The hover boards and autonomous cars that Marty McFly and Doc Brown discovered when they traveled Back to the Future of 2015 are no more sci-fi than Wi-Fi today. Technology is advancing at a clip no DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor can match. If you’re wondering what high-tech gadgets will have us proclaiming “Great Scott!” in the year ahead, here’s a hint: they’re not really gadgets at all.

The Consumer Electronics Show that kicks off each new year in Las Vegas is a showcase for everything that’s new and cool in the world of tech. Those who traversed the 2.5 million square feet of exhibit space in search of the next big things a couple of weeks ago witnessed a “techtonic” shift that’s putting software, not electronic gadgets, in the center spotlight.

Sure, there was an ocean of hardware – drones, robotics, autonomous cars, TVs and wearable devices, plus new high-tech sleep and baby products – but it’s the software at the heart of these things that’s driving innovation. The hardware itself is becoming a commodity (as any Fitbit Gen 1 user will attest).

The three areas in tech that seem to be generating the most buzz heading into 2017 involve virtual reality, autonomous cars and artificial intelligence. Gaming and hospitality companies would be well advised to track advances in these areas and consider integrating them into their customer experiences.

Reality Redefined

This year could mark the beginning of virtual reality’s transformation from a curiosity into a legitimate tool for training simulations and new, immersive customer experiences. Facebook’s Oculus Rift headsets offered an exciting glimpse into new consumer VR experiences last year, and 2017 is expected to be the year when technologies like this enter the mainstream thanks to continual software improvements.

High-end resorts have envisioned using VR headsets that completely immerse you in a dream travel destination, or transport you to the front row of live performances from the comfort of your living room. Virtual systems can also be used to train workers on the best ways for dealing with mishaps without having to be in harm’s way.

This also could be the year VR takes social media to a whole new dimension. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said AR (augmented reality) and VR will comprise the most extensive social platform in computing history. Last year, Facebook walked the talk by offering some eye-popping demos during its F8 developer’s conference. Like the rest of the world, I’m eager to see what they have in store for 2017.

At the moment, augmented reality has more traction that virtual reality in the marketplace, primarily because it relies on the mobile devices everybody already has in hand rather than additional headset hardware. Unlike VR, which totally immerses the user in a virtual environment, AR adds graphics, sounds and other digital elements to real-world surroundings to create new user experiences.

The worldwide Pokémon Go phenomenon registered 8.0 on the consumer engagement Richter scale in 2016, bringing AR into the mainstream in a big way. But apparel and footwear companies have also been developing AR apps that let customers try on clothing and shoes in their own virtual dressing rooms. Some apps allow shoppers to view the same garment in a variety of colors, bypassing the need to haul an armful of items into a fitting room. And proving beyond any shadow of a doubt AR’s ability to reshape (or, at least, reshade) the fabric of our society.

Look Ma … No Driver

Not long ago, the cars on display at CES were demos for bitchin’ audio systems, in-car video monitors and smartphone connectivity. Today, those cars are packed full of tech that allows them to drive (and park) themselves. Autonomous cars might not be ready to drive themselves off the showroom floor just yet, but the day of their introduction into the market is closing quickly in your rearview mirror.

Uber has been taking its disruption of the transportation industry to the next level by testing self- driving cars in Pittsburgh. Pre-selected users who hail a car using their Uber app might be greeted by a robot disguised as a Ford Fusion. It’s equipped with an elaborate system of lasers and cameras that allow it to safely navigate an urban maze of streets, highways, bridges and tunnels. For now, there’s a human riding shotgun who can take command if things get sketchy, but studies have shown autonomous cars to be safer (and infinitely less distracted) than the humans who account for 1.2 million deaths on the road every year.

Juniper Research expects the annual development of self-driving vehicles to reach 14.5 million by 2025, with a few thousand in the next several years (mostly taxis and shuttles). Case in point: Local Motors, a Phoenix startup known for manufacturing 3D-printed vehicles, plans to demonstrate an autonomous minibus on the UNLV campus prior to deploying a fleet in Las Vegas.

Known as Olli, the self-driving electric minibus cruises at a top speed of 12 MPH and travels up to 32 miles on a single charge. Just shy of 13 feet long and 7 feet wide, this short-range shuttle has room for eight sitting passengers and four standing riders.

Olli is the first self-driving vehicle based on IBM’s Watson AI tech, and it talks back to passengers using artificial intelligence to answer ride-related questions like why a certain route was chosen, as well as the ever-popular “Are we there yet?”

May AI Assist?

Everything in the tech realm keeps getting smarter, infused with more sophisticated artificial intelligence. It already feels like we’re at that tipping point where interacting with our devices using voice commands is becoming a natural part of our daily routines, doesn’t it?

People familiar with Apple’s Siri will appreciate the way Amazon has taken digital assistant technology to the next level with its popular Echo wireless speaker and voice-command device. Utter the “Alexa” wake-up word anywhere within range of its seven-piece microphone array, and Echo lights a blue halo to signal it’s ready for a command. The Internet of Things is now your oyster.

Echo’s 24/7 connection to the cloud automatically updates a voice-activated feature set that seemingly grows by the day. You can ask your Alexa digital assistant to check the weather forecast, inquire about flight delays, check real-time traffic reports or stock prices, play virtually any song you can think of, get news headlines and sports scores and assist you in the kitchen by setting a timer or compiling a shopping list. You can even order a Domino’s pizza or call for an Uber ride.

Just don’t be surprised if a driverless car rolls into your driveway.


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