Breakthroughs in technology emerge out of the blue from time to time.
But what you will likely hear much more about in technology this year is an extension of products, services and developments that may already be on your radar, even if they’re something you’re not using yet or even fully understand. Here are some of the areas in technology that bear watching in 2022 — and in some cases well beyond.
1. Even more hype for the metaverse
The hype for the so-called “metaverse” is already out of control, even more so since October 2021, when Facebook the company — not the social network itself — changed its name to Meta, reflecting, among other things, its ownership of Oculus virtual reality (VR) headsets. The metaverse isn’t easy to define, and it’s even harder to spell out just how it will eventually serve older consumers.
It has elements of VR, where you’re completely immersed in another environment by wearing a headset, and elements of augmented reality (AR), which layers virtual objects over the physical world. These fields aren't completely new. But is it finally their time?
Cristiano Amon, president and CEO of chipmaker Qualcomm, took a stab at explaining the metaverse during last week’s CES tech confab in Las Vegas.
“There’s going to be digital twins of everything — a conference room, a home, your social network,” he said. “We’re the gateway that connects the physical to the digital world.”
Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and author of Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do, explains it this way: "The Metaverse in simple terms is people, places and things.”
“People” as Bailenson defines them, are digital avatars that resemble real folks, right down to their body movements. “Places” are virtual scenes that exist even if someone isn't there. “ 'Things' are 3D models of objects, some of which can be NFTs [non-fungible tokens tied to cryptocurrency], that are designed to create market value. Others are just the bread and butter of the metaverse — for example, chairs, trees and frisbees,” he says.
You’ll be able to access these environments through some combination of VR headsets, AR-capable phones, tablets and smart eyewear. So keep a lookout for potential new hardware from Facebook/Oculus (whose parent company is Meta), Apple, Google and Microsoft.
“There is most definitely a meaningful future for seniors in the metaverse,” Bailenson says. “We have seen incredible adoption of VR in assisted living facilities. Unlike a smartphone, which is an artificial interface that is frustrating to learn and operate, [someone using] VR doesn't need to learn strange swiping motions and constantly changing icons. Instead, one just moves their head to look at something and moves their hands to touch something.”
2. Finally, faster 5G networks
You may have bought a 5G-capable phone by now, hoping to exploit the wickedly fast network speeds the wireless carriers have been crowing about for years. Only you haven’t quite experienced those speeds. Frankly, your 5G coverage has been only marginally better than the 4G LTE you had before, if that.
Your experience should start to improve on or after Jan. 19, when both AT&T and Verizon switch on the 5G networks based on C-band spectrum. This refers to a swath of radio airwaves the carriers spent billions of dollars on at auctions to access. The carriers did voluntarily agree to temporarily delay turning on C-band 5G near certain airports — a list of the exact airports has not yet been made public — because of an ongoing standoff with Federal Aviation Administration officials worried about airline safety.
Without getting bogged down in the all-too-geeky details, these bands promise faster service and wider coverage. You will need a fairly recent state-of-the art smartphone from Apple, Google, Samsung or others, and you may have to opt in to one of your wireless carrier’s more expensive cellular plans.
Frank Boulben, Verizon Consumer Group's chief revenue officer, says you will be able to access these broadband-like speeds at sporting events, concerts, malls and train stations. He touted peak speeds in Verizon’s case that are up to 10 times faster than 4G.
Boulben has a pitch for potential cord cutters, too: Faster 5G may be a viable alternative to cable.
You’ll know that you’re humming along with the fastest service on an AT&T phone if you see a 5G+ indicator in the display; that + reflects you’re in a coverage area able to access AT&T’s fastest 5G Plus service. On a Verizon phone, you will see 5G UW, with the UW short for the carrier’s top Ultra Wideband service.
And on T-Mobile, which was not involved in the recent spat over airline safety and which has already been employing its own spectrum to provide faster service, you will see 5G UC, signifying Ultra Capacity. If you see a 5G indicator without the +, UW or UC on any of these phones, you’re getting a less robust flavor of 5G.
Boulben acknowledges the confusion. But, he says, “we’ve been very consistent at Verizon in talking about 5G Ultra Wideband as the real 5G” … with the “benefits you expect from that technology.”
3. Robotic helpers march on
A recent AARP story asked if a robot could be a good companion and provide utility for an older person. The answer is yes — couched with plenty of caveats, not least of which is that even the most complex robots aren’t full-time stand-ins for human beings or pets.
It remains to be seen what kind of void Japan-based Yukai Engineering’s cutesy Amagami Ham Ham stuffed animal robot might fill. The robot, which is not yet available for purchase, nibbles on your finger.
A far more serious robot comes from Labrador Systems, which took the wraps off its Labrador Retriever at CES. The autonomous nightstand-sized robot can be raised and lowered 25 to 38 inches with an accordion-like feature to reach certain objects.
Labrador describes it as an extra pair of hands. The robot can carry a laundry basket or lunch tray or anything up to 25 pounds. It also can retrieve trays up to 10 pounds, including a tray of drinks it can pull out of the fridge.
You can use it to charge a phone and hold your medications, eyeglasses or other objects. The autonomous robot can avoid obstacles and navigate tight spaces, and you can control it using your voice via Alexa, touching a screen or opening an app. You can assign it destinations or “bus stops” in the home, perhaps by your armchair, kitchen shelf, hallway or front door.
It won’t come cheap. Labrador plans to offer a home version on a subscription basis, with the first beta units available this year and full production in 2023. Subscription pricing for early reservation holders will include an upfront payment of $1,499, plus a monthly fee of $99 to $149 for 36 months.
Other companies and people also are envisioning robots that can assist older people. Marc Raibert, chairman and founder of Boston Dynamics, which was acquired by Hyundai Motor Group in June 2021, says he helped care for an 88-year-old aunt in the last days of her life following a stroke.
“We had full-time people to get her in and out of bed, dressed and all those things. And I think having robots that can help with those tasks is real,” he says, adding that such robots could find a home in assisted living facilities, though they will be expensive and take a while to build. “I’m all for us figuring out how to make [robots] that are safe enough and strong enough to handle people.”
4. Getting smart home devices to work together
You’ve bought into the idea of the all-things-connected smart home and may even own door locks, garage door openers, lightbulbs, thermostats or other so-called smart devices that leverage the internet. You may control these things through apps on your phone or through smart speakers; smart voice-enabled assistants such as Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant; and digital hubs. But as smart as these smart devices sound, interoperability — where all these disparate gadgets work together seamlessly — remains an elusive challenge for the industry and ultimately you the consumer.
Tech giants Amazon, Apple, Google and Samsung are fierce competitors, so it is worth paying attention when the four behemoths, along with more than 220 other tech companies, band together behind a unifying smart home standard called Matter, expected to be finalized by midyear. That’s when more than 130 Matter-capable products are slated to launch from more than 50 companies with a Matter label or mark letting you know they’re part of this effort.
The vision: All these connected gadgets in your smart home will play nicely together, regardless of brand.
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5. Wearables that track your health
We’ve been wearing smart watches and fitness trackers for some time now that not only count steps but warn you if an irregular heartbeat is detected. Yet we’re still in the early stages of wearables that provide deeper insights into your health.
A passel of devices for the wrist and other parts of the body will be coming in 2022 and after to help provide insights into everything from your blood glucose levels to your blood pressure. At CES, Abbott's president and CEO, Robert Ford, announced an upcoming series of consumer “biowearables” called Lingo that are being designed to track glucose, ketone, lactate and even alcohol levels, and to accordingly help you manage your exercise, health and nutrition.
These are promising developments. But all these consumer wearables will raise important questions around privacy, trusting the information and figuring out when to act.
This story, originally published Jan. 10, 2022, was updated to reflect developments in the rollout of 5G cellphone technology.
Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.
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