Here we go again: Virtual reality, now called “the metaverse,” will be a thing. So will the smart home.
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Each year, I look ahead at what’s new in consumer technology to guide you through what you might expect to buy — and what will most likely be a fad.
Many of the same “trends” appear again and again because, to put it simply, technology takes a long time to mature before most of us actually want to buy it. That applies this year as well. Some trends for 2022 that tech companies are pushing are things you have heard of before.
A chief example is virtual reality, the technology that involves wearing goofy-looking headgear and swinging around controllers to play 3-D games. That is expected to be front and center again this year, remarketed by the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other techies as “the metaverse.”
Another buzzy category will be the so-called smart home, the technology to control home appliances by shouting voice commands at a speaker or tapping a button on a smartphone. The truth is, the tech industry has tried to push this kind of technology into our homes for more than a decade. This year, these products may finally begin to feel practical to own.
Another recurring technology on this list is digital health gear that tracks our fitness and helps us diagnose possible ailments. And automakers, which have long talked about electric cars, are beginning to accelerate their plans to meet a nationwide goal to phase out production of gas-powered cars by 2030.
Here are four tech trends that will invade our lives this year.
For more than a decade, technologists have dreamed of an era when our virtual lives play as important a role as our physical realities. In theory, we would spend lots of time interacting with our friends and colleagues in virtual space, and as a result we would spend money there, too, on outfits and objects for our digital avatars.
“We’re in a world where people several times per day send out an image reflecting themselves,” said Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist who has written extensively about the metaverse. “The next phase takes that visual representation and dimensionalizes it. You go into an environment and express yourself through an avatar.”
That sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. But throughout Year 2 of the pandemic, a critical mass of factors came together to make the metaverse more realistic, Mr. Ball said.
For one, the technology got better. Last year, Facebook announced that it had renamed itself Meta after shipping 10 million units of its virtual-reality headset, the Quest 2, which was a milestone.
For another, many of us were willing to splurge on our digital selves. Hordes of investors bought NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, which are one-of-a-kind digital objects purchased with cryptocurrency. Eminem and other investors invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to join a virtual yacht club.
The origins. The word “metaverse” describes a fully realized digital world that exists beyond the one in which we live. It was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” and the concept was further explored by Ernest Cline in his novel “Ready Player One.”
An expanding universe. The metaverse appears to have gained momentum during the online-everything shift of the pandemic. The term today refers to a variety of experiences, environments and assets that exist in the virtual space.
Some examples. Video games in which players can build their own worlds have metaverse tendencies, as does most social media. If you own a non-fungible token, virtual-reality headset or some cryptocurrency, you’re also part of the metaversal experience.
How Big Tech is shifting. Facebook staked its claim to the metaverse last year, after shipping 10 million of its virtual-reality headsets and announcing it had renamed itself Meta. Google, Microsoft and Apple have all been working on metaverse-related technology.
The future. Many people in tech believe the metaverse will herald an era in which our virtual lives will play as important a role as our physical realities. Some experts warn that it could still turn out to be a fad or even dangerous.
There’s more to come this year. Apple plans to unveil its version of a virtual reality headset, which will look like a pair of ski goggles and, for computing power, rely on a separate computing device that is worn elsewhere on the body. Apple declined to comment.
Google has also developed virtual reality products for years, and Microsoft has offered a virtual reality headset for businesses and government agencies.
The metaverse could still turn out to be a fad, depending on what products emerge and who buys them. Carolina Milanesi, a consumer technology analyst for the consulting firm Creative Strategies, said she worried that it could become a reflection of the privileged few who can afford to treat their digital selves.
“The boating market is dominated by white upper-class middle-aged men,” she said. “Will we just transfer all of that into the metaverse?”
Over the last few years, smart home products like internet-connected thermostats, door locks and robotic vacuum cleaners made major progress. The devices became affordable and worked reliably with digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant and Apple’s Siri.
Yet the smart home, for the most part, has remained chaotic. Many smart home products didn’t work well with other technology. Some door locks, for example, worked only with Apple phones and not Androids; some thermostats were controlled by talking to Google Assistant and not to Siri.
The lack of compatibility has created long-term issues. An Apple-compatible lock isn’t useful for the family member or future tenant who prefers Android. It would also be more convenient one day if our home devices could actually talk to one another, like a washing machine telling a dryer that a large load was ready to be dried.
This year, the tech industry’s biggest rivals — Apple, Samsung, Google and Amazon — are playing nice to make the smart home more practical. They plan to release and update home technology to work with Matter, a new standard that enables smart home devices to talk to one another regardless of the virtual assistant or phone brand. More than 100 smart home products are expected to adhere to the standard.
“We’re all speaking a common language built on already proven technologies,” said Samantha Osborne, a vice president of marketing for SmartThings, the home automation company owned by Samsung.
This means that later this year, when you shop for a product like an automated door lock, look for a label indicating that the device is compatible with Matter. Then, in the future, your smart alarm clock may be able to tell your smart lights to turn on when you wake up.
Fitness gadgets like the Apple Watch and Fitbit, which help us track our movements and heart rate, keep getting more popular. So tech companies are experimenting this year with smaller wearable devices that gather more intimate data about our health.
Oura, a health tech company, recently introduced a new model of its Oura Ring, which is embedded with sensors that track metrics including body temperature to accurately predict menstruation cycles. This week at CES, a tech trade show in Las Vegas, Movano, another health tech start-up, unveiled a similar ring that stitches together data about your heart rate, temperature and other measures to inform a wearer about potential chronic illnesses.
Medical experts have long warned about the potential consequences of health tech. Without proper context, the data could potentially be used to misdiagnose illnesses and turn people into hypochondriacs. But if the widely sold-out Covid rapid test kits are any measure, more of us appear ready to be proactive in monitoring our health.
Last year, President Biden announced an ambitious goal: Half of all vehicles sold in the United States would be electric rather than gas-powered by 2030.
In response, major automakers are hyping their electric cars, including at CES this week. On Tuesday, Ford Motor announced plans to increase production of its F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck. Later this week, General Motors plans to unveil a battery-powered version of its Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck. Other carmakers, like Mercedes-Benz, have shared plans for electric cars to be released in coming years.
While there’s lots of marketing hype around electric cars, those of us looking for battery-powered vehicles this year will probably still gravitate toward Tesla, Ms. Milanesi said. That’s because we have yet to see widespread deployment of solar power and charging stations for electric cars, especially in more rural areas. Tesla has a head start because it has been rolling out charging stations for years, she said.
“There’s so much from an infrastructure perspective that needs to happen,” she said. “So it’s a lot of talk, but I don’t know how much of a reality.”