The 5 biggest tech trends to watch in 2016

The year is almost over — and what a year it was.

We were treated to plenty of surprising innovations in 2015 — phones, watches, cameras, tablets, laptops, games, virtual reality and augmented reality headsets, you name it. But more importantly, we saw companies lay a strong foundation for incredible things to come.

As we look ahead to 2016, here are the five biggest trends in technology you should keep your eye on.

Cars are becoming smarter, cleaner, and more independent.

Cars are becoming smarter, cleaner, and more independent.

YouTube/ Cambridge University

The future of cars is free from gas and human error.

In 2015, some of the world’s biggest car makers decided to invest in a future where ground transportation is largely electric and automated, which promises to make moving around safer for both humans and the planet.

In 2016, car companies will start laying the foundation for this future. Tesla, which has largely driven this renewed interest in electric, driverless cars, will continue work on its battery factory in Nevada while also unveiling its first $35,000 electric car (the Model 3) late next year. By that time, GM’s long-awaited $30,000 Bolt EV will begin production, and we hope to have learned more from secretive car startup Faraday Future, which we’ll be seeing at CES. It’s an exciting time for autos, and future plans will begin to take root in 2016.

Wearables are maturing and getting more useful.

Wearables are maturing and getting more useful.

Apple

Today’s wearables are just scratching the surface.

This year, we finally got our hands on Apple’s first-generation Watch, a device that many believed would prove “wearables” deserved to exist as a product category. It showed a lot of initial promise, but it ultimately left much to be desired. It’s useful, but not essential, especially for a device that needs to be charged daily. (This is a theme across most wearable devices, it seems.)

In 2016, we expect wearable devices to get more useful and more appealing — especially since hype seems to have died down for the category since 2013. Apple aims to introduce its second-generation Watch, which we’re hoping offers more utility in terms of first-party apps that take advantage of the Watch’s health or communication features. But in general, we’re expecting more unique features across other platforms like Android Wear, Google’s operating system for wearable devices that’s entering its third year on the market, and Pebble, with its growing line of e-paper smartwatches. And don’t forget about fitness trackers from companies like FitBit. We expect some new designs in 2016 to help them stay relevant in a sea of smartwatches.

 

Virtual reality will enter the mainstream and change everything.

Virtual reality will enter the mainstream and change everything.

Oculus VR

The Oculus Rift headset, above, comes with two moon-shaped hand controllers for manipulating objects in virtual reality.

Virtual reality isn’t just for games; it can take you anywhere and let you experience anything, even with friends. Three major headsets have been in development for some time, but they’ll finally be available for consumers starting next year.

The Oculus Rift headset, which has been in development since its landmark Kickstarter campaign in 2012, will finally be released for consumers in the first quarter of 2016 (though you’ll need a quality computer to run it). The HTC Vive headset, one of the coolest things I’ve ever tried, has been slightly delayed to sometime in 2016 because the Vive team apparently discovered “a very, very big technological breakthrough” late in the game that the company badly wants to implement in the first version… but it’s still coming! And Sony will also release a VR headset that’s compatible with the PlayStation 4 console, which is expected to launch in the first quarter of the year. By this time next year, we expect most people to finally “get” why virtual reality is such a big deal thanks to more content and a much wider audience.

Tablets, laptops and desktops will continue to converge.

Tablets, laptops and desktops will continue to converge.

Microsoft

Microsoft’s experimentation with Windows 10 hardware is inspiring other companies to make mobile devices that do desktop things.

Smartphones are probably the most important personal devices we own these days. There’s nothing else quite like them. But all the other computers that don’t fit in our pockets — desktops, laptops, tablets and hybrids — are all beginning to converge.

This year, we saw Microsoft put Windows 10 in all sorts of devices: tablets that convert into laptops, laptops that convert into tablets, smartphones that turn monitors into full PCs — even Xbox One is now powered by Windows 10. Both Apple and Google have followed Microsoft’s lead, building tablet-laptop hybrids that run their mobile operating systems. But while critics are lukewarm on Apple’s iPad Pro and Google’s Pixel C tablet, the important trend to note is that Apple, Google and Microsoft all want to make their mobile offerings more functional for both work and play, as a way of appealing to the mobile-first culture.

Cord cutting will keep getting easier and better.

Cord cutting will keep getting easier and better.

Apple/Tech Insider

The movement to ditch expensive cable TV subscriptions gained a ton of traction in 2015. Premium networks HBO and Showtime offered their own standalone streaming services; the introductions of PlayStation Vue and Sling TV offered ways to let you watch live TV over the internet; cable networks Comcast and Verizon began testing ways to let you stream live TV without renting a cable box; Netflix got a ton of amazing new content; and so on, and so on.

It was an incredible year for cord-cutting, and it’s only going to get better next year. The new Apple TV, which just launched last month, offers its own App Store, which is already filling up with apps and services for streaming media content. And then there’s the rumored live TV service that Apple’s been apparently been working on for years now. But even if that doesn’t happen, the continuing move away from cable TV bundles will convince more networks and channels to put their content online for all to enjoy, which is great for customers who don’t want to pay for what they don’t watch.

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