December 23, 2013

Top 5 tech in 2014

Smartphones and tablets are old news. The New Year promises tantalising prospects when it comes to new technology and innovation. Business Spectator explores the top five new technologies set to send pulses racing in 2014.

Smartphones and tablets are old news, the New Year promises tantalising prospects when it comes to new technology and innovation. With wearable technology, 3D printing and virtual reality headsets all poised to have their time under the sun, here are the top five new technologies set to send pulses racing in 2014.

3D Printing goes mainstream?

There are three reasons why desktop 3D printers have yet to take off in the mainstream. Price, quality of output and the complexity involved in making a 3D print.

While big corporations and high end manufacturing have been enjoying the benefits of industrial grade 3D printers for quite some time, desktop 3D printers have been largely limited to hobbyists and a subset of industrial designers and entrepreneurs.

The desktop 3D printer is set to experience resurgence next year, however, thanks to the expiry of key patents.  The patents cover ‘laser sintering’, an extremely low cost but high resolution 3D printing technology capable of producing 3D objects that can be sold as finished products.

Laser sintering has been almost exclusive to expensive industrial 3D printers but the market is expected to be flooded with open-source desktop 3D printers next year equipped with the much sought after technology. We saw the same thing happen when the patents for the more primitive form of 3D printing, Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), expired in 2009, which created an explosion of open-source printers that saw the cost of 3D desktop printers go from $14,000 to as low as $300 today.

Another major benefit that Laser Sintering technology brings to the table is the ability to work with a wider range of materials including metal and various colours of plastic.

Just last month, Laser Sintering allowed 3D printing company, Solid Concepts, to make the first working metal handgun made entirely from a 3D printer. It comprised of more than 30 3D printed components.

Cheap Laser Sintering 3D printers could be a boon for medical practices and dental surgeries where a crown or prosthetic can be created during the medical procedure.

Cheaper 3D printers could also finally mean wider distribution on a scale that could be disruptive in the manufacturing world.

The other major hurdle for broader consumer adoption is the complexity and effort involved in actually putting together a 3D design for the printer which for the most part, requires knowledge of CAD.

Breakthroughs are being made in this area with the recent release of the $400 Sense 3D scanner, a hand-held operated device that can produce print-ready high quality 3D models by simply scanning real-life objects. While 3D scanners are nothing new, this is the first consumer grade 3D scanner to break the sub-$400 price range.

Sense 3D is expected to face some stiff competition in 2014, however, with a number of companies planning on releasing competing products that may further drive down the price of 3D scanners.

Wearables also have potential to simplify the 3D modelling process and it might come as early as next year.  One such example is Space Glasses developed by start-up, Meta, who are planning to release a 3D Sculpt+Print Tool application in January that uses augmented reality to sculpt and design virtual 3D objects with hand-controlled tools that can be sent directly to a 3D printer.

Cheap Laser Sintering 3D printers coupled with an accessible means of producing 3D model files has the potential to not only make an impact on the consumer market but seriously disrupt traditional manufacturing.

Revolutionising gaming with the Oculus Rift

There has been a lot of buzz around the Virtual Reality (VR) headset, Oculus Rift, and for good reason. What started off as a grassroots kickstarter campaign in late 2012 has quickly grabbed the world’s attention with venture capital pouring in.

Just the other week the company received $US75 million from Netscape creator, Marc Andreessen, in order to complete the consumer version of the Rift. It has even managed to nab legendary game developer, John Carmack, who now serves as Oculus VR’s chief technology officer.

The Oculus has received high praise from various quarters, including a number of big game development studios. The developer version of the Oculus VR headset went on sale earlier this year and the platform already has a substantial library of playable games available with more titles set to arrive when the consumer version hits the market next year.

Clearly there’s a lot of momentum behind the Oculus Rift, but does it really live up to the hype? I recently got some playtime with a development version of the device and I must say that I walked away a believer.

Instead of just putting a screen in front of your eyes like other VR headsets on the market, the Rift takes over your entire field of vision complete with head tracking. The result is a level of immersion unlike anything that has come before and it’s the closest we have come to the VR pipe-dream popularised in the 1990s.

It’s not only a disruptor in the gaming industry but has the potential to impact industries like film, education, architecture and design.

The biggest challenge for the Oculus Rift is in tackling the issue of motion sickness, which a large number of users have experienced and is something that the company is said to be hard at work on fixing. If it can hit its scheduled release window of Q3 2014, the Oculus Rift VR headset has all the ingredients to become one of the biggest tech success stories of this decade.

The rise of wearable tech

In 2013, established industry players such as Google, Samsung, Sony and even Qualcomm dipped their toes with the first generation of wearables and their enthusiasm is only set to accelerate. Apple is almost certain to debut the long rumoured iWatch, which in turn should spawn a slew of new smartwatches from competitors. In fact, the iWatch just might establish a viable long-term market the same way the iPhone did for smartphones.

It will also be worth watching Kickstarter funded start-ups with products like the Pebble smartwatch already becoming a cult favourite amongst tech savvy audiences.

Popular fitness related wearables such as the Nike Fuelband and the Fitbit will also strive to evolve to prevent being pushed out of the market by smartwatches.

But the wearable tech battle won’t be just vying for the space on our wrists with everything from glasses frames equipped with optical head mounted displays ala Google Glass to full blown headsets like the Oculus Rift and Space Glasses.

Google is expected to rollout consumer versions of Glass to retail markets on a global basis in 2014 but a $1,000 plus price tag may quell any chance of mainstream success.

The next wave of hardware innovation is going to come from wearable technology and 2014 will be the year that finally takes the category to a level of mass adoption.

64-bit mobile processors pave the way for desktop level apps        

Apple kicked off the 64-bit mobile revolution with the iPhone 5s and it didn’t take long for developers to release apps that took advantage of the additional processing power on offer.

But Apple won’t be ahead of the system on chip (SoC) curve for too long with chip maker Qualcomm, Samsung and Intel all announcing their plans to release 64-bit mobile chips for Android smartphones next year.

It’s clear that 64-bit mobile processors will become another checkbox feature for high end smartphones and tablets, but the performance gains that the expanded chip architecture affords is nonetheless an important step towards making mobile devices viable productivity tools.  It opens the door for more complex apps that would normally be relegated to PCs.

The greatest performance gains that the 64-bit architecture offers is the ability to access more than 4GB of RAM which will be necessary in the future, especially when you consider that recent smartphones such as Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 has already crossed the 3GB RAM barrier.

Managing large data sets or handling extremely complex graphics can easily use up more than 4GB of memory. That’s why we are yet to see high end graphics professional tools on a tablet or a smartphone.

But there are also notable performance gains to be had in the interim. A 64-bit mobile architecture in theory means that computationally intensive tasks can be performed twice as quickly.  There are also extra registers (pockets of storage) inside the processor that provide significantly improved performance particularly for tasks like encoding and decoding video.

For these reasons, 64-bit mobile processors and how app developers choose to take advantage of the extra horsepower merits attention in 2014.

Delivery by drone set to take flight

When online retailing giant, Amazon, revealed their grand plans to employ the use of drones to dispatch online orders directly to customer doorsteps, it was met with a fair degree of scepticism.

After all, the safety concerns and the legal implications associated with flying a small GPS-enabled aeroplane running on autopilot designed to avoid the aerial hazards of a modern city should be enough to ground any such aspirations.

Australia however, is at the forefront of using commercialised unmanned aerial vehicles with more than 60 Australian companies already using drones for everything from bushfire spotting, to shooting live sporting events, films and documentaries.

An Australian textbook rental start-up Zookal is set to become the first delivery service in the world to use drones to deliver parcels, starting from March.

Zookal initially plan on using six drones within the Sydney CBD before expanding out to other cities. Customers can order books via a smartphone app which also acts as a GPS beacon for the drone delivery to ensure that the parcel is delivered to the right person.

When the drone arrives, the parcel can be lowered by the customer pressing the “Lower package” button from the app.

Both the end consumer and business stand to benefit by using drones for delivery over traditional postal services. The customer receives their online orders within minutes instead of days and the business saves on expensive delivery costs. Zookal claims that the use of drones will cut delivery costs from $8.60 to 80c per delivery.

However, there are limitations with the drones used by Zookal limited to flying up to 3km, allowing deliveries in most CBDs, and with parcel weight limited to 2kg. The drones can also only operate in sunny weather but weatherproofing is on the cards for the company.

Shipping services such as FedEx also announced plans to offer delivery by drone services to its customers and would also allow the company to deliver more packages without having to increase the number of employees.  It’s easy to imagine drone by delivery one day revolutionising online shopping and it all might happen much sooner than we think.

This article was written by Krishan Sharma for Business Spectator.