Technological change is hurtling us into a world where man and machine are more closely knit than ever before. From virtual reality headsets in the home to drones hovering on every street corner as self-driving cars cut about on the roads below, the future is a lot closer than you may think. In fact there are plenty of bleeding-edge tech developments already here for you to own, right now. Here are just a few.
Despite virtual reality being around since the gaming headsets of the nineties, 2016 will be the year it really changes the world. A tidal wave of headsets that take people into other worlds will begin to flood the shops, from Facebook owned Oculus Rift and HTC owned Vive to Sony's PlayStation VR and Microsoft's HoloLens. Each responds to head movements so the wearer can look around in a virtual world, transporting them anywhere the imagination can create.
But it's not just about high-end dedicated headsets. Google has released its Cardboard headset, which is just that, featuring a fold up box and two lenses that convert a smartphone into a virtual reality headset. This uses the phone's motion sensors, processors and display to let the wearer move about in virtual worlds.
Thanks to YouTube filling up fast with 360-degree videos, there's plenty of content to enjoy using Cardboard already. From £4 on eBay it's silly not to give it a try.
Samsung has a similar offering with its more expensive Gear VR, but this only works on a few handsets and is limited to Samsung selected content.
Mind Control Gaming
The keyboard and mouse control combo has been around since the sixties and even touchscreens are old hat now. The future is all about using your mind to directly interface with machines. That future is already beginning to appear with robot limbs being controlled by brainwaves and, more accessibly, gaming by thought.
Scientists have managed to send thoughts across the globe via connected brain wave reading equipment. The future controls of the mind will be far more complex than now but for the time being there's plenty of fun to be had with mind reading.
One of the big names in brain wave reading, using EEG and ECG, is Emotiv. This company has a headset, Epoc, that's capable of recognising thoughts for controls as well as emotions, paving the way for virtual avatars that free the housebound and the less physically able.
Another is the NeuroSky MindWave which comes with 79 apps for mind exercise or straight gaming fun, all controlled with thought alone.
Gone are the days of holographic cards that let you see an object from different angles by turning it. Now phones can do that, with anything on the display. Admittedly only one mainstream phone does it right now, the Amazon Fire Phone. Using a host of cameras that track the user's eyes it adapts the screen to look around objects as the phone is moved. A neat trick but real holographics are far more impressive.
The real advancements being made are in plasma lasers, which can display floating objects mid-air. Yes, just like Star Wars. Aerial Burton is the company pushing boundaries with midair floating light, thanks to short, repeated firing of these plasma lasers. Combine these with cameras that pick up gesture controls and the future will really be just like Iron Man's house, everywhere.
Tracking what we eat using our smart devices is making food apps like MyFitnessPal into multi-million dollar companies. While keeping an eye on diet is important for overall health, inputting everything can prove too much to maintain realistically. Apps do offer quick barcode scanning options and myriad pre-stored foods to quick select, but it's still a hassle. The future is in auto tracking.
Companies are all racing for the Holy Grail of food tracking, a smart system that can recognise what's been eaten and automatically log that into the user's profile. Beyond the heart rate trackers currently on smartwatches there are bioimpedance sensors which may soon be smart enough to track blood sugar level and, as such, food content data.
BitBite is an ear-worn Indiegogo project that promises to track eating using Bluetooth, microphone and other sensors. The idea is to slow eating for a better digestion. It also means you can say what you're eating and it'll work out the calories and log it for you. And this is just the beginning.
We already have scales available now that work with an app to help track weight too. There have never been fewer excuses to live any way but healthily.
Touch controls have taken us from the days of buttons into the age of icons, but the next evolution is in gesture controls. That time is already here. Some smartphones, computers and even cars can now recognise hand gestures.
Imagine you're driving and need to turn down the radio. Rather than looking away from the road to find and grab the dial, you can simply pinch your fingers together in the air and twist to turn up and down a virtual volume dial. This is currently in the BMW 7 Series where it works well to keep driver's eyes and concentration on the road for a safer experience.
On smartphones gestures like placing a palm over the screen to clear a call are already here. Using the cameras on your laptop it's possible to control music and more using gestures thanks to smart app algorithms. The future will see sensors in homes that let use control everything with hand movements, blending the virtual and physical worlds seamlessly.
Right now there's even an armband from Thalmic Labs called Myo, which allows you to turn gestures into controls for over 100 apps including PowerPoint, iTunes, web browsers and more.
Tracking, recording and monitoring health data is one of the most popular trends right now. From smartwatches and phones that monitor steps and calories, to skin sensors that keep doctors alerted to a patient's health, the future is in monitoring. By monitoring our bodies, action can be taken to better maintain them.
The future will see all health metrics tracked and transmitted to our doctors for round-the-clock care. But right now anyone can get healthier by strapping on an activity tracker and simply moving more.
The Garmin Vivofit 2 is a cheap and easy way to get started with all your data sent to your phone and an alert to make you move when stagnant too long. The best part? Its battery lasts an entire year so you don't need to ever take it off.
The day were we all drive autonomous cars is already looming. Cars can now steer to keep us in lane, brake automatically and even park for us. Once the laws change it's only a matter of time before all cars have the option to drive for us, while we relax and catch up on the news or watch a film, taking back that time from the daily commute.
Right now the Tesla Model S has an Auto Pilot feature. This allows the driver to relax a bit as the car steers, brakes and even changes lane (with a tap of an indicator) while on the motorway. Google is working on cars that have no steering wheel or pedals. Seems scary now but future generations will look back in amazement that humans were allowed to control these high-speed rolling weapons.
While it all seems futuristic, we already have robot vacuum cleaners autonomously waltzing about homes, the future's closer than you may think.
Robots are becoming so advanced they're even being given emotional expressions and being left to look after the elderly in trials. But all that bleeding edge tech is also filtering down to consumer attainable bots. That's right, amazing robot toys.
To coincide with the launch of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, toy company Sphero created a BB-8 bot that is controlled by a smartphone and voice as it rolls about and 'talks'.
If that's all a bit too simple there are even options to build your own robot. One example uses solar power to keep the little droid alive.
Drones may have started out as solely robotic planes for spying and destruction but they've become so much more. Now that quadcopters like the DJI Phantom 3 or more affordable Syma are accessible to everyone. These have built-in cameras for long-range flight, video recording and photography from whole new perspectives.
Thanks to self-levelling flight most drones are easily flown from a dedicated smartphone app or bespoke controller. Drones have been responsible for saving lives by finding lost people, discovering new species and will even be trawling
Mars in the not too distant future.
There are plenty of drone options out there. You just need to decide are you going to be a hobbyist or one of the new generation of photographers and videographers that takes to the skies for the best shot.