Beyond the Hype: This Is the Tech We Expect to Lay Hands on in 2016

As CES kicks off January, some predictions for the tech that will endure through the year ahead.

This year, rather than writing our own predictions, we decided to have Motherboard interview each other.

CES, the huge annual consumer electronics show in Vegas, acts as something of a starter pistol for the year in tech. Somewhere beneath the relentless PR of the CES hype machine, the conference offers a glimpse of the technologies that might make it into our own lives and the impact they could have on our everyday near-futures.

Short Circuit Editor Nicholas Deleon will be leading Motherboard's coverage, so as part of our series of 2016 predictions, I pushed him on the products that will make it through the hype and into our households by the end of this year—and what could stand in their way.

VICTORIA TURK: I'm catching you just before CES, which I guess somewhat sets the scene for the year to come in consumer tech. So first up: What are you expecting to actually be impressed by in Vegas this year?
NICHOLAS DELEON: The key to a successful CES from a reporting perspective, I think, is to have extraordinarily low expectations going in. If you land in Las Vegas thinking you're going to see nonstop world-changing tech, well, you're probably going to be disappointed. I prefer to go in with a totally clean slate: OK, Vegas, what do you got?

CES 2015. Image: Derek Mead/Motherboard

This year, it's pretty clear that three of the big themes will be the continued expansion of the "Internet of Things," which basically means connecting more and more devices, and an increased variety of devices to the internet; the big automakers (like Ford and BMW) taking autonomous driving much more seriously than in the past; and the beginning of the VR/AR explosion.

We're already seeing baby steps with the Internet of Things: with devices like Nest, you can set your house's thermostat right before you leave your office in the evening, letting you heat or cool your house just in the nick of time (as opposed to having the heat or cold air blasting all day while you're at work). One thing to keep in mind is that as you bring devices online that may expose them to the same kind of hacks that regularly befall PCs. (Counterpoint: there has never been a better time to be a cybersecurity professional!)

Personally, I'm fascinated with the idea of autonomous driving, and not just because it frees people of the drudgery of having to drive to the mall. It's more the idea of how autonomous driving potentially changes the way we organize society. Meaning, if fewer people have to own a car (since cheap and reliable on-demand transportation is an app away), then that's fewer cars clogging up city streets—so why not make city streets smaller and increase the size of sidewalks? How about fewer parking lots and more parks and playgrounds? That kind of thing. Anyway, I expect the big auto makers to step up their game this year so as not to be totally left behind by the likes of Tesla and Google (though word on the street is that Ford may be teaming up with Google for autonomous cars).

I think Oculus Rift will be a huge hit—but only among core gamers

As for VR and AR, the big moment will come when the consumer version of Oculus Rift is released in the first quarter of the year (no specific release date has been announced beyond "Q1 2016"). It will initially be aimed at core gamers who have beefy PCs and who have no problem isolating themselves from the real world to play in a virtual one—which is to say, me.

But the potential here is if VR gets beyond gaming and into more mainstream activities (there's a reason why Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion). Like, sit virtual courtside at Your Favorite Team's basketball arena, take a virtual tour of the British Museum, or test out how that fancy couch you've been eyeing actually looks inside your house. There's a part of the CES show floor that's dedicated to VR/AR this year, so expect plenty on that front.

That all sounds awesome. I feel like we keep hearing promises about how technologies like the Internet of Things, autonomous driving, VR etc. are going to revolutionise our lives, but most of us haven't had chance to experience them in any really meaningful way yet. Do you think any of this will actually make its way into regular users' homes and hands within the year?
The Internet of Things is likely the closest to actually making an impact on people's lives in 2016. Companies like Nest have already introduced products that hook into the internet, including internet-connected security cameras, while more offbeat options like internet-connected fitness devices for dogs are also now on the market. The question now is when IoT devices move from merely being "neat" to something truly transformative, which I guess we'll see at CES if there's been any progress there.

A dog wearable at CES 2015. Image: Kaleigh Rogers/Motherboard

I think VR will very much be a "thing" for dedicated gamers in 2016, with devices like the Oculus Rift and Sony VR around the corner (E3, the big video game convention in June, will likely be awash in VR games). Whether that translates into a platform that your mom or dad will want to invest in this year is less likely.

I think autonomous driving is the most far off from actually impacting people's everyday lives. It's not so much that the tech will take long to develop but that regulators and the insurance companies will have a heck of a time figuring out how to handle all these Future Cars.

So give me a solid prediction: what's going to be the must-have device/product/tech plaything of 2016? The Oculus? Apple's next thing? Or another curveball, like 2015's "hoverboard" but hopefully without the whole exploding-batteries drawback?
Bold predictions, eh! OK, well here you go: I think Oculus Rift will be a huge hit—but only among core gamers like myself. It will basically be invisible to the wider public, but gaming nerds are going to have their worlds turned upside down much in the same way that Homer Simpson's mother's life was turned upside down after seeing Joe Namath's sideburns in 1969. I look forward to it!

One more prediction: some fool is going to fly a drone into a major US sporting event, and the media will have a full-on panic attack.

I think your crystal ball might be pretty accurate on that one. Given the continued hand-wringing over safety and liability with autonomous cars and the inevitable fallout of a drone incident like you predict, do you think there'll be any advancements on the regulation front? That still hasn't really been sorted out, has it?
Ha, no. Like I said, I think companies like Google and Tesla will completely nail autonomous driving technology well before regulators have any idea what's going on. Same with drones. (Look at Uber's continued difficulty in trying to convince regulators that it isn't some evil, illegal operation.)

The thing is, this shouldn't be surprising to anyone who pays attention to tech; it's just that now tech is beginning to interact with "real life" in a way that pure software didn't in the past.

What I'd like to see is states with less dense populations open themselves up to wider testing of wild and crazy tech like autonomous cars. I just fear we'll be caught in this weird regulatory no man's land where the tech is ready (or close to being ready) but we're waiting around for everything to fall into place.

So the future could be put on hold.
Right, exactly. It all feels a little bit like "hurry up and wait." Now of course I understand why, but part of me still wants to just flip the switch and get started living in the future already. Rules, schmules!

I'd love to run a headline along the lines of, 'The iPhone 7's Battery Lasts 24 Hours on a Single Charge'

OK, so what would the Nicholas Deleon 2016 look like? What single story do you hope to be writing before the year's out?
Here's a headline I've love to run in 2016: "I Live In New York City (Well, Queens) and I Now Have Google Fiber." That would be amazing.

Odds of that happening? I'm not holding my breath, though I do think we'll see more out of Google Fiber this year than we did in 2015. Here's hoping gigabit broadband becomes "a thing" for more and more people in the coming year.

I'd also love to run a headline along the lines of, "The iPhone 7's Battery Lasts 24 Hours on a Single Charge." I think smartphones have just about reached the point where, no matter which one you buy, you're unlikely to get a piece of junk, which absolutely was not the case even a few years ago! At the same time, though, they're all now kinda… dull? They all have excellent screens with useful bells and whistles like fingerprint readers and the ability to be used for mobile payments, and both Android and iOS have robust app stores filled with high-quality software.

Really, what's lacking now is the ability to last a full day without needing a midday charge or to have a near-tablet sized device like the iPhone 6s Plus. If battery life can be meaningfully addressed then many, many people will be very happy indeed.