Life, circa 2016: you'll be woken by the gentle singing of your domestic robot, who'll bring you breakfast (Urgh! Space rations again!) then beam the news headlines directly into your brain. Your house will transform itself around you, becoming first a hovercar to drive you to work, then your office itself. Your virtual PA will greet you, then... alright, so maybe 2016 is a bit optimistic. But 2017? You bet.
Whatever. We may not be driving hovercars quite as soon as 2015, but we will be doing plenty of other ridiculously cool things which would've seemed fanciful even a few years ago. From robot vacuums to smartwatches to 3D printers, daily life is changing at a dizzying pace. And we have these 15 people to thank for that.
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Creating sociable robots
Cynthia Breazeal, MIT’s Personal Robots group
“The day I started my doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” Breazeal tells us, “was the same day NASA landed the Sojourner robot on Mars. I knew we were sending robots into oceans and volcanoes and space, but where were they in the human environment?”
In looking for the answer, she created a field called social robotics, and it’s one she says will bring about the next big tech revolution.
“Computers used to be very expensive, and only a few specially trained people knew how to use them, until someone asked: ‘What would it mean to have one of these on every desk, in every home?’” The robotic answer, says Breazeal, is Jibo.
“Robots are so different to all the slabs and boxes we use today. They experience the world around us, and they push all kinds of psychological buttons in us. At MIT, we’ve found again and again that people are more successful at achieving their goals when they’re using a robot rather than a screen.”
Jibo, she believes, “will connect you and co-ordinate you in your family life. It’s like having someone helping you, rather than having a tool that you use. Your smartphone is a camera – Jibo is a cameraman. It’s not an individual device, it’s a family hub.
"It’s a new kind of assistant. It doesn’t need to be able to pick things up, or walk up and down stairs – it’s a humanised interface for all your other personal technologies. It’s logical – it’s what happens beyond screens.”
It seems the internet agrees: at the time of printing, Jibo’s Indiegogo campaign had met its goal 20 times over. Look out for this little guy (and his inventor) in December 2015.
Adding sci-fi to your daily routine
Cortana, Windows Phone
Sometimes it feels like the world could do with a real-life version of Halo’s Master Chief, but for now the closest we’re going to get is Cortana. Named after and voiced by John-117’s ever-present AI helper from the multi-million- selling Xbox games, Cortana is Windows Phone’s answer to Siri or Google Now – with a little extra added on top.
As well as simple web searches and most standard phone functions, Cortana can attach reminders to other actions, so next time you go to phone your mum Cortana will nudge you to politely ask about the cat. Over time she’ll learn more about you, adding details to a ‘notebook’ full of your vitals that she’ll use to offer more targeted help. With the Xbox One and Windows 8 (or 10) the obvious next steps for Cortana, expect to hear her voice a lot more in the future.
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Bringing photographs to life
Ren Ng, Lytro Illum
It’s one thing to build a new camera, but Ren and his team at Lytro are after a more ambitious prize: a new kind of photography.
Since the early 19th century, every photograph has been a flat, passive print. Lytro pictures are not meant to be printed – they’re active digital images that you can refocus or change the perspective of while you’re viewing them.
The engineering that has gone into the Illum is fiendishly complex – that large, versatile 30-250mm f/2 lens contains thousands of microlenses that capture not just light, but which direction the light’s coming from, allowing the processor to build an image in a process called ‘computational photography’ (a phrase that makes you 8% more of a geek just by saying it).
It’s early days for Lytro, but this could be the most important camera since the Box Brownie.
Protecting cyclists after dark
Emily Brooke, Blaze Laserlight
As role models go, Batman isn’t a bad one. As far as we know, Emily Brooke of Blaze doesn’t dress up in a cape in the evenings and take to the streets of London to fight crime, but she has mimicked the Dark Knight’s bat signal for the Laserlight. It looks pretty much like any other bike light – albeit one encased in aluminium – but turn it on and it also projects a laser on to the road five metres in front of your bike, forming a green bicycle shape instead of Batman’s logo.
As 79% of collisions with cars occur when a driver turns across an unseen cyclist, the Laserlight increases their visibility. The battery’s smart too. It won’t turn on unless it’s in the special bracket, and when it’s nearly dead it’ll switch to a low-energy mode that lasts four hours, so you’ll never be stranded miles from home without lights.