Who Made Waves in 2016: A Look Back at a Big Year for Tech

With so many people lamenting the happenings of 2016, it’s always encouraging to look back on a year through the never-disappointing lens of technology development. These top-ten tech achievements of last year can help users move on to 2017 via self-distraction, or active involvement in shaping the new year.

Hit the road, headphone jack

No solar rotation escapes the influence of the ever-advancing tech giant Apple. This year the company took its minimalist design progression to new extremes, killing the headphone jack in the newly released iPhone 7 series. This was a disappointment to many users, and Apple’s 3.5mm-to-Lightning adapter only somewhat solves the problem as it forces would-be listeners to choose between charging the phone and quietly enjoying their favorite podcast.

Other notable features on the chopping block were the row of function keys on new MacBook Pro models (replaced by the Touch Bar) and various input slots on the same laptop model (SD card readers and USB were all replaced by Thunderbolt 3/USB-C slots).

A tablet for artists

A day before Apple’s new MacBook Pro event, its main hardware competitor Microsoft released the Surface Studio, a desktop often compared to the iMac in its design—but with the added ability to fold down into a drawing board.

The new addition to the Surface line comes with a Surface Dial device that offers specific functions when placed on the touch screen of the Studio. A low angle, touch-sensitive display, combined with the dial and a stylus Surface Pen combine into a dream workflow scenario for digital artists. Impressively, Microsoft didn’t stop there, focusing on usability details like rejecting accidental touches (think elbows) and decreasing latency for a natural pen/brush-to-paper flow.

Google returns to phones

Joining the versus-Apple hardware fray in 2016, Google’s Pixel smartphone made waves as a high-end rival to Apple’s top iPhones. Many reviewers have it outperforming the iPhone 7, noting the display, camera, performance and all-around design of the Pixel as top of its class.

The HTC-assembled handset (which offers an XL version) is priced accordingly higher than the abandoned Nexus model, mirroring the iPhone7 numbers—though coming in slightly cheaper when comparing the larger versions. Samsung’s exploding Galaxy Note 7 left the market more open to the larger-screened editions from Google and Apple.

Inventing new realities

Credit should be given to smartphones as the devices that delivered virtual reality during its recent mass debut before 2016 in the form of mobile VR. However, this year the long-hyped Oculus Rift was joined by Sony’s PlayStation VR and HTC’s Vive as they finally made the mainstream jump, entering retail space.

With different controllers and room scanners, these three main players compete for the new VR marketplace dollars at different price points. As the niche matures, wires should disappear and gamers will continue to rejoice. But with advanced console VR now let loose, don’t write off mobile VR quite yet. The power of portability and the ability to transform hardware you already have into an immersive experience make it a version of the tech that is here to stay.

Gotta catch ’em all

For those who see the spinning dive into VR as too anti-social and want to leave their living room for a more real-world augmented reality experience, Pokemon Go is the go-to option that took 2016 participants and bystanders alike by storm. Niantic and Nintendo combined GPS location services and live-view camera capabilities of existing smartphones with a game app (Pokemon brand popularity didn’t hurt either) to create nothing short of a social phenomenon.

It was touted as promoting physical and outdoor activity among an increasingly-sedentary generation. But with the real world comes real responsibility and some of the inattentive wanderings of Pokemon Go players garnered media coverage when real and virtual worlds clashed, resulting in accidents and annoyances.

Drones take flight

Drones continued to evolve making them less of a nuisance (at least to their users). Last year saw the addition of serious advancement in tracking abilities and obstacle avoidance, as well as ability to identify common objects.

Goggles now give pilots a VR-like experience while flying, and high-end consumer models like DJI’s Mavic Pro are much more portable, easily folding aerial cinematic quality into a backpack. Drones have also started delivering goods to customers.

Rotten eggs

With a lot of fun tech highlights this year, the Hatchimals story makes the list as an interesting end to the 2016 calendar, and what can happen with tech toys around the holiday season. After soaring popularity of the interactive, furry toy exceeded the “most aggressive projections” of Spin Master, global demand led to intense shopping behavior and an inflated resale market on eBay and similar websites.

But as we enter 2017, support for the product is becoming an issue for Spin Master, as owners are reporting the “hug me” phrase voiced by the hatchlings sounds more like swearing, and many of the toys aren’t actually hatching. The company has hired more support staff and says if it can’t find a solution in two days, it will ship a replacement.

Tesla drives forward

Tesla had a year of mixed news, much of it announcements of new products and business moves that have the potential to change the world. The public saw the $35,000 Model 3 electric car; the firm announced all its cars would be equipped to be self-driving; its massive battery-producing Gigafactory opened in Nevada; and a residential line of solar power roof tiles were introduced.

But along with that year of fanfare, an acquisition of Elon Musk’s own SolarCity by Tesla was not without skeptics and the death of a man driving his Tesla on “Autopilot” raised concerns over the naming of the feature. Many analysts say the road for Tesla in 2017 will determine success or failure for Musk’s company.

Facebook goes live

Facebook Live arrived, joining streaming video incumbents in app form like Periscope and Meerkat. While the deluge of live streaming selfies were expected, the effect of livestreaming on popular social media platforms transformed how the world bears witness in unfolding stories. Social media has proven this before, but 2016 was full of examples too numerous to mention where live video provided a voice to otherwise unheard populations, and those who are vulnerable or oppressed.

Playing it safe

In a world where privacy was more and more under pressure in 2016, encryption technology made headway in the race. WhatsApp and Facebook added end-to-end encryption in their messaging services (both run with Open Whisper’s Signal Protocol), as did Viber. In a signal of a snoop-wary population, Open Whisper’s app saw download increases of 400 per cent after Donald Trump sealed his White House position.

There’s no doubt 2016 wasn’t perfect, but technology is, as always, improving. Along the way, that helps us make the world a better place as we venture into 2017.