Technology writer Peter Griffin looks at the gadgets that will change your life — and glimpses into the future to see what might be coming next

Droning on

The gadget of the moment is the drone and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas tapped the zeitgeist. The exotic-looking collection unveiled last week focuses on aerial photography.

The Nixie is a lightweight drone developed by American physics researchers that wraps around your wrist like a watch. Unfold it and throw it away from you to see it hover, snap a photo of you from a distance and navigate its way back to you. It's an elegant alternative to the selfie stick.

The leader of the drones is the company DJI, which launched the Inspire 1 ($3750), a futuristic-looking drone that shoots smooth, shake-free video in "4K" quality - four times the resolution of the high-definition videos we watch.

DJI's older model, the Phantom 2 Vision+ is on sale in New Zealand ($1900) and set the bar for ease of use. The camera beams images to your smartphone screen so you see exactly what the camera sees, and you can use the drone's GPS chip to set a pre-determined flight path.


Most drones still rely on a fairly conventional handheld controller with a human pushing the levers. That will have to change if Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is to achieve his vision of cross-city courier deliveries via drone.

The Spiri Drone may be the answer. It has no controller but flies on a pre-determined path that relies on it connecting to GPS satellites to stay on track. The Spiri Drone also communicates with the ground and responds to voice commands so you can tell it what to do. Its Canadian developers plan to have it on sale by mid-year.

Home comforts

The whole "internet of things" revolution started with a blast of hot air. Two years ago, the smart thermostat company Nest wowed crowds at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with its hockey puck-shaped networked gadget, which lets you crank up the air conditioning at home - from your phone on the bus.

Nest is now owned by Google after last year's $4 billion acquisition and the $320 gadget is being given away to millions of Irish households which expect to cut their electricity bills by up to 20 per cent using the temperature-adjusting technology.

But Nest's plan to dominate the connected home hinges on its ability to "talk" to the other internet-enable devices in our lives, such as Kevo, a smart deadbolt for your front door you can unlock with a tap on your phone screen.

Talking wirelessly to Kevo ($450), Nest knows who is entering the home and will set the thermostat at a pre-selected temperature. Networked lightbulbs are all the rage, too.

Philips' Hue LED bulbs ($300 for a three-bulb pack) change colour to match the tone of a movie or mood.

Other bulbs debuted this year that let you extend wireless internet through your house and Nest crops up again - its smoke detectors talk to the Hue lightblubs, flashing lights if a wisp of smoke is detected.

Kitchen gadgets are also smartening up. Take Smarter's wi-fi coffee maker ($166). You can order a coffee from bed and get an alert on your phone when it is brewed. And beds are getting an overhaul. The ReST (responsive surface technology) bed monitors your sleeping patterns and body position using 18 sensors, changing the firmness and position of the mattress for your comfort. It will set you back $6460.

All these items are expected to arrive in New Zealand this year but decking out your entire house with networked gadgets will cost thousands.

A decade out, the cost will be radically reduced, but there's another problem - an emerging standards war reminiscent of the early 80s VHS versus Betamax battle. Everyone wants to be the one that networks all the gadgets together, from Apple with its Homekit, to Samsung and its SmartThings system to Honeywell, which is pushing yet another standard called Lyric.

Not all of these systems speak the same language, a situation that will need to change for the connected home to become a reality.

Wireless charging is the much-touted answer when it comes to powering up. Don't worry, you won't fry yourself in the process, the technology is safe and already in use for charging some models of smartphones over short distances.

On the road

Bid farewell to the bog standard car stereo. New cars will increasingly come with a display that runs applications for CarPlay, Apple's in-car operating system, or Android Auto, its Google-developed rival.

That ushers in the prospect of having all the apps available on your smartphone also appear on your dashboard. You could play your iTunes collection or check Gmail while stopped at the lights. Volkswagen will offer owners of new Golf cars the option of going Apple or Android this year with the ability to import their music collections, navigation and entertainment apps.

With Apple and Google in the smart watch game, the watch also has the potential to become your car key, offering remote start, door unlocking and flashing the headlights so you can find your car in a dark carpark.

Google's driverless cars have already racked up millions of miles on Californian roads with barely a single fender-bender to tarnish their driving record. Robots make better drivers than humans and the technology could save thousands of lives every year.

But the high cost of autonomous navigation systems and the regulatory changes required to unleash driverless cars on our roads puts their debut a decade away. In the meantime, cars are becoming smarter, helping you park and avoid crashes if not seeking to replace you at the steering wheel entirely.

BMW has unveiled its i3 luxury auto, equipped with ActiveAssist. Several cars already on the market in New Zealand will parallel park for you but BMW takes it a step further. Step out of the car at the entrance to a parking bay and the i3, using four laser sensors at the front, back and sides of the car and virtual mapping software, will park the car for you, without hitting anything on the way. BMW hopes to have i3s on the road with ActiveAssist within five years and, as they'll do the parking off main roads, the legal barriers will be greatly reduced.

Mercedes stole the show at the Consumer Electronics Show with its concept car, the F015 Luxury in Motion. A driverless car, it throws out most of the conventional design features. For example, if a robot is driving you, why have all the seats facing forward - they could instead face inwards, like in a train compartment. The silvery Merc is powered by a plug-in hydrogen fuel cell, which is competing with electric batteries as the future alternative to gas engines.

Virtually there

From the outside, virtual reality hasn't changed much - the chunky goggles are essential in recreating a 3D world view. But a revolution in 3D graphics rendering is powering a new generation of video games and movies that will be available this year.

Samsung will soon release the Gear VR, a virtual reality headset ($260) that works with its Galaxy Note 4 ($1100) to serve high-definition movies such as Marvel superhero flick Avengers: Age of Ultron. You don't need a big-screen TV if VR goggles can mimic a massive screen in front of your eyes.

Accelerometers, gyrometers and proximity sensors built into the Gear
VR also allow a bit of perspective in gaming, letting you move your head to see around you or lean forward to study things. The master of VR is Oculus, which helped develop the Gear VR for Samsung and played a starring role at the Consumer Electronics Show with a prototype of the Oculus Rift, VR goggles that have won rave reviews for their stunning image quality. They will debut this year, at between $260 and $500.

The $120 billion video games market is the natural home for virtual reality but movies may well prove the technology's killer app. Film-maker Jaunt VR is using 3D cameras to record in 360 degrees to create movies tailored to VR goggles - it demoed some VR scenes from Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies last week.

You can see why Facebook last year spent more than $2 billion buying Oculus. It too sees VR as the future of the social network.

But big ideas can swiftly come crashing down. Augmented reality glasses such as Google Glass were talking points last year but the company announced yesterday it was halting sales until it could develop a better version.

VR applications may seem frivolous, but the technology being perfected in games
and movies is tipped to play a wider role in the next decade in medicine, design and even warfare.

On the shelves now

Samsung gear S smart watch: It has a SIM card so can replace your phone, if you don't mind speaking into your wrist, Get Smart style. $499

Parrot Jumping Sumo: Forget faddish drones - the Sumo zips around the floor at up to 7km/h and can leap 80cm into the air. A little camera records all your stunts and beams the video to your smartphone. $240

Jabra Sport Pulse: The wireless headset allows you to listen to music while you jog and features a pulse sensor in the earbuds to track your pace and steps taken. $245

Alienware Alpha: Some of your favourite PC games delivered on the TV just like a PlayStation or Xbox console. Huge variety of downloadable games available on the Steam platform. $799

ChromeCast: Don't have as smart TV? That's fine, ChromeCast will beam content from a laptop, smartphone or tablet to any TV equipped with a HDMI port. $59

My 21st century invention wishlist

Personalised flight: I've wanted to fly since I was 5, watching the Los Angeles Olympics and that jetpack-wearing pilot cruise in and touch down on the stadium floor. Between the Martin Jetpack and the Hover Bike, Kiwis are having a decent crack at making it a reality. I remain convinced I'll be able to jetpack my way to work within 30 years, just in time for retirement.

Limitless energy: A visit to MIT's nuclear fusion reactor a couple of years ago gave me a taste of what could be achieved if scientists figure out how to sustain a fusion reaction on an ongoing basis. We would be talking about vast amounts of clean, cheap energy - an end to smoke-belching coal power plants and our addiction to oil. Lockheed Martin claims to have a prototype of a truck-sized fusion reactor in the works that it aims to have the military using within 10 years, and power stations 20 years out.

The productivity machine: Despite all the advances technology has gifted us since the rise of computers, we are working harder and longer than ever. Much of the menial work we undertake could be done by robots, which is why the likes of Google and Amazon are pouring billions into robotics acquisitions. Advances in artificial intelligence in the coming decades could take care of many of the tasks that require a more personal touch. The real answer is a human machine interface that gives you a back-up brain you can devote to the tasks you'd rather not do. Say hello to your more productive self.