The Ghost of Innovation Past
The first thing that struck us when we contemplated 2005 was that it only seems like yesterday. But when you think of the things that broke through that year (and, ok, a year or two either side), it is frankly amazing to think how much our world has changed in such a short passage of time.
For example, 2005 couldn’t be described as pre-Facebook (the site launched in February 2004) but back then we certainly weren’t influenced by the social media phenomenon in the way that we all are today: You may recall that that this summer Facebook announced 1 billion people had accessed the site in a single day.
What came before smartphones?
2005 was definitely pre iPhone (and Android). How did we all survive? Back then it was Research in Motion’s Blackberry that was all the rage – and a must have business accessory. Set up in 1985 Research in Motion pioneered two-way paging and wireless email network in collaboration with Ericsson. They started by developing pagers, but moved into the mobile phone market in 2002. The email access was to prove a key advantage in the business market. Until that point phones had offered very limited functionality beyond being an actual phone and text messaging service. By 2005, Blackberry had several established handsets and it must have seemed like the world would be their oyster. Little did they know that something even more disruptive, from Apple, was just around the corner.
A sound revolution
A 2005 innovation that has had considerably better fortunes is SONOS – the wireless speaker and streaming system. Unleashing its first product in 2005, the company had formed in 2002. The founders had connected the dots between the advent of Wi-Fi in every home and the demise of Napster – an early, and extremely popular, music streaming service that was shut down due to copyright infringement. It had, however, trail-blazed the concept of people having access to an unlimited music library.
They were on to a winner and received encouragement prior to their launch when first, established electronics executives simply did not get what they were trying to do – showing that there was a gap in the market. And second, when they were aggressively approached by a finger jabbing Steve Jobs at the public showcase of their remote control device– which had similarities to the iPod scrolling wheel. They were told he was going to sue them out of existence. That law suit never materialised but it showed that people were taking notice of their work.
SONOS took a leaf out of Apple’s book in designing all the key internal and external components (including coding) so that their products are simple and intuitive to operate. Upon launch a complete kit cost $1,199 and they sold 7,000 in that first year. Since then they have grown from strength to strength, launching different speaker sets at different markets. By 2014 they employed 1,100 people worldwide, including 325 in their R&D department.
From one 2005 success story to another: YouTube. It seems bizarre that this did not exist prior to 2005 and demonstrates perfectly the pace of change in modern tech. But it’s true. The site launched in Beta form in May 2005 and, following a $3.5 million capital investment, went on to a full launch on 15 December 2005 – so a Christmas baby. Less than a year later it was snapped up by Google for a mere $1.65 billion and the rest is history – today it seems an indispensable part of the Internet.
Another tech breakthrough that appeared around this time was the Blu Ray Disc. Strictly speaking, we can’t be so precise as to say it was exactly 2005 that it was born. An early Blu Ray player was available in Japan in April 2003 (although no films were released in the format back then). The full launch came in June 2006. And in the interim a lot of politicking was done about digital rights and format wars with Blu Ray’s doomed rival: HD DVD. Blu Ray was an important innovation because it brought disc storage space into the high definition age. Despite their small size, the discs themselves are a treasure trove of R&D: from proprietary scratchproof coatings such as TDK’s Durabis and Verbatim’s Hard Coat, to experimentation with compression rates to maximise the storage capabilities of the disk. Whilst Blu Ray is popular, streaming now represents a serious challenge to all disc based formats.
That’s it from the Ghost of Innovation Past. Let’s allow the Ghost of Innovation Present to whisk us around some of the hot innovations and trends of 2015.
The Ghost of Innovation Present
The Ghost of Innovation Present is much more Internet savvy than his forebear. The Blackberry is replaced by a shiny touchscreen smartphone – Android or Apple, take your pick. Facebook rather than AOL is a website of choice. And drones, wearable tech and the Internet of Things are his buzzwords.
For the second year running, drones are one of the tech Christmas presents of choice. And this year there is more choice than ever. They do not always attract the most positive headlines with concerns over privacy, and safety issues, such as interference with aircraft flightpaths, being particularly prominent. Yet for sheer R&D they are quite remarkable.
Having to pack in motors, camera equipment, a power source, and an array of sensors to aid stabilisation and control, drones are impressive pieces of kit. And they are of course far more than geeky playthings. From delivering unmanned surveillance and strike capabilities in the military, to providing stunning commercial photography; from helping with industrial maintenance to assisting in search and rescue operations, drones have many useful applications that are transforming the way things get done. Amazon is even mooting using them to deliver parcels!
Hoverboard or hoax?
Another technology which is a little further behind drones, yet has still made a splash in 2015 is the hoverboard. Despite the best efforts of hoaxers to make us think otherwise, the fully fledged commercially available hoverboard is not here. Nicely timed to coincide with the lead up to the year in which Back to the Future II was set, there have been some high profile and mischievous viral videos toying with our imaginations.
First there was skateboard legend Tony Hawkes and celebrity friends with HUVr – touted as pretty much the fully functioning hoverboard from the movies.
This was quickly dismissed as a fake with the use of harnesses, cranes and crafty camera work and it prompted apologies from Tony Hawke and Christopher Lloyd who played The Doc in the Back to the Future franchise.
A more sophisticated hoax was produced by Lexus.
This is much more interesting as the Lexus hoverboard actually works – theoretically. And it looks stunning too. The science behind it is centred on magnets and superconductors cooled by liquid nitrogen – the source of the smoke that seeps from the side of the board in the video. The hoax bit is that the hoverboard appeared to work on a concrete surface giving the impression it could work anywhere. In practice the concrete must have been laced with a magnetic substance. The technology is similar to that used in maglev trains, such as Shanghai’s Transrapid, which is capable of speeds over 300 mph. So it is some exciting technology, even if it is not yet a real commercially available hoverboard.
Hoverboards with wheels!
Despite the hoaxes, you may well have heard that hoverboards are a real Christmas present in 2015. This though is a marketing term for electric self-balancing scooters (minus the handles). They may not hover, they may not even be legal to use on the UK’s public pavements or roads, but they are enjoying a surge of popularity. One thing that may stop them in their tracks though is the development that National Trading Standards have seized 15,000 out of the 17,000 they have examined since 15 October 2015 due to non-compliant electrical components that present a risk of fire or explosion.
We asked our resident skateboarder, Tax Manager Graham Heydon what he thought of this growing hoverboard craze. “Google ‘Onewheel’. I want one.” was his reply. So we did, and it certainly looks like the real deal (as far as wheel-based hoverboards go) – packing a serious amount of R&D: brushless motor with one moving part, sensors, algorithms, mobile apps. It’s got a lot going on and certainly, according to this video, seems to work in the real world.
Wearable tech in 2015
Time for one more in 2015. And we couldn’t depart this year without talking about the Apple Watch. Launched in the first half of the year it takes wearable tech to another level. Haptic feedback, the Apple Pay system, advanced biometric monitoring, and a marrying of technology and style. It certainly feels like a milestone in wearable tech’s journey, unlike the perceived misfires of Google Glass and Samsung’s interpretation of a smart watch. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the reception of the Apple Watch has been a little underwhelming as consumers wait for key features such as improved battery life and less reliance on pairing with an IPhone.
Perhaps the current shortcomings of the Apple Watch and hoverboards of 2015 only serve to demonstrate the iterative processes of much technical development and the uncertainty when you are at the cutting edge. Just as with 2005, there will be hits and misses. Technology rarely stands still for long.
The Ghost of Innovation Yet to Come
This ghost is a fickle creature. Who knows what will succeed and what will fall by the wayside? And if we take one lesson from Dicken’s original Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come we should recognise that the future is not set in stone. So we shall proceed with caution.
Cars are one incredibly exciting sector to keep an eye on. Are we on the cusp of some huge breakthroughs that will be commonplace by 2025?
First speculation is “How will they be powered?” This has been a slow burner. Love it or hate it the Toyota Prius was a game changer back around the turn of the millennium. Since then there has been a trickle rather than a torrent of hybrid and full electric vehicles coming onto the market. Nothing has particularly captured the imagination though except at the very high-end in recent years with McLaren, Ferrari BMW and Porsche introducing stunning supercars and Tesla its remarkable sports saloon the Model S. So what will be different in 10 years’ time?
Lithium-oxygen batteries not yet included
Better batteries. Researchers at Cambridge University announced that they have developed a successor to the battery of choice in electric vehicles: Lithium-Ion. Their lithium-oxygen batteries are said to have 10 times the energy density of current technology which would propel the range of electric cars into the territory of their combustion engine equivalents. They are 5 times cheaper than lithium-ion batteries (which can cost £3,000 to replace), and five times lighter leading to huge efficiency savings. The only problem? Being in the development stage they are 10 years away from mass production. A shame. But perfect for our glimpse into 2025!
Are hydrogen fuel cells the future?
Could technology go in a completely different direction? We are talking hydrogen fuel cells and debate over the potential of this technology rages. Long touted as the energy source of the future, the truth is that we have the technology today. What we do not have is the infrastructure to make it commercially viable. Elon Musk (of Tesla – so staunchly in the rival lithium-ion camp) writes-off hydrogen fuel cells with a back-handed jibe: have been, are and always will be, the fuel of the future. In other words, they are great on paper but will never be ready to fulfil their potential. Part of the problem is that they are not actually a source of energy, rather a carrier of it, like batteries. And its complex to distribute and transfer energy to them in the first place.
Can these hurdles be overcome in ten years? That’s probably optimistic. But…Hyundai and Toyota are both releasing hydrogen fuel cell powered cars in the UK this year. They are expensive to buy, do not offer fuel economy beyond an efficient diesel equivalent and there are only a handful (currently three) of fuel stations nationwide. There is clearly a long way to go but some massive strides have already been taken.
If power sources are one distinct narrative in the automotive sector, then automation is another. Google periodically make the headlines in driverless car technology: they have conducted 1 million miles of test drives in their own ‘noddy’ cars as well as modified Lexus SUVs. With noble intentions of improving the mobility of elderly and disabled people, as well as reducing road traffic accidents – 94% of which in the USA, their website claims, are caused by human error – there is some clear motivation for making this a reality.
Is it something that will be around in 2025? In this case the consensus is a resounding yes. Sooner in fact, with 2020 suggested by many that our roads will start filling with driverless cars. And when you think about it cars of today are already capable of adaptive cruise control, collision prevention breaking systems, lane monitoring and automatic reverse parking. The only question might be: “how autonomous?” with tech companies almost reinventing the car from the ground up to be completely driverless while traditional manufacturers are seemingly re-engineering conventional cars to have driverless functionality.
“What’s your Li-Fi password?”
Wi-Fi is very much a staple of 2015, but come 2025 it may be Li-fi that we all rely upon. This is a next generation wireless broadcast system that uses flickering LED light bulbs to transmit data. While flickering light bulbs may not sound that futuristic, you can rest assured that these flicker so rapidly they are imperceptible to the human eye. And they have the capacity to transmit data a whopping 100 times faster than traditional broadband – at 1Gps. Theoretical tests in laboratory conditions have demonstrated speeds of 224Gps! The technology should be relatively easy to install in homes: Existing infrastructure like electrical wiring and light sockets can be piggybacked with the aid of some clever microchips.
True wireless charging
Wireless charging has been around for a few years but has not really taken off so far. That could well change in years to come. Current technology depends on resting a device on a charging mat. Nifty, convenient, but hardly the liberating experience that the terminology ‘wireless’ suggests. Enter Wattup from Energous. This works like a Wi-Fi router. But instead of beaming data via radio waves, it beams power. It can charge up to 15 compatible devices at once. Imagine a 2025 where you never have to change the batteries on your TV remote, you don’t have to worry about recharging your phone when you are in your home and there are no tantrums because the kids’ favourite toys run out of power. OK, it’s not world peace, but at least it’s domestic peace.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
And on that happy note we shall leave our Christmas ghosts. They have reminded us that the wheels of innovation keep turning. While the future is not set we are quite sure that the world of 2025 will be quite different from that of 2015. We can only wait to see what it brings.