Predicting the future is a pastime as old as human thought, and over the millennia we've had plenty of practice. Still, there are certain types of prognostication we're more comfortable with than others. Predicting future tech is one of those.
Science fiction gives us a glimpse at some possible futures, but the most reliable way to know what's coming is to look at what's happening right now. Sales figures, development trends, and customer feedback provide the most holistic view of where we're going.
With that in mind, here's a look at five nascent technologies that will be everywhere you look by 2020.
We're not just talking about TVs: Broadcasting, streaming media, and cinema will all adhere to 4K (UHD) standards by 2020. Or at least that's what a recent survey of media executives by satellite operator Intelsat predicted. Nearly two-thirds of respondents claimed 4K will be mainstream in five years.
Right now, it's tough to find native 4K content to view on a 4K display. That's because manufacturers and content providers—ever wary of piracy—are busily preparing standards for hardware-based content protection. This translates to high costs and lots of upgrades, at least up front, but as adoption becomes widespread prices will start to drop.
UHD will first become common on OTT (over-the-top) services like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go, supported by hardware manufacturers such as Apple, Roku, and Samsung. Eventually, the high-res video will find its way to direct-to-home (DTH) services like cable and IPTV (which are currently trudging along with 720p and 1080i).
Virtual Reality is probably the most enduring dream of technologists and futurists, dating all the way back to the 1980s (or earlier, depending on your definition). But now it’s finally starting to take shape.
The biggest name in VR is Oculus, which plans to launch its iconic, long-gestating Rift headset sometime next year. But there are plenty of others taking cracks at the concept, from startups like Avegant to huge corporations like Sony.
The biggest stumbling block for mainstream adoption of the tech is the speed with which devices need to render images to keep up with the wearer's movements. But developers are quickly working on ways to trick the human eye into perceiving full-resolution, low-latency video feeds.
VR isn't just about gaming, either. Medical professionals can use these devises for education or surgery prep. Architects can use them to render projects in immersive 3D. And business meetings or educational lectures can take on a new level of “remote presence.”
All experts seem to agree on the timeline, too: a little over five years.
It may sound like a stretch, but it’s not. One California startup called Ostendo is working on a chipset that can project video on a 48-inch diagonal surface. Patched together, the projectors could form more complex images. Projection keyboards are already a thing.
HP is currently working on its own 3D imaging interface for smartphones, and there are rumors that the next iPhone will feature a holographic interface—if not in 3D then in the form of a 2D keyboard.
A Chinese phone manufacturer called Takee has already launched a smartphone that renders a 3D display by reading the eye movements of the user. It can even respond to finger movements, allowing for no-touch control. Just imagine how far this tech can advance in the next five years.
Many Computers, One OS
The differences between phones, tablets, and laptops are already blurring. Need proof? Just look at the Microsoft Surface Pro, Lenonvo Yoga, and Asus Transformer series—or the ever-growing dimensions of the most popular smartphones. There are tablet-sized phones and phone-sized tablets, laptops with mobile designs and mobile designs with laptop functions.
Since all mobile devices are on the way to becoming one ur-device, it makes sense that Microsoft is unifying its next OS (Windows 10) across all devices—including Windows, Windows Phone, and Xbox.
Apple has been more reluctant to merge its desktop OS (OS X) with the mobile iOS platform. But that hasn’t stopped the company from converging features and facilitating cross-platform development. Its new "Continuity" feature in OS X 10.10 Yosemite, for instance, lets Mac users with iPhones and iPads view and respond to mobile notifications from the desktop.
Android offers similarly simple mobile-to-desktop transitions, but only if you're a Chrome OS user. For those who want similar behavior between an Android phone and an OS X or Windows desktop, Pushbullet is a good substitute until Google gets its act together.
All of this adds up to the fact that the personal computer of 2020 won't be defined by its size, its OS, or its internet connection type. Instead, the mobile devices of the future will serve as extensible "brains" of a larger computational ecosystem in which your phone, laptop, and tablet are equal parts.
Truly Global Internet
If you’re going to declare the internet a fundamental human right (as many countries are starting to do), then you need to broaden and diversify the ways people can access it. Currently there are just two methods (broadband and wireless), both of which limit access to rural, remote, or impoverished areas because of their intensive infrastructural demands.
So why not just beam internet access to Earth's remotest areas?
Sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s not. Google believes it can deliver 3G-speed wireless internet to the remotest regions on the planet with its Project Loon. How? By launching high-altitude balloons 20 miles into the atmosphere and establishing aerial wireless networks. The company is also planning to launch a fleet of 180 satellites that will orbit the globe and broadcast internet to developing countries. Elon Musk's SpaceX is working on a similar plan.
Even more outlandish (and perhaps a bit more than five years away) is Facebook's plan to deploy solar-powered drones that will fly uninterrupted around the globe for months or even years, showering the earth with internet access.
Just Over the Horizon
Consumer 3D Printing: 3D printing is awesome, and it’s already disrupting some markets. But the vision of 3D printing that involves average Joes making everything from coffee mugs to engine parts in their own home just isn't happening within the next five years—maybe 10. The tech is simply too complex, and the demand too niche.
Self-Driving Cars: Tesla's new autopilot function is brilliant, and we hope it works as advertised, but there's no way it's going to be mainstream by 2020. We're willing to believe, however, that self-driving vehicles will be at least as common as motorcycles by 2025. Just imagine Uber deploying its own fleet of autonomous vehicles. Game over.
Wearable Everything: You might love your Fitbit or Pebble Steel. You might even own a pair of Google Glass. But wearables have a long way to go before they become a mainstream phenomenon. Unlike other categories, which face huge technological hurdles, wearable tech faces a cultural barrier: A smartwatch or self-driving car is one thing, but a computer you wear on your face is something else entirely.
A Better Battery: Lithium-ion has served us well, but we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of efficiency. We need a new battery or power cell to power more than just cameras and phones. Beyond the obvious demands created by resource scarcity, rising populations, and the growing popularity of electric vehicles, the expansion of the Internet of Things is going to create a massive need for energy-dense power hubs. Luckily, researchers already have some smart ideas.