Jetpacks, Drones and Virtual Reality: Technology to Watch for in 2016 | NBC Chicago
Holiday Gift Guide 2016

Holiday Gift Guide 2016

Jetpacks, Drones and Virtual Reality: Technology to Watch for in 2016

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The world of technology is rife with opportunity, but which good ideas will become great devices in 2016? Here’s a look at the gadgets that could shape our lives in the months ahead.

    JETPACKS

    You may have seen footage recently of a man with a jetpack soaring around the Statue of Liberty. And although you can't get one — yet — that could change in the coming year, thanks to rival companies that hope to put personal jetpacks on the market.

    Martin Jetpack, born in 1998 from the dream of a New Zealand college student, plans to make jetpacks available to first responders in 2016. Funded mostly by private investors, the company developed a prototype cleared for manned test flights in 2013 by the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority.

    Describing its brainchild as "the world's first practical jetpack," Martin Jetpack envisions "potential usage spanning search and rescue, military, recreation and commercial applications, both manned and unmanned," according to its website.

    The company's customizable First Responder Jetpack will be available in the second half of 2016 for $200,000. According to Martin Jetpack, the device is meant to help with firefighting, rescue missions, border patrol, disaster relief, pipeline inspections and other emergency services.

    Martin Jetpack agreed in November to provide Dubai Civil Defense with 20 jetpacks and two simulators.

    Also debuting in 2016 is the Martin Jetpack Experience, a simulation conducted in a "closely controlled flight environment" with help from an instructor on the ground. The simulator is meant to mimic the experience of flying a jetpack and is intended for the "hospitality and tourism sector," according to the company's website.

    Personal jetpacks won't be far behind. Martin Jetpack plans to roll out a recreational device by 2017 but emphasizes that "the aircraft will only be produced when internal and external safety and reliability standards are met."

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    Safety features will include a ballistic parachute system, along with a pilot module and landing gear to protect the operator. The device, made mostly of carbon fiber, epoxy, foam and aluminum, has a specially designed aircraft engine and two duct fans that provide lift. It can cover about 30 miles and sustain a flight time of 30 minutes, according to the company. Maximum speed is roughly 45 mph, with a cruising speed of 35 mph and a recommended altitude of 500 feet.

    The jetpack's "target price" will be under $150,000 and requires a $5,000 deposit, which puts interested buyers on a waiting list.

    Martin Jetpack's device is rivaled by that of California-based Jetpack Aviation, the company behind the Statue of Liberty flight that garnered national attention in November.

    The model being tested, the JB-9, "is small enough to sit in the back seat of a car but powerful enough to fly thousands of feet high," according to the company, which boasts "the world's only true jetpack" powered by twin jet engines.

    Although it's unclear when a model could be commercially available, Jetpack Aviation says on its website "the whole team is dedicated to bringing a real JetPack to market." The company aims to showcase the JB-9 at flight shows internationally and is developing a next-generation model designed to climb 10,000 feet and travel 100 mph. Flight time will be limited to about 10 minutes, according the company's website.

    Jetpack Aviation says it's also "in discussions with several parties about developing a JetPack racing series" — think NASCAR for jetpacks.

    VIRTUAL REALITY

    As virtual reality comes to the forefront, technology expert Lon Seidman wonders, "What’s the experience going to be like?"

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    Industry frontrunner Oculus VR — bought by Facebook this year for $2 billion — plans to launch its Windows-compatible virtual reality system in the first quarter of 2016, the company has announced. When hooked up to a Windows 10 PC, Oculus Rift will allow users to stream Xbox One games in virtual reality, according to CNET. An Xbox controller and camera will track body movements, and users will don a headset that could cost $1,500.

    While Oculus may have the name recognition, Seidman said industry experts are more impressed with competitor HTC, which will launch its Vive headset in 2016. The technology, designed for computer games, will give users a 360-degree virtual experience. Sensors tracking head rotation and body location will allow gamers to walk around inside their virtual worlds, according to HTC.

    Also in the mix is PlayStation VR, developed by Sony and formerly known as Project Morpheus. The virtual reality headset will work in conjunction with PlayStation 4 and is set to launch in the first half of 2016. According to PlayStation, head movements and controller location will be "reflected in the game's images in real time." It will retail for about $500 and is expected to sell two million units in its first year, Fortune reports.

    Technology research group TrendForce predicts 14 million virtual reality devices will be sold in 2016. While virtual reality will find a niche in the gaming industry, it could ultimately become a "legitimate entertainment option" stretching to the silver screen, according to CNET.

    DRONES

    Drones have dropped bombs, scouted fires and rescued puppies. They've also become wildly popular among hobbyists, topping gift lists during the 2015 holiday season. Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration said they expect "hundreds of thousands" of drones will be gifted this month.

    Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, drones are operated by remote control or onboard computers and often equipped with cameras, making them appealing to filmmakers, realtors and journalists seeking aerial footage. The NFL is also experimenting with drones and obtained permission from the FAA in September to film practices.

    Seidman said he expects drones to continue gaining traction in 2016.

    "I think we are going to see a lot of consumer and industrial applications, more autonomy and falling prices," Seidman said. "It's amazing how far they've come in a short period of time."

    As drone popularity surges, new regulations are in place. The FAA announced Dec. 14 that all recreational drones weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds must be registered for a $5 fee, to be waived through Jan. 20, 2016.

    Hobbyists who acquire drones before Dec. 21 will need to register them by Feb. 19, 2016. Drones obtained after Dec. 21 must be registered before flying outdoors for the first time, according to the new FAA guidelines. Registration is valid for three years and applies to all drones in a hobbyist’s fleet.

    Dozens of consumer models are on the market already, including several by industry leader DJI. GoPro will enter the market in 2016 with the launch of its highly anticipated Karma drone. Although 3D Robotics' Solo drone features wireless GoPro streaming, Karma will be the first UAV produced directly by GoPro. The company says it will give away 100 drones at launch.

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    Online drone delivery options are also in the works. Google hopes to debut its Project Wing service in 2017, and Amazon has explored the idea of 30-minute drone deliveries for Prime subscribers. Wal-Mart, too, has expressed interest in using drones to deliver orders and asked U.S. regulators in October for permission to begin testing the technology.

    HOVERBOARDS

    Otherwise known as self-balancing electric scooters, the device made famous by "Back to the Future" went from concept to reality in 2015.

    While self propelled, hoverboards aren't actually airborne. They balance on two wheels and respond to foot pressure, changing speed as you lean back and forth. Hoverboards range in price from $300 to $1,500, and in this case, you might get what you pay for.

    While sought-after, the devices have been cause for concern amid reports of self-combustion.

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    Federal authorities are investigating a string of recent hoverboard fires — about a dozen in as many states. Most ignited while the devices were plugged in and charging, likely the result of overheated lithium-ion batteries.

    "They are very power dense and thus can be dangerous if the electronics and engineering controlling charging are not well implemented," Seidman explained. "As these cheap knockoffs are cutting corners to hit a price point, this is what can happen."

    A class-action lawsuit filed days before Christmas singles out popular hoverboard brand Swagway, which did not immediately comment but said previously it met all the safety criteria of Amazon, which yanked several brands — including Swagway — from its online marketplace.

    Overstock.com halted the sale of hoverboards entirely and offered refunds to customers who purchased them. Major airlines have prohibited hoverboards, and some 15,000 devices have been seized at the U.K. border.

    Amid the fallout, the Consumer Technology Association announced a ban on hoverboards at the January 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the largest event of its kind in the U.S., CNBC reports.

    Seidman called the self-combusting hoverboards "a great example of the commoditized nature of tech these days" and said it could be a challenge to regulate the burgeoning market.

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    "There are so many knock-offs that were rushed to market with cheap components that cause the issues we're seeing out there," he explained. "With Amazon, eBay, AliExpress, etc. all making it very easy for Chinese electronics factories to sell goods direct to U.S. consumers for low prices, I think we'll see a lot more of this kind of thing in the future, unfortunately."

    While Fortune predicted in November hoverboards would "go mainstream" in 2016, Seidman said safety concerns could deal a blow to the industry.

    "I am sure this will impact sales," he said the day the lawsuit was filed, "especially for the legit brands that are now paying the price for their cheap competitors who knocked off their designs."

    APPLE PRODUCTS

    A dominant force in the industry, Apple continues to push the creative envelope.

    The company's quest to build a slimmer iPhone could soon make your earbuds obsolete. According to a report cited by USA Today, the iPhone 7 could be too thin to support a traditional headphone jack, requiring users to enlist the help of Bluetooth or buy a Lightning port adapter.

    Eliminating the jack — and the motherboard components that go along with it — would cut costs and allow for a bigger battery, according to Seidman, who said he "wouldn’t be surprised if they did that" in 2016.

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    That aside, Seidman said he doesn't expect any major iPhone upgrades in 2016, since even a trailblazer like Apple is "limited by the technology" that's available. Because the company has been releasing phones on an annual basis, Seidman said to expect the iPhone 7 in September.

    The technology to watch, he said, is Apple TV and competitors such as Amazon Prime Video, which allow subscribers to stream movies and TV shows from the Internet.

    "You might see them pushing the cable industry harder," he explained. "I think you’re going to see companies like Apple act more like cable companies, where you can a-la-carte choose which channels you want to watch."

    A spokesperson for Apple declined to comment on what's in the works.

    SELF-DRIVING CARS

    Driverless technology is ever-developing. Seidman said Tesla, which has less to lose than higher-profile manufacturers, will likely "push the hardest" in terms of putting that technology into practice.

    Tesla’s autopilot feature allows cars to park, steer, change lanes and avoid collisions on their own. According to the Chicago Tribune, the technology works in concert with advanced cruise control, which allows cars to maintain a certain distance from other vehicles by automatically speeding up and slowing down in traffic.

    Google has also been an industry leader, with its self-driving model in the works since 2009. The prototype is equipped with a series of sensors that can detect surrounding objects — from cars and pedestrians to road debris and animals — at a distance of up to two football fields.

    Google’s modified Lexus SUVs and specially designed self-driving models are being tested in California and Texas, where they’ve already clocked more than a million miles. Google hopes to expand to other areas of the country and run pilot programs to see how ordinary people would take advantage of driverless cars.

    Another tech company, Comet Robotics, aims to bring self-driving cars to 30 U.S. cities by the end of 2016, according to a report published by the New York Observer. Based in Michigan, the company envisions driverless buses that can carry up to 70 people. Public transit trials are planned at the University of Southern Florida in Tampa, as well as two other Florida cities, Seattle, and Greenville, South Carolina.

    Comet Robotics is also working with the U.S. Army on a pilot program to bring "ground mobile robots" to military bases, according the company's website. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point may be among the first to test the technology.

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    Commercially, however, Seidman said most automakers are likely to pace themselves in the coming year.

    "You might see updates to the software to give (cars) more functionality," Seidman said. "If they have the ability to do it, they’ll slowly upgrade the cars to do more."

    He said most vehicles "can do a lot more" than what's on the market, but legal and ethical questions have slowed the application of driverless features. A self-driving car might, for instance, have to choose between protecting a passenger and avoiding a pedestrian.

    "If a baby carriage is in front of the car, do you take out the baby carriage or do you drive off a cliff?" he wondered. "Those are real questions and we have to answer those."

    There's also concern over whether automated features will actually work the way they're supposed to. California has drafted rules requiring drivers to stay behind the wheel until testing confirms driverless vehicles are safe and reliable.

    AFFORDABLE DEVICES

    Less discussed but perhaps wider reaching is the rapid declining cost of technology, according to Seidman, who said you can now purchase a "workable PC" for $99 or a Google Chromebook for $150. Chromebooks listed in Google's online store range from $149 to upwards of $999, with most models priced between $249 and $300.

    "Families that couldn’t afford any computer at all can now get one for $99 that’s something usable," Seidman explained. "You’ve got something very interesting, especially for families that are trying to reduce the digital divide in their own homes."

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    He said lower prices are putting better technology in the hands of more people, including students, who often have to shell out hundreds of dollars for a single textbook.

    Seidman said the challenge will be "convincing people that $99 computers really are useful" when they’re accustomed to spending hundreds, if not thousands, for a quality machine.

    "The cost is going to go across every sector — education, consumers, business — that, I think, is the biggest thing that no one’s really talking about," he said.