Guesswork is often involved in predicting the "next big thing" -- but with CES just a week away, the future is almost now. The annual international trade show, as well as other industry events following one after another -- including ITExpo, Gitex, Mobile World Congress and Techspo -- means there will be no shortage of product announcements, technology unveilings, and proclamations about the tech of the future.
However, the truth is that for every hit product or trend in years past -- such as the DVD player, iPhone or streaming media -- there have been plenty of misses. In recent years, 3D made a comeback of sorts, and it was heralded as the future of movies and TVs. Yet few viewers are donning the cumbersome glasses today. Who remembers DivX or the Zune? And whatever happened to WiMAX?
To predict the future, one must not only consider what is trending now, but also ponder what is missing. 3D didn"t take off in 2012 for the same reasons that it was a novelty in the 1950s, again the 1960s, and even in the 1980s.
Technology that truly is innovative doesn"t look to solve a problem that isn"t there. The next big thing -- or things -- will address the demands of consumers and the needs of businesses, and make life better. Tech innovation could come in many different forms.
Cryptocurrency: Cash in 2018
Digital money, also known as "cryptocurrency," was certainly in the spotlight at the end of 2017, thanks to bitcoin"s meteoric rise. However, bitcoin is just one of the more popular alternatives to traditional cash. Cryptocurrency could be among the big trends to watch in 2018.
"We now have something like 1,200 different [digital currency] products out there, and more every day," said Jim Purtilo, associate professor in the computer science department at the University of Maryland.
"This tells me we"re in for a "trough of disillusionment," as more people look into this but without the perspective to figure out when they are getting value or even to tell when the products work," he told.
One downside could be that these technologies aren"t quite as untraceable as people may think -- but that likely won"t dissuade those intent on investing in cryptocurrency.
"There is spectacular promise in the algorithms, but the markets have a lot of shakeout to go through before the promise is realized," Purtilo said. "We"ll see some of that shakeout in the coming year before some smart innovator can blend together ingredients for the right secret sauce that everyone likes."
Artificial Intelligence: Even Smarter
It is still doubtful that the machines will rise up against the human masters in 2018, but it is likely that artificial intelligence will continue to get smarter and possibly take on new roles.
"Humans will feed the machines," said Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research.
"There"s no stopping artificial intelligence and machine learning," he told.
"Machine learning and artificial intelligence will penetrate further into our lives and impact a lot of the processes that are currently manual," said Greg Sterling, vice president of strategy and insights at the Local Search Association.
"This will be especially true in online marketing and digital media," he told.
However, hype may outpace reality in terms of what exactly computers can do, and many of AI"s advances may be evident only behind the scenes.
"AI is going to surpass robotics in the public"s eye when we discuss automation and work force policies," suggested Purtilo.
"That is a little artificial as a distinction, since robotics has always been perceived as an AI thing, but AI"s increasing power will broaden the discussion," he said.
"In 2018, it won"t be just entry-level workers in a fast food chain losing jobs to a burger-flipping robot," Purtilo predicted. "It will be financial services advisors and law clerks losing jobs to deep learning algorithms."
To get there, companies may need to rely on consumers to provide the raw data points that will be needed to improve such systems.
"It will be a frustrating year as these assistive technologies, which aren"t quite helpful yet, offer suggestions and recommendations that don"t provide the solutions we are really looking for," said Crandall, "but don"t fret -- the technologies will continue to improve and become more personalized."
Wearables: Taking Off?
Another trend that has long been on the cusp has been wearables -- yet even Apple has been only marginally successful with its Watch. 2018 could be the year that wearable devices finally go mainstream -- but to do so, they may need a redesign.
"The [current] form factors are simply too limited to justify what continue to be premium prices for smartwatches and high-end fitness trackers," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.
"But healthy sales of Amazon"s Echo and Google Home [suggest] we"re reaching a tipping point for smart hubs opening the door to new homes and office services," he told.
That development could require a shift away from wired devices -- such as earbuds for smartphones -- to Bluetooth-enabled headphones and speakers.
"This could also portend the rise of other wireless peripherals that leverage smartphone brains for enhanced functions and services," King suggested.
Seeing -- or in the case of wearable devices, not seeing -- may be believing.
"Wearables are going to be more present and more invisible than ever in 2018," said Julie Sylvester, a producer at Living in Digital Times.
"Longer battery life, more fashionable form factors, easier to wear, and more sustainability are going to contribute to wider adoption of wearables in 2018," she told.
Where wearables are worn likely will continue to evolve in 2018 and beyond.
"More and more workplaces will be either issuing wearables to their employees or making accommodations for wearables," said Robin Raskin, founder of Living in Digital Times.
They could be used for training, facility access and even payment. Glasses may make a comeback in the workplace, for applications such as training, she told TechNewsWorld.
In addition, expect "new wearables that involve other senses -- haptics, environmentally responsive fabrics, brain stimulators," she said. "We"re going to see lots more of those."
Circuits could be woven into the bioengineered materials -- think leatherless leather -- which could be useful for retailers and consumers alike.
"Imagine a tag that knows that it"s real not counterfeit, or that it"s left inventory, or that the owner should get a coupon for shoes to match," said Raskin.
Facial Recognition: The Best ID
Putting one"s best face forward could be the akin to showing a photo ID. Just as fingerprints can be matched to one individual, the characteristics of one"s face also are unique -- even though people may seem to look alike. Facial recognition technology could become far more widespread in 2018.
Apple already has taken a leap with the release of the iPhone X, which allows users to unlock the handset by looking at it.
"Apple"s products have pushed wide public adoption of a number of technologies, from WiFi to streaming music to virtual keyboards," observed futurist Michael Rogers.
Apple isn"t the only company to explore the possibilities.
"Facial recognition is already here, behind the scenes in an increasing number of commercial and public spaces," Rogers told . "Soon it will show up everywhere from cash registers and ATMs to home security systems and smart signs that tailor content to the viewer."
The ease of simply being scanned to be recognized may come with a downside, however.
"It will represent another significant loss of privacy -- this time, public anonymity," Rogers explained. "It may be some kind of consumer application that actually creates the most public concern -- something along the lines, perhaps, of "Who"s that cute girl?""
Mobile Phones: Video and Convergence
It would be easy to suggest that the years 2007 to 2017 -- from the arrival of the first iPhone to the latest model -- have been the decade of the smartphone. Apple"s iPhone and Google"s Android operating system helped grow and transform the market, snatching it from previously dominant BlackBerry and Palm.
The smartphone has become the ubiquitous device that is carried by almost everyone almost everywhere. 2018 won"t be the year of the smartphone, but it could be the year the smartphone does even more.
"Video will drive the market for mobile service and devices in 2018," said Steve Blum, principal analyst at Tellus Venture Associates.
"Consumer electronics is collapsing into a two-product industry -- smartphones and big screen televisions -- and the balance is tipping towards phones," he told .
"The end of Net neutrality will accelerate the shift, as the big four U.S. mobile carriers use their control over network traffic and service pricing to sell more content and capture more viewing time," Blum added.
It"s likely that an old buzzword could make a comeback.
"That is "convergence,"" said University of Maryland"s Purtilo.
"I base this prediction on the emergence of tools for lean manufacturing of progressive apps, which are browser-based programs that work seamlessly across many platforms," he explained. "Instead of making one app for an iPhone and a second for Android, a builder can create a single product for all, and leverage very clever caching techniques to ensure it works fast too."
That could keep build costs low, while inviting developers to invest effort into designing products that combine the functionality of many smaller apps.
"Why have dozens of inconsistent apps on your phone when one service with a common interface will offer better value?" Purtilo pondered. "Consumers will converge on progressive apps because of the utility, and companies will have business incentives to be the ones offering consumers those services."