The preponderance of Jony Ive-related headlines this year suggests that technology and design are as deeply connected as ever, and we certainly saw a fair share of interesting innovations from Silicon Valley and beyond. That didn't stop Quartz's Christopher Mims from boldly asserting that "2013 Was a Lost Year for Tech"—a valid point to a certain degree, though I felt that he overlooked the implications of Google Glass as a sign of the times. Of course, his suggestion that it "doesn't count" due to its "tone-deaf design" only underscores the importance of industrial design in the technology sector (more on Glass below).
Based purely on anecdotal / qualitative data, it seems that the 'Internet of Things' has surpassed 'Digital Fabrication' as the Next Big Thing—wearables, in particular, have taken on the buzz of 3D printers before them. But unlike the broader domain of digital fabrication, the connected devices have more commercial potential than the 3D printer's cousins—open-sourceCNC mills, wire benders, etc.
Of course, 2013 will mostly be remembered—at least in the short term—as the year that Google Glass came out, not least for the subsequent backlash to the limited launch of the eyeglass+HUD form factor. Mat Honan's chronicle of his year with Glass offers at least a few insights into the actual experience of the $1,500 device (though his refusal to wear it on public transit, when he's out for dinner or drinks, at movies or around kids speaks to Mims' point that it's inherently alienating), but its impact as a novel cultural artifact. And in some ways, Mims is right in dismissing Glass as a gamechanger: Frankly, I still can't help but do a double-take each time I see it in public, and it's simply too soon to tell how significant Glass will be in the long run.
Yet most wearables still rely on the processing power of smartphones to serve as a kind of hybrid brain and remote control, whether they simply provide Wi-fi or if there is a full-fledged app interface. Smartphones are the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to connecting the dots (to butcher the metaphor): As Honan noted in his 'living-with' review of Glass, the handheld rectangular slab of glass and aluminum removes us from reality, but it remains to be seen as to whether another device can bring us back. (Alternately, the smartphone—popularized by a very felicitously-named company—is a kind of forbidden fruit, and it's hard for many of us to imagine living without the Internet at our fingertips.)
Meanwhile, the 'quantified self' movement made incremental gains in hardware, though it's difficult to predict the as-yet-indeterminate mainstream appeal of monitoring devices. The ever-increasing array of [variable]meters must transcend mere novelty to provide concrete, actionable feedback (with little to no manual input, i.e. calorie counts) in order to succeed.
If, in some respects, we are gathering data, aggregating knowledge, capturing snapshots of the world and measuring ourselves with the hope that we'll eventually be able to make sense of it all, so too are we also increasingly aware that the very same data that has become banal for its sheer superfluity—status updates, snapchats, all variety of digital communications, etc., and the metadata associated with such, plus secretly-tracked web behavior to boot—is subject to surveillance. I can't speak to the ins and outs of the NSA exposé, but it is clear that establishing a balance between security and privacy must be a priority as we collectively generate more personal data than ever before: Not only are we connected all of the time, we're looking for more ways and things to connect. (One can never be too paranoid, and even Orwell himself couldn't have presaged a police state in which the government tracks the heart rates, sleep cycles, EEG data, etc. of its citizens.)
Meanwhile robots account for a (perhaps disappointingly insignificant) percentage of interstate traffic: Even as self-driving cars (and unmanned aerial vehicles) are nearing a kind of uncanny valley of regulation, in which they are close enough to reality to warrant serious consideration from a legal perspective. The notion of "a long road ahead" is a well-worn euphemism, but given the automotive AI arms race, the industry isn't just spinning its wheels.
We'll have more on Google's Project Loon next week (hint, hint)
Meanwhile, we're already living in a location-aware world, thanks to ever-more granular geolocation afforded by the our networked devices and BLE-enhanced environs (quick, someone trademark the acronym-friendly term "Ambient Bluetooth Low Energy"), though I should hope 'iBeacon' technology is adapted for applications beyond augmented retail-ity. The twinkling horizon of promising areas of research doesn't end there: Li-Fi, for one, is an uncannily literal example of how connectivity can illuminate the world around us, and Google's fanciful global network of data-beaming high-altitude balloons might just take off (while our smartphones will collect weather data where we experience it: on the ground).
And as a corollary to the invention of new Things, we happen to be surrounded by non-networked, isolated, unintelligent objects of all shapes and sizes, characterized by their brute-fact existence. Enterprising technologists have taken it upon themselves to imbue these Things with a spark of sentience or cognition, where apps and online services can bridge the gap between shareable resources and potential users. In the interest of maintaining a profit margin, "collaborative consumption" currently deals in high-value assets, starting with real estate (Airbnb) and car/ridesharing, as well as less-tangible goods (skills, or services, in the case of Taskrabbit); similarly, it's largely an urban/semi-centralized phenomenon, But seeing as the very premise of disruptive business models is to threaten the status quo, services like Airbnb and Uber have encountered growing pains—legal and otherwise—for their ambitions to revolutionize their industries.
It's easy enough to sell the dream and extrapolate from the latest disruptive technologies as soon as the first proof-of-concept video hits the web. But as the Internet increasingly comes in the form of hardware as opposed to software, top-down enterprise—where regulation and manufacturability become the limiting factors—as opposed to bottom-up innovation (Raspberry Pi, Shapeoko 2 and myriad 3D printers notwithstanding). With greater ambition comes greater obstacles, and if hindsight offers a certain kind of clarity, we must have the foresight to actually make things (and Things) happen.