If there were one trend to mention from the recent 2013 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (besides the fact that the keynote still cannot really be done without Microsoft), it would be the one of prolonged consistency: screens are becoming larger and thinner and have a higher resolution, just like last year. Processors become smaller, have multiple cores and are much more powerful, which sounds quite familiar too. Not exactly boring developments, but no ground-breaking insights there either.
It’s different with that other trend: the Web getting very, very Physical. We have been giving it many different names already for quite a few years (ubiquitous computing, ambient computing, the Internet of Things, Smart Whatever, the Tangible Web, and many more) and already alluded to it in the last of our seven 2013 predictions. This year might prove to be the year in which the promise – well – materializes more than ever. It surely became apparent at the CES 2013, where technology manifested itself abundantly in a fusion with physical objects, the surroundings and, notably, people.
Clearly, when objects become equipped with sensors and processing power and get connected to the network, a wealth of useful applications arise, for example in energy and domotics (the Nest adaptive thermostat still being one of the more juicy illustrations of this rapidly emerging area, let’s forget about plants screaming for water on Twitter for now), traffic and transport, security, manufacturing and the supply chain, personal wearables and even at the level of complete cities.
But it’s not only about objects or things. Technology is also wrapping itself more and more around people, showing itself less through computers and peripheral devices but instead as augmentations of the human body. Personally, I am convinced I have bought my last mouse ever already last year and if you read the excellent post by my colleague Lyndon Carejo, you quickly understand just how powerful natural interfaces through gestures and touch are getting. Just as much, Google Glass contains pointers to what the next generation of ‘smartphones’ could look like (they would be right on your nose) and already today you can enrich your skiing adventures in a very similar way. Also, health is one of the most promising areas when it comes to technology becoming more physical, and this became very apparent at CES 2013, where many vendors showed off their sensor-based solutions to monitor and manage personal health in real-time.
And there’s even more tangible stuff out there. This year, 3D printing (let’s skip the basics, have a look at this infographic that explains it all) is bound to leapfrog spectacularly. All the signs are there: 3D printers are becoming more advanced but also are more affordable to consumers, not in the least driven by the virtues of open source, open standards and micro-funding. We should expect advanced 3D printers soon at retail stores or ‘post offices’, printing tools, accessories, spare parts and even cloths. But the real revolution – which will take some more time – will come from personal 3D printers. Imagine what would happen to our ideas of manufacturing and the supply chain if you can Print Your Own Device* at home (starting with simple, but nice things like a phone cover, forget potential excesses for now): the impact of digitization on audio and video will feel like just a humble beginning.
It brings us full circle if we realize that 3D printing does not only enable us to copy already existing objects, but also makes us materialize highly individual concepts, ideas and designs that could only exist in our minds so far. De-virtualization if you like, with the intangible world of IT becoming very solid indeed (and here’s some real use for your Facebook social graph, while we’re at it).
So brace yourself for an exciting time to come. Because with the objects around us and our bodies starting to talk, we know it’s time to get physical.
* thanks to my colleague Hans van de Koppel, who came up with the name for this trend