it was bought by Facebook in a multi-billion-dollar acquisition. Sensors inside the goggles tracked wearers' head motion, creating the illusion of physically looking around a virtual world. Despite all the progress that's been made since its release, this awe-inspiring feeling is still at the core of virtual reality.
An awe-inspiring feeling is still at the core of virtual reality
The Oculus Rift, and arguably the entire world of modern VR, can exist because the rise of smartphones created a glut of cheap, high-quality displays and motion sensors. So it's no surprise that phones are a core element of the VR industry. The most widely available VR headsets are powered by phones, often under the label of "Google Cardboard" — a simple mobile VR standard that any manufacturer or app developer can build for.
Pretty much any phone can fit into a Google Cardboard headset, but mobile companies are also starting to build products specifically with VR in mind. One of the first to get on board has been Samsung, which worked with Oculus on a relatively sophisticated mobile headset called the Gear VR. LG and Huawei have recently unveiled their own headsets, and Google is rumored to have something bigger than Cardboard on the horizon, probably involving its Project Tango depth-sensing technology. The most glaringly absent company right now is Apple, which has made no visible moves into VR — although it's said to be working quietly in the space.
Mobile is by far the easiest place to have a VR experience, but the cutting edge of virtual reality is still tethered headsets. There are two major competing PC-based VR platforms: the Oculus Rift, which has gone through several iterations since its original version, and the HTC Vive, which started as an experiment by gaming company Valve. While there are some important technical and aesthetic distinctions, both of these devices will ultimately offer similar experiences. They're not just headsets, but full-room systems that let wearers stand up, walk around, and interact with virtual worlds via motion controllers.
Gear up for a big battle this holiday season
Just as important is PlayStation VR, a Sony-built headset that's set for release this fall. The PSVR will run off the ubiquitous PlayStation 4 console, and it will feature many of the same games as the Rift and Vive, as well as some PlayStation-exclusive titles. It's also a bit cheaper: the complete bundle that most buyers will need costs $500. PSVR is the least powerful of the tethered headsets, but it's probably the most accessible.
These big commercial players, though, aren't the only ones that matter. The first VR headset was invented in a university lab, and some of the most interesting work is still being done in academic settings and scientific research centers. There are also dozens of companies making totally self-contained VR headsets, exotic custom controllers, and other hardware. This stuff may lack the polish and mass appeal of a headset like the Rift, but it's certainly worth talking about — after all, that's just how the Oculus Rift got started.
Tablets are in a bit of a bind. Once heralded as the next big tech breakthrough, these 7- to 13-inch slates are now facing sluggish sales and the reality of not being capable enough to replace a laptop outright. Six years after the introduction of the first iPad, it’s still difficult to justify buying the latest model — especially when you have both a large-screen phone and a capable computer.
Still, the potential is there and the tablet isn’t going away any time soon. The most fascinating device in the category happens to remain the one that popularized it. It’s taken years, but Apple has begrudgingly come around to ditching its one-size-fits-all approach with the iPad. We’ve gone from one model to a dizzying set of options, including a smaller tablet and a really gigantic one with a stylus and keyboard.
Tablets need to innovate if they're going to sell. That's great news
The company has clearly been responding to competitors. None more so than Microsoft, which has grown its 2-and-1 Surface line into a robust philosophy on modern productivity. The Surface has its tradeoffs, but Microsoft has made a strong case for a portable machine that is more of a reimagined laptop than a souped-up slate device. Apple, on the other hand, refuses to build a convertible MacBook that would see it more squarely face off against the Surface and devices from Lenovo, HP, and others.
So where does that leave tablets in the long run? These devices are going to get more powerful every year. But tablet makers that want to see touchscreen computing taken more seriously have to make some strategic software decisions. Microsoft has already gone all-in with Windows 10, letting the Surface act as PC when it needs to. Apple hasn’t arrived at that conclusion yet; iOS and OS X still have a noticeable divide between them. The same can be said of Google’s Pixel C, which is held back by its Android underpinnings. Until software stops holding tablets back, it won’t matter how fast, light, or thin a device is.
It’s hard to sell consumers on new tablets just by making them feel and look better than previous versions. Ultimately, device owners are sending the message to companies like Apple and Amazon that they’re getting by just fine on what they have now.
That’s actually a reason to be excited. It means that these company are going to create weirder and more innovative things to try and change our minds.
Smartphones have completely and irrevocably changed the world of photography. More photos are being taken and shared than ever before, but demand for camera makers’ traditional mainstream models has been almost totally wiped out in the past few years. And why not? Aside from the added convenience of convergence, new smartphones are able to use their advanced processing power to produce results that are actually better than most digital point-and-shoots ever were.
That’s why almost all camera makers are focusing on enthusiasts willing to pay for high-end these days. Cameras with larger sensors still produce results that smartphones can’t match. A major trend has been retro-styled models with an emphasis on physical dials — the antithesis of touchscreens. And the advent of mirrorless cameras means you no longer need to lug a heavy DSLR around to get great image quality.
Most camera makers still figured out the smartphone age
The mirrorless versus DSLR debate shows no sign of ending. Although companies like Sony, Fujifilm, and Olympus have done a lot to make mirrorless cameras a viable option for enthusiasts and even pros, market leaders Canon and Nikon are holding steady with their focus on DSLRs, refusing to make serious efforts in the mirrorless market. It’s been nearly eight years since Panasonic released the first Micro Four Thirds camera, and for the most part DSLRs still hold the same advantages over mirrorless: you buy a DSLR if you want reliability, you buy mirrorless if you value portability. The question is: how long that will remain the case, and how long can Canon and Nikon hold out?
Neither side seems to be learning as much as it can from the mobile world, where ease of editing and sharing is at least as important a factor in the rise of smartphone photography as the camera quality itself. It took most companies forever even to add simple Wi-Fi capability to their enthusiast-level models, and the associated apps remain janky without exception. The first camera maker to figure out how to take advantage of mobile technology to help improve workflow for photographers of all levels is likely to have a hit on their hands. Nikon is taking a step in the right direction with its Bluetooth-powered SnapBridge photo-transfer technology, but it’s far from clear how well it’ll work in practice.
The VR era is coming to cameras
But some of the most exciting and intriguing cameras coming out in 2016 duck out of the conventional image-quality slugfest altogether. With VR on the rise, we’re going to see a ton of companies competing to produce the best and cheapest ways to get 360-degree imagery to your eyeballs. With smartphones more or less doing everything people want them to, companies like Kodak and Lomography have more opportunity than ever to capitalize on the idea of completely disconnected film cameras as discrete objects of desire. And while this is a whole other category for us to go into, you can’t ignore the impact of drones on traditional photography — we now have inexpensive cameras that fly.
So while camera makers may be looking at their balance sheets each quarter with trepidation, this is an endlessly fascinating time for the practice of photography, and there’s no telling where things are going to go. We’ll be here to cover every aspect all the way.
Contrary to popular opinion, the PC isn’t dead... yet. If you listen to Microsoft and Intel, it’s simply "adapting" to the mobile world — but it’s a little more complicated than that. Desktop PCs used to be the family computer, and these days that might be a tablet or just every family member using a modern smartphone. The PC’s role is very different in 2016.
PC sales are still declining, but PC makers are certainly adapting to what people actually want if they’re even considering a new laptop or desktop machine. We’ve seen Dell, HP, and even Microsoft bring out machines over the past couple of years that are high-powered, beautiful, and competitive alternatives to Apple’s MacBook Air. Microsoft has emerged, with its Surface line, as a driving force behind this new focus on quality high-end PCs.
The question isn't 'which PC?' It's 'do you need one at all?'
The challenge for all PC makers these days is to convince consumers they actually need a PC or laptop. Most older machines are perfectly capable of basic computing tasks, and the need for the latest and greatest Intel processor simply isn’t as strong as it used to be. PC makers are starting to pivot to high-end machines or areas like gaming where they can attract consumers who are willing to spend big bucks on PCs. VR will certainly help sell a few more gaming machines, but there’s no sign of a PC revolution that will stem the overall decline.
And of course, Apple continues to dominate in the laptop market, even though most Macs are in dire need of updates right now. They're coming soon — and you need look no further than the brand new MacBook to get a sense of where Apple's design sense is headed. Thinner, lighter, and not necessarily the powerhouse you might expect.
Declining sales aren’t a reason to ignore PCs, they’re a reason to pay attention
Business PCs will continue to be refreshed, and even Microsoft has started focusing more on this market with its Surface Pro tablets and updates to Windows 10 itself. The PC still matters to millions of people who get work done every day, but general computing has diversified thanks to the personal and mobile qualities of a smartphone. There might not be as many PCs being sold these days, but there’s a whole lot of quality choice if you happen to be a fan.
But as consumers, declining sales aren’t a reason to ignore PCs, they’re a reason to pay attention. It means companies are going to have to try harder to get our purchase. Desperate times call for Hail Mary passes — they don’t always work, but they’re always fun to watch.
It’s taken decades, but it’s finally happening: the tech industry is disrupting TV. It’s happening in big ways, as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu push old-guard cable companies like HBO into offering internet video services. But it’s also happening in small ways: TVs and TV-streaming devices are all basically smartphones now, with ARM processors, repurposed mobile operating systems, app ecosystems, and a variety of user interface ideas — most of which involve intelligent voice assistants. The lowly remote control has been reinvented with touchpads, smart self-programming, microphones, and other features — hell, Vizio’s latest remotes are just straight-up Android tablets.
But more importantly, the very concept of a TV has totally changed. That TV on the wall isn’t necessarily the best or most convenient screen in your life anymore — we’re watching more and more video on smartphones through platforms like YouTube and Facebook, and eating dinner over a laptop playing Netflix is what an entire generation thinks of as primetime TV.
Once you start thinking of every screen in your life as a TV, the way we think about the traditional TV changes rapidly. The biggest screen in your life needs to understand what’s happening on all those smaller screens, and sending content to it needs to get faster. The confusing array of remotes needs to disappear. Finding content you want is getting easier and faster, but just using a phone might still be quicker — phones have keyboards, after all. And the actual TV displays themselves need to deliver an experience far more stunning than your phone screen, which is why the entire industry is excited about next-gen tech like HDR: no phone can make you feel the heat of an explosion like a 65-inch screen that can produce images almost 10 times brighter than your decaying old flat panel.
TVs are big, and clunky, and they have slower replacement cycles than almost any other gadget in our lives. But they’ve never stopped being important — they’re just turning into something different. Something better, and more connected. It’s about time.
It's easy to talk about smart homes like they're already here — like somewhere there's a ton of people with fully automated homes that wake them up, prepare them for the day, watch over their house, and then turn everything off when it's time for bed.
But the reality is we're nowhere close to that. Smart-home products are here, but they're invading slowly, one piece at a time.
It started over a decade ago with complex ecosystems and gadgets that only ever appealed to the deepest of nerds. These products were generally considered hard to set up and use — not to mention kind of boring. They were still dull appliances, just made slightly more complicated.
The smart home is still more dream than reality
But then things changed about five years ago. In large part, we have the Nest Thermostat to thank. Before it came out in 2011, few would have argued that someone could ever make a thermostat that would be considered cool. But Nest did it. And afterward, the race was on. The rest of the tech and appliance industry seemed to be asking: what other old parts of the home can be updated in fresh and exciting ways?
In the past few years, we've seen the results of those efforts. There's the stylish August Smart Lock, the popular Nest (née Drop) Cam, and the colorful Philips Hue lights. Honeywell revamped its thermostat to match Nest's smarts, and First Alert later did the same with its smoke detector, after Nest made the Protect.
It's devices like these that are really starting to kick off the smart home. No longer do you have to dream of owning a fully automated home to get started — you can now just buy a single connected product that works for you. And maybe if it's really helpful, you'll buy another.
The possibility of connecting your entire home is becoming more realistic, too. Apple and Google are creating ecosystems that work with their phones, SmartThings and Wink are making old-school smart home products more accessible, and Amazon's Alexa is slowly reaching into more and more corners of the home.
Tech is also making its way into pretty much everything — from connected washing machines and fridges to Wi-Fi water pitchers and wine bottles. More and more products are starting to get hooked up to the cloud to become part of a single home unit.
The ecosystem is messy, but it's getting better
But now we're ahead of ourselves. Most of these products and ecosystems are still young and underdeveloped. Seriously, you don't want to fill your home with these things yet. There are still way too many hurdles and unknowns.
For one, some of these products are still harder to use than their unconnected counterparts. Being able to control your lights with your smartphone is neat, but being able to control your lights with an on / off switch is better. Some smart-lighting systems don't let you do that!
There are so many basic usability problems with smart home products still in play. It's getting easier to overlook some of them if you're an excited early adopter, but most of these products aren't ready for a mass market.
There are security and ethical concerns, too. Take the many cameras that’ll text you a photo every time someone walks in the front door: does your family deserve more privacy? And how secure is the software in that camera, anyway?
And don't forget to take into account that the smart-home system you decide to buy might just disappear one day along with the company that made it. See what happened after Nest bought Revolv. It's pretty bad when the connective thread of your smart home can just vanish.
So are you excited? Put off? Good. You should be both, because the smart home is both of those things right now. It's a wonderful mess that's getting more interesting, more concerning, and more connected all at once. We're here to see how it all plays out.
What's exciting about electric rideables, as we found out at CES this year, is that they're finally becoming practical.
Some electric skateboards and scooters now have long enough range for a full commute, and the newest models are just as operable when the battery dies as they are when the motor is engaged. (Even if that means exerting yourself a little.) New features are bleeding into these modes of transportation that make them so much more than just motors stuck to slabs of wood and metal, too.
Take Metroboard, for example. It’s a small, not-so-well-known company that doesn't make the best electric skateboard on the market. But they make a LOT of them — at least 13 different models. They sell longboards, shortboards, rugged boards for off-roading. They come at different, albeit still expensive, price points.
Electric skateboards aren't just toys, they're essential commuting vehicles
Boosted Boards, which makes the most popular electric skateboard, has started to diversify in a similar way, though not yet on the same scale. The company sells three different models, each equipped with different ranges and top speeds. You can shell out as much as $1,500 for the company's best to go 22 miles per hour, or spend a little less and you get a board that’s not as fast but will give you an extra mile of range.
Companies have hammered out the basic tech of these small electric motors, so price really is the next big obstacle for electric rideables. But it’s already becoming less of a barrier. Acton, a company that showed up at CES two years ago with a pair of electric roller skates, created a small, light electric skateboard that it sells for just $500. It's still not what most people would call affordable, but with all this competition sprouting up in the market, it's just a matter of time before we're talking about electric skateboards that cost little more than the $100 or so you’d expect to shell out for a traditional one.
The same is happening for the rest of the rideables world, too. A number of companies are making and selling electric scooters. E-bikes are still pricey, but there are endless options to choose from, and companies keep coming up with clever ways to make them lighter and travel farther, all while hiding the machinery to make them beautiful. And, of course, dozens of companies have already engaged in a race to the bottom when it comes to hoverboards.
Don't worry, rideables are still super fun
Smartphone connectivity is coming to electric scooters and e-bikes, too. Boosted Board's app can track things like your battery level or how many miles you've traveled. These make for fun quantified self-statistics, but are also useful pieces of information for when mechanical issues crop up. The app for the Mahindra GenZe 2.0 is a good example: you can use it to plan your routes, tweak the motor settings, or even locate your ride if it gets stolen.
Thankfully, none of this practicality is coming at the expense of fun. The learning curves vary, but the instant torque made available by electric motors essentially means that every electric skateboard, e-bike, electric scooter, and — yes — hoverboard is sure to provide you with some thrills. Probably spills, too. (Definitely spills.) Most of them can reach speeds of 12 to 15 miles per hour; some even go much faster.
The most exciting thing about these rideables, though, is that they are part of a growing conversation about how we all get around. People are talking about things like redesigning cities or reducing the number of cars on the road, all while increasing safety and opening transportation up to more people — especially those who need it most.
If there’s one thing modern technology has consistently promised and repeatedly under-delivered, it’s automation. I don’t mean industrial robots (that’s a different story), but robotic butlers and clever AIs that have been promised to us as electronic minions for years. So far though, the high water mark for helpful home robots is still the Roomba, and the surge of interest in chat bots has produced barely disguised spam machines about as responsive as an automated self-checkout at the grocery store.
Despite this, there are exciting things happening in the world of bots and robotics wherever you look.
The chat bots are coming, but give them some time to get good
Chat bots might still be in their infancy, but Amazon is busy blazing a trail for helpful-robots-you-talk-to with the Echo, Tap, and Dot. Right now you can chat to these gadgets to get a pizza delivered, order you a cab, or just ask about the weather, but Amazon is continuing to add functionality. The product has been a sleeper hit, and you can bet that Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are looking for ways to replicate the Echo’s functionality.
This particular mini-boom has come thanks to improved voice recognition technology, which itself is built upon the recent success of artificial intelligence techniques like deep learning. At the very top end of the field we have creations like Google’s AlphaGo breaking through barriers experts thought would take another decade. This interest is trickling down, with manufacturers building deep-learning optimized chips that will one day end up in your smartphone. Siri, Cortana, and Google Now are only going to get smarter.
We're making crazy robots, but will consumers ever buy them?
In robotics, too, we’re seeing plenty of wild creations at the very high-end, but there’s less of a clear path for this technology to trickle down to everyday users. Boston Dynamics is the best example of this. It’s produced some unsettlingly advanced robots, but reports in March said parent company Alphabet was looking to sell it after struggling to find commercial applications for the technology. In what should be a shock to absolutely no one, it turns out that viral success doesn’t always mean a viable business.
This is only one small part of the story, though, and just because we’re not going to get a robotic butler any time soon, doesn’t mean that robots aren’t making inroads. Exoskeletons for factory workers, remote-controlled surgery bots, and, yes, that robot named Liam that takes apart iPhones — these aren’t gadgets, per se, but they’re exciting creations that help show the way for the future of the industry.
Weird gadgets have been around forever, if you knew where to look. From secluded shelves at dollar stores and electronics bazaars to television shopping networks to a SkyMall or Hammacher Schlemmer catalog, there’s long been an entire universe of weirdness outside of the constellation of important gadgets we use in our daily lives. Need a gun that shoots salt at flies? Sure, you can have it. Need an all-in-one alarm clock / sound maker / device charger? Yup. How about a "stress reducing mind spa?" Well, it exists.
So if there’s a new and exciting trend in weird gadgets, it’s that many of them are a little closer to the important things we use on a regular basis. That’s all thanks to the rising tide of connected devices and multi-purpose computers we carry with us all the time. Take the Kuvee, for example: a Wi-Fi wine bottle with a display that tells you when the bottle is being poured, among other things. Does anybody need this? No. Is it weird? Hell yes. Or what about the Hapifork? It’s a "smart fork" that has Bluetooth, a touch sensor, and a vibrating motor that can tell you to stop eating so quickly. Like many other new weird gadgets, it connects to your phone.
Gadget weirdness thrives the grey areas
Gadget weirdness has long thrived in the grey areas between what we expect a device to be and to do. Take the humble refrigerator, for example. We expect a refrigerator to chill food, but we also apparently expect screens everywhere now, which lets a major electronics company like Samsung release a refrigerator with a giant tablet inside of it. Boom: now your refrigerator is a weird gadget. (I mean, if we’re being honest, Samsung weird is a term for a reason: the company is also working on a "wellness belt" that has a USB charger and tracks your body with a bunch of sensors.)
But weird gadgets are still very much the domain of upstarts and hackers, who now have a streamlined outlet for their bizarre ideas. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have allowed people to release their crazy schemes to the world, and receive money for them. Sometimes it doesn’t go so well — like for the team that wanted to sell a combination cooler / blender / Bluetooth speaker / USB charger. Or like the time a company raised more than $4 million to build a dubious razor that uses a laser to cut hair, only to get banned from Kickstarter for being sketchy as hell. But other times, it works beyond anybody’s wildest dreams: the Oculus Rift started on Kickstarter, and at the time it was literally a gadget held together by duct tape.
Sometimes weird tech is just plain weird, and will forever live on the island of misfit gadgets. Other times, it pushes us to break down preconceived notions of what a thing should be, and carries us forward into a more interesting future.