Josh Simms takes a tentative look at what's in store for 2020.
Next year will see the death of driving. Well, that’s what some say. The advent of the driverless car has become something of a whipping boy for the gap between the promise of technology and the technology that actually arrives, between when the people who know say we will get it, and when it actually arrives.
But now Elon Musk - the man behind Tesla and Space X, both earthbound and looking to get off the planet - says he’s going to launch a truly “complete” autonomous car next year, while cars that aren’t quite driverless, but at least do much of the legwork, will become a more familiar sight. He may be right: Google’s sister company recently completed a trial of autonomous taxis in California, with 6200 passengers brave enough to take a ride over the first month.
Then again, plenty of people are warning that those who can’t wait to put their life in the hands of a HAL with L plates will, in fact, be doing some waiting yet. “Anyone who knows tech also knows that driverless cars are a long, long way off,” says Michael Baum, the entrepreneur behind six start-ups, five of which he sold and the last of which, the machine data engine Splunk, went public with a record-breaking $5bn IPO. “I’m a nerd. Absolutely. But I also know that tech never moves as fast as some people want it to.”
So to tentative predictions of what’s in store for 2020. Obsessed with our phones as everyone seems to be - except Baum, who goes complete digital detox every Sunday - next year is going to be a big one. That’s not necessarily for the devices themselves - the hoopla around the cult-like Apple’s recently-launched iPhone 11 already seems to be dying down, though it is its competitors’ forthcoming dual screen and super-slim flexible phones that will be the next real game-changer. Rather, it’s going to be a big one for mobile internet connectivity.
5G networks first became available this year - albeit in a way both expensive and limited to major conurbations - but next year will see it really take off. That’s going to see the advent of super-fast mobile data networks, which will allow, say, the streaming of movies at high quality while on the move - no doubt hammering another nail into the coffin of the printed word, and, for that matter, the landline, as mobile networks take over in homes and offices too.
Again, it’s not something everyone is pleased with, without going the full Luddite. Intriguingly, sales of dumb-phones - basic, call and text-only phones - are also set to rocket over 2020, as more people seek to embrace an older tech as a means of at least temporarily freeing them from the round-the-clock shackles of the vert latest. The so called ‘techlash’ has found a champion in Peter Neby, founder of Punkt, makers of the first super-stylish, Jasper Morrison-designed dumb-phones.
“I wanted to create a phone as a kind of gatekeeper. If anyone wants to talk to me, they can give me a call,” says Neby. “Other forms of communication, for example email or social media, are available when I want to receive them and decide to make use of the 4G based tethering. That way, I get to choose. The wonders of digital communication remain available, but as something to dip into when the time is right.” We might hang on to older technology - the likes of non-DAB radios, mechanical watches and vinyl records - for largely sentimental reasons, but we can expect to see more and more deliberately features-poor tech come to market, designed to untether our 24/7 digital attachments.
Indeed, while some still like to put a needle on a shellac disc and settle down at home to the ‘authentic’ sound of all those jumps and scratches, the early adopters will be taking another giant leap towards virtual reality next year. So-called XR - that’s extended reality, a blend of VR, virtual reality, AR, augmented reality, and MR, mixed reality, and you really do need to keep up with the lingo - is set to become much more prevalent in home entertainment.
This year saw the launch of Facebook’s standalone headset Oculus Quest, making XR accessible like never before - expect to start to see XR in schools and the workplace more too - and in 2020 there’s likely to be a raft of software and games releases to push the potential of it and similar products, with next gen hardware coming again around 2022. Check out the likes of North by Focals - smart glasses akin to an Apple Watch for the face - or Bose AR - frames that take an audio-only approach to XR. It seems that the real world is not enough.
It’s easy to imagine the impact this will have on the domestic experience. If family members no longer talk to each other thanks to the separate channels they’re wired into, soon they won’t even have to look at each other. Jesting aside - well, maybe it’s a jest - more conventional entertainment systems have life in them yet. TVs - reborn thanks to the advent of streaming services - obviously continue to get bigger, slimmer and sharper. And yet, as with the motivation behind Punkt, we can expect a counter-trend towards units that don’t dominate a room quite so oppressively. Audio-visual brands Loewe, Bang & Olufsen and Panasonic arguably lead the way with the likes of their Bild 9 and forthcoming Harmony and Vitrine models respectively - each is framed to look more like an art piece than home tech, even folding away in part when not in use.
“TVs have long had an image problem,” as Bodo Sperlein, Loewe’s creative director has it. “They’ve become this cumbersome object that most people want to hide or stick in the corner of the room. We have to think about what TVs represent in the 21st century - and remember that it was once an object that people were proud of and wanted to show off. We need to offer something that goes beyond the tech, that’s far more of a sculptural object of the kind you actually want in your house, rather than just feel you have to have because you need a TV.”
In contrast, home audio is aiming to become ever more outrageous. It might seem that so few people actively listen to music at home in these earbudded days, but the value of the hi-fi market is predicted to increase by 25 percent to £10.5bn within the next four years. This is because, it’s posited, we’re starting to re-consider our listening experience in the way, over recent years, we have our televisual one. The very top of this market is seeing a shift from great if more mainstream systems from the likes of Technics, Wharfedale or Denon towards specialist components from obscure brands the likes of Ballfinger, Wilson, Metaxas and Audio Research, among others.
It’s an anoraky and expensive world. But it’s also becoming a more visually striking one. That’s really why, suggests Kostas Metaxas, audiophiles “of the knob twiddling kind, who want amps the size of refrigerators” are on the way out - not least because younger consumers seek more ease of use and more good looks from hi-fi systems. Metaxas, who designs for the likes of L’Epee and S.T. Dupont, as well as his own eponymous hi-fi line - it’s just launched a £36,000 reel-to-reel recorder, yes, a reel-to-reel recorder - argues demands are shifting. What’s new for 2020, he says, is that the hi-fi business will finally acknowledge that it’s really a luxury business.
“There’s this emerging market of people who have affluence but don’t want all the bullshit that goes with the audiophile world,” he contends. “Yes, they want serious engineering credentials, but they also want finesse in use. They want style. To this younger market the audiophile world just looks Neanderthal. And that’s one thing tech should never do.”