The tiny technologies that could redefine the future

Gartner's new Hype Cycle report shows that many small, unimpressive technologies can be combined to bring about futuristic realities. Here's a look.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

I love the smell of hype in the morning.

The fun thing about writing about technology is that you get a first look at emerging technology -- tech that could very well change the world.

The challenging thing about writing about technology? Every new piece of tech is touted as world-changing -- even if it's just a new paint job.

(One of these days, you will attend a ZDNet Reader Meetup in which I will talk your ear off about the word "revolutionary.")

Market research firm Gartner has a new Hype Cycle report out, which analyses emerging technologies to see what's matured and what's still in gestation.

The graduates of Hype University, according to Gartner? Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), 3-D printing and social analytics.

Newly matriculated students? Big Data, the Internet of Things, in-memory computing and strategic business capabilities.

"The Hype Cycle graphic has been used by Gartner since 1995 to highlight the common pattern of over-enthusiasm, disillusionment and eventual realism that accompanies each new technology and innovation," the firm says. Indeed.

Six big trends are emerging, according to the firm:

1.) Any device, anywhere. We've got BYOD in the enterprise, but do all platforms support everything? Not yet. It will take BYOD tech, hosted virtual desktops, HTML5, the cloud, tablet computers and advancements in silicon anode batteries to make it really happen. (My take: we're already here.)

2.) A smart planet. (Kind of like the one imagined by our sister site, SmartPlanet.) A world in which a connected technology layer is added over everything. Autonomous vehicles, mobile robots, M2M tech, mesh networks, sensor advancements and improvements to big data, complex-event processing and telematics are needed. It's perhaps the most complex item in this list. (My take: given the magnitude, will we ever truly realize this?)

3.) Global scale computing. Big data analytics with "nearly infinite" resources and scale need quantum computing, the cloud, in-memory database management and more to help companies learn more than ever and battle fraud without borders. (My take: we're here. We just need to find better reasons to leverage it.)

4.) The human layer. The "smart planet" imagined above wouldn't be so intelligent in practice if we needed a hefty manual to use it. Better ways to interact with electronics -- through augmented reality, near-field communications tech, gestures, translation, biometrics and speech recognition will help the digital and natural worlds get closer to each other -- perhaps most obviously in the largest, most impersonal enterprises. (My take: this one's the most underrated. Making technology intuitive and pleasurable to use is too often ignored because the benefits aren't easily quantified.)

5.) Currency. It's always been silly that, in an electronic world, we exchange paper and metal money. Turning that into bits and bytes and transmitting it across the air is not far behind. (My take: most currency technologies falter when they fail to spread the benefit widely enough. Exhibit A: restaurants that refuse to accept credit cards.)

6.) From digital to physical. Not everything can exist virtually, but the virtual can become physical with three-dimensional printers. Is the technology ready to print off tools and toys at home? Give it five years, Gartner says. (My take: this matters a lot, but only for a small group. I bet most people will live their lives without ever being directly impacted by this technology.)

I've been covering these technologies for several years, and the common thread among them is connectivity -- not only in technology, mind you, but in what it takes to reach maturation. Like the emergence of the smartphone, the emergence of most of these trends require several different components and technologies to come together at once.

Smart appliances and homes require manufacturers to build in connectivity and show consumers it's beneficial. Big data requires vendors such as SAP to show enterprises that there are savings (or competitive advantages) in all that computing muscle. And natural user experiences require us to forget everything we've learned about how to interact with technology over the last 30-plus years. It's never just the technology.

Taken one-by-one, these technologies are easily doable but unimpressive. As a whole, they're too large to comprehend -- but eye-opening. Three cheers for the early adopters who take the first leap.

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