A year of beginnings, endings and smart devices: Tech now and in 2014

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Here's what I know about personal tech in the year ahead. Your devices will be smaller, closer and smarter than they ever have been. No kidding. That always happens. Think of the shift from the mainframe to the terminal; the terminal to the desktop; the desktop to the laptop; laptop to tablet, to smartphone. At each step our computers and computing devices have become more ours, more personal, more aware and more social. More our assistants and less our appliances.

Next year, this all gets amped up and it shapeshifts. Our computers will not be what we carry, but what we wear.

That's already happening. This year Google Glass made its appearance on the faces of Google geeks and on Burberry runways. Next year the smart glasses will be integrated into fashion eyewear you can buy.

Google Glass can understand voice commands, talk to your smartphone, shoot video and pictures and project just-in-time, context-aware information cards that hover in front of your eyes. The smart eyewear won't be everywhere in 2014, but you'll see it on commuter trains and on the street.

Next year smartwatches will also become fashionable. They're already here from Pebble, Sony and Samsung and many others. But these devices are what the Palm Pilot was to the iPhone -- interesting, coltish steps towards a new wearable computing paradigm.

Right now my Pebble watch can display notifications from my iPhone, control my music and let me know about incoming calls, emails and texts. But the display is monochrome and low resolution. Next year Apple will enter the smartwatch fray and turn the device into a stylish platform for not only notifications, but also biometric data from our smartphones and other wearables.

Those wearable computers will include the next generation of fitness monitoring bracelets (Up, Nike Fuelband) and clip-ons, like the popular FitBit and Shine. These gadgets will relay more and more biometric and geo-specific data (heart rate, distance walked, altitude, etc.) to the web or to doctors' offices for comparison and analysis. So far, most of these devices have been for fun and for encouragement. Next year they'll start turning into serious medical instruments, tracking glucose levels and other health parameters.

And all of these devices will talk to each other, as if you had your own personal network crisscrossing your body and reaching out around you. In fact, that is exactly what you will have, thanks to Bluetooth LE, which should get the award as the sleeper communication protocol of 2013. The Bluetooth LE (low energy) standard allows small devices like smartphones, tablets, watches and fitness bands to shake hands and exchange data over short distances. All without the tedious and sometimes flaky ritual of pairing devices.

And, these wearable devices will be much more location-aware, especially indoors, thanks to iBeacon technology that Apple had already rolled out in its U.S. stores. As few as three inexpensive iBeacon devices can let a store know within about a foot where you are standing. That means, for example, Home Depot could beam your phone a map that would get you to the hand drills based on where you're standing. Or, a museum could deliver commentary to a Bluetooth LE earpiece tailored to the painting you're examining.

Not only are dedicated iBeacon devices cheap, Apple has stealthily put the technology in all modern iOS devices. So stores that already use iPads for displays or as cash registers already have iBeacons they can call into service. And, because iBeacon is built on Bluetooth LE, it only sips battery power, so stand-alone iBeacon devices can run for weeks on a single battery charge.

Speaking of batteries, I'm hoping next year will see a breakthrough in energy storage technology. Batteries are really chemical pouches and batteries have not followed hard drives and memory in the race to increasing capacity and decreasing size. An iPad, for example, is almost all battery. Most of the longer battery life we're seeing in laptops and tablets come from more efficient processors and smarter power management in operating systems, not from storage cells.

Now consider the strides made in non-keyboard input including voice, touch and gestures.

Clearly the thing constraining smaller devices is the power supply.

In other words, the company that can deliver small, paper-thin long-life batteries could completely reshape and own the consumer electronic space.

Finally, a quick look at larger devices. Two years ago the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was all about 3D TV, a technology I predicted would be the Smell-o-Vision of 2011. This year it will be all about 4K TV, ultra-high resolution images on big screens. Digital TV content at 4K resolutions will be rare for a few years, and it may not catch fire, but the technology is leaning in that direction. So is technology and content deals that will make it easier for us to cut our cable connection to video. I predict that by this time next year, the percentage of cable cutters in Canada will at least double.

The year will also remembered as the year of beginnings and endings. The end of BlackBerry and Microsoft as companies that really matter. The year our wrists looked out for us, our glasses talked back and our smartphones started to look like the unwieldy brick Michael Douglas used in Wall Street.

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Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: CyberHades/flickr

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