2013's Biggest Tech Moments

2013 was NOT the year that Amazon drones started dropping packages willy-nilly, but a lot happened in the world of tech, both good and bad. © Kim Kirby/LOOP IMAGES/Loop Images/Corbis

It was the best of times for private projects; it was the worst of times for privacy. It was the age of robots and AI servants; it was the age of deadly drones. It was the epoch of augmented reality; it was the epoch of prying sensors. It was the season of private-sector space; it was the season of governmental Web site disgrace. It was the spring of 3-D printing; it was the winter of gaming consoles.

The year 2013 was an epic tale of two techs, those that expanded to improve our lives and those that exceeded the boundaries of our preparedness and stretched our metaphors to the breaking point. So we hope that you and the National Security Agency analyst monitoring your Internet activity enjoy our picks for the year's 10 biggest trends and technologies.

Steering Toward Robotic Cars
Mercedes' ultra-fancy S-Class vehicles got a little more robotic in 2013. © Sergey Kohl/Demotix/Corbis

The concept of the self-driving car has been around since at least 1965, when General Motors proposed its Autoline speed and directional control system for expressways [source: Benford]. And although kids remain disappointed that automatic transmission and cruise control aren't as cool as they sound, the technologies introduced in 2013 took us one step closer to that future.

Take, for example, Nissan's Infiniti G37, the first commercial car with drive-by-wire steering. Steer-by-wire removes the mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the wheels and replaces it with computers, electronics and motors [source: Colwell]. Or consider the Mercedes S-Class, which comes equipped with more consumer electronics than a Best Buy, including a 360-degree array of sensors with camera, radar and sonar, tied into the sedan's steering, throttle and stability controls. The system enables the car to handle whatever curves the road or its drivers throw at it at speeds approaching 124 mph (200 kph). The S-Class also sports a camera-augmented suspension system that compensates for upcoming bumps, as well as a night vision camera that helps drivers spot animals or people on roads.

These constitute just a few of the increasingly common technologies that improve safety today while setting the stage for fully or partially self-driving vehicles tomorrow [source: O'Donnell].

Droning On and On
BAE's Taranis unmanned combat air vehicle took to the air for the first time in 2013. The Taranis is designed to be speedier than existing UAVs, like the Predator and Reaper. Image courtesy BAE Systems

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) first sprang from the fevered imagination of radio-control inventor Nikola Tesla, but it would take a few world wars before the United States military produced some of its own. They were but poor cousins of the missile-packing Predator and Reaper drones used in 21st-century Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite dropping to their lowest levels in half a decade, drone strikes drew a firestorm of media attention in 2013, due to a combination of vocal advocacy groups, news leaks and a global groundswell of citizen concern over civilian casualties and the possibility of terrorist organizations using them as a recruitment tool [source: Walsh].

Meanwhile, UAV development soared to new heights. BAE Systems announced its Taranis supersonic drone, which can blow past the Predator (135 mph or 217 kph) and Reaper (300 mph or 483 kph) [source: Popular Science]. On a smaller scale, AeroVironment debuted the Puma AE, a hand-launched, fixed-wing UAV equipped with a 360-degree camera, laser illuminator and infrared night vision, while Prox Dynamics deployed a 35-ounce (992-gram) hand-held chopper drone. Elsewhere, work is underway on developing insect-and-bird-sized drones featuring flight dynamics taken from the natural world [sources: AeroVironment; Bumiller and Shanker; Prox Dynamics].

In the U.S., sheriffs tested UAVs as a means of patrolling for illegal border crossers, lost hikers and criminals [source: Horgan]. So, as the UFO enthusiasts say, keep watching the skies.

Sensor-y Overload
MiniMAX takes X-rays out of the hospital and into the field. © Copyright 2011 Los Alamos National Security, LLC. All rights reserved.

Do you get the feeling that we're being watched? Between Google Glass, camera phones, webcams, Kinect in our homes and drones in the sky, it's not surprising, but some of the new breed of portable sensors might just save your life.

To address the gaps left by fiber optic cameras and bulky robots, Bounce Imaging is developing the Explorer, a throwable, baseball-sized camera cluster that can transmit panoramic images of wherever it lands. The device will provide soldiers, police, firefighters, and search-and-rescue teams with valuable information and keep them out of unnecessary danger. Bounce could adapt future versions to carry chemical or radiation sensors [sources: Bounce Imaging; Popular Science].

Whomever those first-responders and medics rescue will need prompt medical attention. Luckily, Los Alamos National Laboratory has created the MiniMAX, a portable X-ray that lives up to its name. About the size of a digital single lens camera with an extra wide lens (plus some foot-wide flat bits), MiniMAX weighs 5 pounds (2.3 kilograms) and runs on a 9-volt battery, making it ideal for field use [source: Los Alamos National Laboratory].

Robot Overlords and AI Nannies
Boston Dynamics' 'Cheetah' robot pictured here held the title of the world's fastest robot with legs with a record of more than 29 mph (47 kph). WildCat, which underwent tests in 2013, is the next-generation Cheetah robot. © Boston Dynamics/dpa/Corbis

With robot development proceeding apace and Asimov's three laws of robotics nowhere in sight, how long before our "servants" round us up "for our own good"? We give it a year.

OK, so maybe adorable ASIMO doesn't make your blood run cold, but that's only because he can't chase you down like Boston Dynamics' WildCat robot [sources: Netburn; University of Bristol]. Meanwhile, artificial intelligences plot to take over your life. The Moto X cell phone learns your patterns and schedule and takes actions on its own, such as limiting which calls ring through at certain hours or reading texts to you when it detects that you are driving [source: Motorola]. The Canary home security system uses your habits -- derived from a camera, infrared motion sensor and a microphone -- to distinguish you and your pets from possible intruders [source: Canary Home Security].

Various wearable monitors and screens marketed for fitness and checking e-mails may one day connect us to our gadgets, enabling them to predict our needs or even to lock our transmissions when we seem too tired or wired to drive [source: Popular Science].

Google Glass
HowStuffWorks' own Jonathan Strickland got to give Google Glass a go. You can read about his adventures in this post. © Jonathan Strickland 2013

One of the chief problems with wearable electronics -- whether it's Google Glass or a smart watch -- lies in overcoming the dork factor. Your device may pack revolutionary potential, but if it looks like something Geordi La Forge's sister would wear in wood shop, you're done for. Landing a 12-page feature in Vogue's September issue was a coup for Google Glass, but it will take more than fashionista props to overcome that form factor, or the silliness of that head-twitching interface [source: Bilton].

Of greater concern, however, are privacy and ethical issues raised by a wearable camera and augmented reality device. Someone has already developed an app that enables users to take pictures by winking, and Lambda Labs is developing a facial recognition app [sources: Greenfield; Vaas]. Some states and municipalities have considered making the devices illegal. A woman in California has already been ticketed for driving while wearing a pair, under a "driving while monitor visible to driver" law [source: Abad-Santos].

Google has a lot riding on the gadget, including a patent that would enable the company to track what a user looks at and then charge real-world advertisers. In theory, Google Glass could display ads too, or superimpose virtual ads over real-world ones. Google Now, a function that tries to predict information a user wants before he or she searches for it, makes another likely match for the gadget [sources: Bilton; Bilton and Miller]. But will it catch on or become the Segway of eyewear? Only time will tell.

Zombie Consoles and Creepy Kinect
Kinect Group Program Manager Scott Evans (R), shows a guest the newest generation Kinect sensor for the Xbox One during a May 2013 press event unveiling Microsoft's new Xbox One. © Nick Adams/Reuters/Corbis

One year after Nintendo's Wii U hit stores, Microsoft and Sony announced their eighth generation consoles -- just in time for industry insiders to declare the market sector dead. Even after removing its controversial connectivity requirements, mandatory Kinect integration and digital rights management (DRM) confusion, the Xbox One fell short of the expectations of both users and Microsoft, which designed it as an all-in-one entertainment bridge [sources: Microsoft; Orland]. PlayStation 4 debuted to mixed reviews as well, and that's important, because consoles might just be circling the bit bucket [sources: Lecher; Orland].

Sales and rentals of disc games dropped 21 percent in 2012, in part because the shape of the games industry has changed [source: Lecher]. We can now download games through online stores like Steam and cloud services like OnLive and play them on our portable devices. In response, game developers are breaking free of platform-specific coding, while hardware developers put out potentially console-killing devices like the Razer Edge Pro gaming tablet and the NVidia Shield. Such gadgets are portable, capable of downloading and streaming games and powerful enough to run graphics-intensive titles.

Of course, there's one thing that could save the Microsoft console -- and facilitate a 1984-esque future: The (terrifying) new Kinect, which Microsoft says is so accurate at reading your body movements and heart rate that it can read emotions. Pleasant dreams [source: Popular Science].

Commercial Space Pays Off
Victory! Earth forms the backdrop for this image, featuring Dragon-2 in the grasp of the International Space Station's Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm2 in March 2013. Image courtesy NASA

With the space shuttle retired, the Constellation program dead and NASA's Space Launch System politically embattled, the low-orbit-trucking free-for-all is on, and private-sector space enterprises are rushing to fill the gap. And 2013 was a particularly good year. We saw two of the chief contenders -- SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., both recipients of NASA funding under the Commercial Crew Initiative -- successfully complete testing and docking procedures with the International Space Station [sources: Achenbach; Kramer; MSNBC; NASA].

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic continued its plans to provide one-percenters somewhere to spend whatever cash they aren't using to light their Gurkha Black Dragon cigars and mop up spills of 1928 Krug. This year, the company's Spaceship Two became the first commercial spacecraft to pass Mach One, bringing it one step closer to its goal of taking passengers to the edge of space and back at $250,000 a pop [sources: Chang; Virgin Galactic].

Health Care for All, Six at a Time
Was there ever a Web site that got more scrutiny? Screenshot of HealthCare.gov Web site by HowStuffWorks

After 42 instances in which House Republicans voted to repeal, defund or otherwise undermine the Affordable Care Act -- culminating in a 16-day government shutdown -- it seemed the Obama administration could finally declare victory. There was just one problem: The $400-million enrollment system, HealthCare.gov, didn't work so well [sources: Cohen; Cohen Botelho and Yan; Dugan].

The downtime meant more than embarrassment; it represented a potential threat to Obamacare's economic foundation, which relies on enrollments to distribute risk and keep premiums down [sources: Pear, Lafraniere and Austen].

Adding insult to uninsured injury, three programmers threw together a more effective insurance Web site, HealthSherpa, in a matter of days. Although it lacks signup options and other HealthCare.gov services, many frustrated consumers have used it to narrow their options [sources: Bidgood; HealthCare.gov; HealthSherpa]. Meanwhile, scam Web sites continue to lure customers from legitimate state exchanges, and some hackers have published tools designed to bring down the site with distributed denial of service attacks, although the use and effectiveness of such measures remains unclear [source: Lovett].

The NSA: No Strings Attached
2013's very own man who kicked the hornet's nest: Edward J. Snowden © Tobias Schwarz/Reuters/Corbis

In June 2013, a series of documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden sparked an international debate over how much latitude to extend the NSA in its surveillance activities. It also raised questions concerning how deeply in bed American phone and Internet service providers have been with government agencies; although providers report being legally forced to cooperate and keep mum, some companies voluntarily entered into lucrative contracts to provide data to government agencies [sources: Savage; Schlesinger].

Beyond the NSA, the revelations also shone a light on the ways other agencies, which are governed by a hodgepodge of laws, regulations and oversight, use metadata to play connect the dots. Metadata is data about data; it doesn't involve content, but can include information such as dates, call durations and phone numbers [sources: Savage; Schlesinger].

The CIA, for example, paid AT&T $10 million per year to search its databases for phone numbers associated with terrorists overseas. Because AT&T blocked the information of any American who might have been on the receiving end of such a call, the contract did not violate the agency's restriction against gathering intelligence concerning the "domestic activities of U.S. persons." However, given that the FBI could subpoena such information and choose to share it with the agency, the lines appear more penciled-in than inked [source: Savage].

3-D Printing Expands in All Directions
ROBOY, a humanoid robot developed by the University of Zurich's Artificial Intelligence Lab, shakes hands with his human counterpart on June 21, 2013. By using 3D-printing technology, ROBOY was developed within only nine months. © Erik Tham/Corbis

Almost 30 years after its 1984 debut, 3-D printing is busting out all over. The intervening progress has seen the technology develop from a narrow, specialized manufacturing gimmick to a revolutionary $2.7-billion industry [sources: Leckart; PC Magazine]. To take two extreme examples, bioprinters today can run off organics ranging from food to human tissue, while plans published online for 3-D-printed guns pose a challenge to existing gun laws and enforcement [source: Leckart].

Today, people print simple robots, functional cameras, self-portrait action figures, musical instruments, phone cases, toys, sports equipment and bits and bobs for around the house [sources: Carmichael; Nosowitz]. Sure, right now the products might look like something assembled in Minecraft, but the technology continues to improve and should become cheaper as more people adopt it. Scanners, for example, continue to grow more affordable, accessible and portable. One example, Structure Sensor, clips to an iPad.

As 3-D printable electronics become more common, we could one day soon print our own tablets, phones and household gadgets. And as prices drop, the technology could revolutionize the making and distributing of life-saving devices like simple water filters or self-closing pit latrines. Our plastic-fantastic future begins today.


10 Things That Didn't Exist 10 Years Ago That We Now Can't Live Without

10 Things That Didn't Exist 10 Years Ago That We Now Can't Live Without

Time flies in the age of the internet. HowStuffWorks looks at 10 things that weren't around just 10 years ago.

Author's Note: 2013's Biggest Tech Moments

Events in the tech world piled up with alarming speed as I wrote this article. For some technologies, the year felt like an incremental step forward, one of many in the years and decades spent under development; for others, it seemed like a blooming, booming bonanza. I can only hope I managed to catch the highlights as they flew through my butterfly net.

Robotic cars worried me, and proliferating cameras and sensors piqued my paranoia, but in the end the two techs that tantalized me most were 3-D printing and Google Glass. I'm interested to see if the latter takes off. On the one hand, augmented reality offers endless potential to alter our lives and our environments, right down to creating consensual reality. On the other, it might just be too soon for such a gadget to catch on. Maybe it will fail; maybe someone else will come up with a better alternative. Then again, there's always the middle option, the curse of the Bluetooth headset: damnation by association.

Related Articles


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