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The Big Stories of 2016

December 19, 2016 | Comments

Sure, the smart home’s getting smarter and the Internet of Things (IoT) is growing by leaps and gigs. Those trends seem like gimmes as 2016 comes to a close — stuff one could’ve predicted back at the start of this very strange year.

But what went down that we didn’t see coming — or had an even bigger impact than we might’ve expected?

Here are our suggestions for the top developments of 2016:

VUI is the new GUI. (As in, Voice User Interface replacing Graphical User Interface — your mouth is the new mouse.) We knew Amazon’s Alexa program was improving to the point that Apple’s poor Siri had begun to look as relevant as an old Commodore 64 computer. but the leap that voice control has taken — with assists from both small firms pioneering this work in the smart home universe and big guns like Google — is nothing short of astonishing.

As recognition software moved well beyond the (notoriously low) threshold of consumer frustration, the number of voice-user-interfaced devices will grow exponentially — along with the attendant issues of what we call interoperability. In short, your home will soon likely need what amounts to its own IT specialist to ensure all this stuff works together.

Machine Learning Took a Big Leap — Quietly. While Uber was busily testing its self-driving cars, the folks at Google’s DeepMind gave the world a pretty startling demo of a program called AlphaGo. Google’s machine managed to beat the world’s top player at the game of Go four games to one. (For the uninitiated, Go is an ancient contest that’s vastly more complex than chess — and requires a level of deep “neural” learning that machines hadn’t previously been able to achieve.)

As the virtual mind become thoughtful, everything from “memory prosthetics” to “basic guaranteed income for us redundant humans” will enter the zeitgeist in 2017.

The IoT is Even More Vulnerable Than We Thought. OK, this might be a bit hyperbolic — the Big Brains have been warning us for a while that the more connected we become, the more virtual security becomes key. The big DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack of 2016 weaponized cheap webcams that were using sub-par default passwords and flooded a domain name server with requests, knocking out everything from Netflix to Twitter in a single, massive event. Was that attack a trial run?

Here’s hoping someone (or more likely, several someones) at CIA HQ and elsewhere are filling their days with the idea of securing that which is vulnerable — including the very power grid we rely on. Meanwhile, your home’s digital security will become ever more critical, and remote monitoring and troubleshooting options will become more important.

There’s a Lot of Smart Tech in the Big Box Stores — and It’s Not All Good. Wi-Fi solutions. Smart thermostats. Smoke detectors. Video doorbells. Wireless audio. Name it — everything one can think of in a smart home has a “do-it-yourself” option. All of this tech has the potential to get sideways in a hurry when installed improperly — or when it hasn’t been correctly secured from prying keyboards.

About that Wi-Fi — Meet Mesh. The world of “mesh Wi-Fi” arrived rather suddenly in 2016, and we saw a bevy of products that — although pricey — blew simple extender solutions right out of the water. (See our attempt at explaining "mesh" here.) Does this portend a wire-free future? Well, not completely — and not yet, anyway.

VR is Really Here. Anyone who’s tried virtual reality goggles in their most recent incarnation knows the possibilities for gaming (especially first-person shooters) and entertainment (especially … well, um, THAT kind of entertainment).

But beyond the novelty, the folks who want to show you the home of your dreams will be using those goggles as a traveling showroom. Want to imagine what your rec room would look like when it becomes a custom home theater? Put on the headset and dream big.

And AR is Here, Too. Pokemon Go’s “augmented reality” — adding virtual gaming characters to real-world settings — faded as quickly as it arrived. That doesn’t mean that AR will stay gone — you can bet the next iteration will bring us an even flashier fad.

High-Res Got Even Higher. Yep, those 4K screens are just beginning to see enough content to justify the hype — but as color gamut and lights and darks improve, the high-res visual experience is moments away from Truly Astonishing. Add to that the growth in immersive audio in home theater and lossless streaming formats, and you’ve got a sound experience that’ll fool the biggest vinyl purist you can find.