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The Year In Tech: 10 Big Developments of 2014

Virtual reality becomes a reality, mobile solutions take over industries, 3D printing creeps towards the mainstream, and more. Our roundup of ten of the biggest tech developments of 2014:

1. Mobile Solutions Everywhere

2014 was the year when mobile solutions began infiltrating industry after industry. Apps exploded beyond music, games, and photos and began to change young consumers’ behaviors in multiple categories. The mobile dating app Tinder’s success with young consumers has led to “the Tinder effect,” and the swipe right/swipe left design has become a go-to design for apps devoted to politics and wedding registries. Job hunting for the next generation began to go mobile, with new apps, like Jobr, that might just be getting started, but could be future hubs to recruit the next generation of workers. While the debate about what multiple devices, social media, and small screens are doing to young minds continued to rage, some are tapping into the educational potential of modern tech and leveraging mobile screens to make learning easier and maybe even more fun. Tablets are becoming teachers, with more apps and games devoted to educating. Meanwhile, new mobile-based financial services are appealing to investment-shy Millennials by allowing them to take baby steps into the financial world. News outlets are also going mobile, with startups reimagining the way news is delivered to cater to an on-the-go, fragmented audience. Millennials are so used to turning to mobile solutions for the problems in their lives, they’re looking to their phones as a solution to help solve their tech-addiction. As smartphones continue to become a central part of consumers’ lives—led by Millennials—we will continue to see mobile solutions created to keep up with their needs.

2. Virtual Insanity

Virtual reality and “gamified neuroscience” was one of the big trends out of SXSW 2014, and Facebook has acquired VR start-up Oculus for a cool $2 billion. There is no question that whatever the future of gaming might be, virtual reality tech is positioning itself to be a big part of it. E3 2014 was in part a battle of the virtual headsets, with Sony’s Project Morpheus taking on Oculus Rift. Reviews of both sets say there is a long way to go before they’re ready for the public, but there is a ton of interest in the technology, as was evidenced by the huge lines at the conference of attendees who wanted even a few minutes of game time. Even before the technology becomes available to the public, we expect that brands will continue to play with virtual’s potential marketing uses.

3. Data Driven Developments

We live in a data driven world, and our every action online, and sometimes offline as well, creates a continuous output of data that is collected and used to sell to us, advertise to us, and suggest what we should look at next. Millennials are arguably more accustomed with the constant collection of their personal data than previous generations, and they are simultaneously more open about and more protective of their information. The more open part of them is interested in harnessing that data for their own entertainment, and this year brands began to find ways, both low and high tech, that allowed them to access it. The dialogue at SXSW centered on how we make all the data we suddenly have access to meaningful, and we began to see Millennials are turning to new tools that let them harness their own personal data to learn more about themselves, streamline their interactions, and more.

4. Apple Stumbles in the Tech Rankings
When it comes to brand trust, many Millennials have polarizing views about the top tech companies. Though Apple was named the most trusted brand by Millennials, it was also the least trusted. At one point this year, the brand experienced a major decline in reputation, ranking 5th for brand preference behind Samsung, Sony, Microsoft, and HP. Apple’s drop in brand preference was especially apparent among “the younger demographic” who commends companies that innovate with entirely new product categories. It’s well known that Millennials are the most tech-adept, and addicted, generation to date, and they still represent the largest number of smartphone owners with 85% of 18-24-year-olds owning these devices. Among this group, Android continues to rival Apple in the smartphone race: a Ypulse’s bi-weekly survey found that 49% of 14-32-year-olds own an iPhone, 45% own an Android, and 4% own a Windows phone. While Apple’s innovations and releases continue to garner them attention and buying frenzies, the reality is that the brand is not the default king-of-tech, and 2014 may have been a turning point in their brand perception.

5. Smart Clothes Could Be the Real Future of Wearables

“Does anyone outside of Silicon Valley even want a smartwatch?” That’s the question one NYMag writer asked after wearing several versions of the mobile tech over the course of a week. 2014 was supposed to be “the year of wearable tech,” but only a few months in it became clear that it’s going to take some time before wearables go mainstream. The competition to be the star of tech that lives on our wrists is intense, but so far it is unclear whether consumers—even tech-hungry Millennials— are going to embrace these innovations. Research suggests that one-third of those who have purchased wearable tech abandoned their devices after just six months of use, causing some to wonder if the “next big thing” in tech is a harder sell than brands previously suspected. So what will the future of wearable tech actually look like? The answer may lie in the items that we already wear everyday. Smart clothes have the advantage of being less detectable and potentially more fashion-forward than current wearable tech items. The category also has the potential to be more naturally integrated into the lives of consumers than smartbands, which can feel like an additional device that does much of what their smartphone already does (and feeds into Millennial tech malaise). The fashion has to be as appealing as the tech, but when the two worlds intersect in the right way, it is clear there could be real potential for a future market of smart clothes. 

6. 3D Printing Creeps Towards the Mainstream

3D printing has been lauded as the future of manufacturing, construction, medicine, food, and retail—many say it will change the world. But to some it has also felt somewhat like a buzzword, one that has a lot of tech-savvy insiders excited and talking, yet might not be a realistic part of consumers’ lives. That tide began to change in 2014. Awareness of 3D printing is steadily rising among Millennials, and big brands and small startups began to experiment with how 3D tech can be integrated into their products and marketing. Oreo made waves with their Twitter-powered 3D printing vending machines, and artist-inspired drawing tools that can 3D print in the air began appearing on shelves. 3D Systems and its acquired Sugar Labs created a line of printers that pop out colorful sour apple candies in various shapes. Meanwhile, appealing to the younger set are 3D printed Sesame Street characters from MakerBot, marking the first global licensing deal for the 3D printing company. Disney Research is working to make the technology a solid part of the brand’s product future, finding a way to print soft items by creating a 3D printer/sewing machine hybrid. But future generations might also be printing out toys for themselves. In July, Hasbro joined forces with 3D printing company Shapeways for the SuperFanArt project, a website dedicated to showcasing fans’ Hasbro-inspired artwork and allowing them to sell their 3D printed designs. Amazon launched a 3D printing marketplace to give anyone the ability to print customized objects like jewelry, and of course toys. While it is certainly still not common knowledge, 3D printing is creeping towards the mainstream, and the coming year should give us even more developments in the space.

7. Tech Console-idation Continues

Last year, Microsoft got some major flack for focusing more on the entertainment features of their Xbox console than the gaming. But the brand was clearly leading in a trend of console/TV integration, and at the time, we told you, “The lines between media are already blurring for Millennials, and technology like Xbox One, which allows for seamless movement between different entertainment worlds, will only continue the trend.” At the 2014 E3, Sony PlayStation announced that they will be the next brand to keep blurring the lines of entertainment with their new PlayStation TV product. Playstation TV is a little black box that turns any TV into a gaming console, for just $99. Games will be accessed through PlayStation Now, and can be played with a regular controller. Eliminating the console (which is in essence what Playstation TV could do) is another possibility for the merging of currently disparate tech into a future where one device rules them all. 

8. The Emergence of Life-on-Demand

The on-demand and sharing economies were already upon us at the start of 2014, and being embraced by young consumers. But this year we began to see the second wave of the on-demand economy begin, and the age of life-on-demand emerge. Tech giants like Amazon and Google are seriously experimenting with drones to get any product to consumers’ doorsteps as close to instantly as they can. Meanwhile, on-demand startups are finding ways to organize services and create digital butlers, companies that make annoying tasks so automated they are virtually eliminated. While these services are currently available in more niche markets, they indicate a potential future where life’s needs are on-demand for everyone, and for a fee, anything can be outsourced. Other smart brands are finding innovative ways to cater to this “I want it now” mentality, and integrate on-demand-esque services into what they already do. Starbuck’s order-ahead mobile feature is a perfect example of this, and other brands will surely continue to create on-demand services for consumers who increasingly expect that everything should come to them, and they shouldn’t have to wait.

9. Online Tech in Offline Spaces

This year, futuristic tech began making its way into stores, restaurants, and dressing rooms as retailers tried to find digital innovations that make in-store as attractive and seamless as online and mobile. Tech integration and creating an omnichannel experience are the clearest ways for brands to makeover the in-store visit to meet young consumers’ rapidly shifting expectations. This holiday season, we saw several major retailers providing digital solutions to help make in-store shopping easier, or put mobile shopping in the spotlight. Beacons are another major way we see this trend evolving, giving retailers the ability to send information to shoppers nearby and create more seamless and digitally assisted interactions with consumers. Even GIFs are making their way offline, appearing as reactive outdoor movie posters in the U.K. The tech of the online and offline world began to merge more fully.

10. The Tablet Generation Swipes Into Focus

Last year, we mentioned stories of two-year-olds playing with tablets as surprising anticdotes that demonstrated how tech-centric the next generation might be. This year, their massive second-screen adoption came into focus. New research found that Apple’s iPad is more popular than Disney among kids 6-12-years-old. The iPad also scored higher than Nickelodeon, Toys ‘R’ Us, and McDonald’s. “Are we there yet” is being replaced with, “Can I use the iPad yet?” as toddlers using tablets and smartphones have become a reality of modern parenting, and on the long car trips typical of summer family time, the temptation to distract with tech is often too strong to resistA survey from PlayCollective and Digital Book World this season found that 45% of parents with children ages 2 to 13 say they planned to purchase a device for their children to read ebooks. 26% of those intended to purchase a Kindle e-reader, and 24% planned to buy an iPad 4 or iPad Mini. If these predictions were correct, it is yet more evidence that small screens are an increasingly normalized part of the next generation’s everyday media habits. Their easy affinity for the technology has Wired calling them Generation Moth, and growing up with touchcreens is clearly second nature to them. The post-Millennial generation’s touchscreen-familiarity will impact the future of design, as they will expect almost everything to be reactive and stimulating.