The future is anything but certain, but that doesn't stop Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) from predicting what technologies consumers will want over next few years. The company's current innovations are already influencing industries -- and probably your future.
Through the looking glass
You may have heard about a little thing called Google Glass: a hands-free, voice-activated pair of computerized glasses. The glasses are the latest form of wearable computing, set for a consumer release at the end of this year. They transform everyday experiences and interactions into something that can be shared, recorded, and documented without missing a beat.
Google Glass enables users to take photos and videos at the moment of experience, get directions overlaid on top of the real world, stream live moments, and send calls and texts with minimal device interaction. Google Glass is more than a gimmick or a science-fiction trinket -- it's a technological contrivance that blurs the lines between technology and life.
That may seem slightly dramatic, but almost every technological device that is truly revolutionary seems overhyped and oversold at its beginning. Take a step back 20 years ago and imagine asking your phone to remind you about your latest appointments, or reaching for a device in your backpack that holds thousands of books inside it, or another device in your pocket that can tell you where you are anywhere in the world and connect you to any person. All of these are now ho-hum technologies that we now take for granted, but they were, and still are, amazing innovations.
Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) Siri lets us talk to computers and have them (admittedly, not always perfectly) answer us back and help us find information. Microsft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Kinect gives us control of computerized devices without even touching a screen, like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. But a virtual personal assistant, gesture controls, and Kindle books don't paint the whole picture. For technology to truly improve our lives, it needs to get out of our way and simply work for us. With Google Glass, the company is attempting to do just that, by taking the technology out of our hands and allowing us to experience things as they used to be, before we had to grab our phone to remember the memory.
But Google's tech ambitions go much further than wearable computers. The company wants its technology to save lives, and it's set its sights on driverless cars to make help make that happen.
Where would you like to go today?
Google's widely publicized self-driving car has driven more than 300,000 miles since 2010, without a single computer-related accident (although a few minor incidents have occurred at the hands of human drivers). Cars that park themselves have been available for years, and a growing number of vehicles can already detect pedestrians and other vehicles, automatically speed up or slow down vehicles on the highway, and stop a vehicle when a driver isn't paying attention. The next step in innovation is combining all of those technologies into one system.
Google's pursuit of car autonomy has already influenced the automotive industry. General Motors, Audi and Toyota are all working on their own autonomous vehicles, and as of the end of last year, Nevada, Florida, and California allowed Google to use driverless cars on their public roads.
It's tempting to think of self-driving cars as technology for technology's sake, but the head of auto testing at Consumer Reports told CNN that computer driven cars could significantly decrease traffic deaths, which in 2011 totaled more than 30,000 in the United States. Google co-founder Sergey Brin believes self-driving cars will be commercially available in the next five years and that they will save lives by reducing the amount of preventable accidents.
The here and now
A computer that you wear or a car that drives you around may be too much for some people to swallow right now. After all, giving up control or being too connected to our devices does raise some obvious concerns. But we're all taking baby steps toward this future, even if it's subtly.
Google just released a new feature in its search app called Google Now, which acts like a personal assistant for Android users. In contrast to Apple's Siri, Google Now's job is to tell you important things before you need to know them. As you get ready for work, it tells you how likely you are to hit traffic on your drive. It can also tell you if your flight's delayed or if your UPS package has shipped. It's designed to help Android users engage with their lives in a better way, through technology.
Google Now is just a small step moving us closer to a future where technology works for us but stays hidden in the background. Google is trying to create technology that helps us know what we want to know, share what we want to share, and be where we want to be -- without being seen. You may not want all the technology the company's working on right now, but one day it'll probably be part of our world, and we'll hardly give it a second thought.