Inevitably around this time of year I'm invited to come on TV to share tech predictions for the coming year.  I get the sentiment, it seems like everyone is eager to offer some thought or idea as to what our future holds… and honestly, I wish I was smart enough to see the future!  I'm not though, and so this year what I decided to do was share a couple of things that really inspired me from 2014, and something that really has my eye going in to 2015.

    2014 was full of interesting tech stories, but the two the two things that stand out most to me are Oculus Rift and 3D printing.  Oculus Rift, of course, was the first truly consumer accessible Virtual Reality (VR) headset to hit the market… even though it is still billed as a developer kit.  Sony has since announced that it has a project in the works, Project Morpheus, which promises to take gaming to a whole new level.  As I mentioned in my spot back in August though, the gaming application isn't what has my attention.  The big "ah ha" moment for me was the way it could help people.  The gentlemen at the University of Tennessee that introduced me to Oculus Rift has Parkinson's disease and his comment was that you'll never get people to show up to a support group.  The reasoning is that people don't want to see what the disease is going to do to their bodies as it progresses.  Reading about it is one thing, but seeing others further down the road than you can be an extremely depressing experience, as you would imagine.  What David told me though, was that through virtual worlds, diseases sufferers could shed their earthly bodies and represent themselves however they wanted with avatars.  This allowed people to come and share and help one another, yielding a much more positive experience for attendees.  WOW.

   3D printing certainly wasn't new in 2014 (here's a spot I did on it in 2012 actually), but what was new in 2014 was the accessibility to it.  3D printer prices have been falling like crazy in recent years, and in the process, "maker spaces" are popping up all over the place.  I had the pleasure of speaking at the Episcopal School of Knoxville a few months ago and was given a tour of their maker space.  So cool!  Can you imagine having access to a 3D printer when you were in middle school?  What is exciting to me about this is the very real possibility that we could have a micro-manufacturing revolution here in the United States (think of it as the second machine age), and it will be led by the children of today.  As adults, we have self-imposed boundaries to the way we think.  Somewhere along the way, we stop dreaming and stop imagining like we did when we were kids.  Turn the kids loose on design and architecture at a young age and see what they invent!

     Now, 2015.  Back in September, a guy by the name of Dr Eagleman from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houstin, Texas, launched a Kickstarter project for a device that he, and fellow researchers call VEST (which was successfully funded on Oct 8th!).  VEST is both an acronym (Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer), and a physical thing and works off the idea of sensory substitution.  It goes something like this; the device has an array of vibrating motors (think the motor in your cell phone that makes it vibrate when a call comes in) which can create vibration patterns across your torso.  The physical vest comes with a device, which when aided by your cell phone processing power, can translate sounds into vibration patterns.  Your brain can then be trained to interpret the vibration patterns, the way your ears help your brain translate vibrating sound waves, effectively allowing you to "hear" through your skin.  CRAZY!!  The initial pitch for the device is just that, a device that can help the hearing impared, much the way cochlear implants do today, but at a fraction of the cost.  

    Helping the hearing impared is just the beginning though.  I mention in the spot above that they're also doing experimentation around tapping the brains ability to take in lots of data and find statistical commonalities.  The example Dr Eagleman gave on a recent RadioLab episode is that perhaps we could send the body all the current stock market data, and perhaps the brain could decern some coming event, like maybe a particular market on the verge of crashing.  Pretty amazing huh?  Want to try it?  Some other researchers have put together an app for your phone that will allow you to do just that.  Check out Mumble! Basic, from Smart Vibes, which was featured recently in a Wired Magazine article named "Soon Your Tech Will Talk to You Through Your Skin".

    When you're done with hearing through your skin, try out seeing with your tongue!  The RadioLab episode entitled "Translation" also featured a segment called "Seeing in Tongues" that discusses technology that does just that.  It's a neat, neat time to be in technology!

–Dan Thompson

 

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