The Tech We Had No Idea Would Become So Critical

The Tech We Had No Idea Would Become So Critical
Image: Gizmodo/Apple

Gizmodo is 20 years old! To celebrate the anniversary, we’re looking back at some of the most significant ways our lives have been thrown for a loop by our digital tools.

When Gizmodo launched just a few years after everyone was convinced the world would end in the year 2000, it was a genuinely exciting time with new technologies finally available to consumers that promised to make the gadgets and gizmos we used every day even better.

It was immediately obvious that some of those technologies would have a dramatic effect on consumer electronics and would become essential for years to come. But looking back over the past 20 years, there were also many technologies for which we didn’t fully grasp their importance — at first. These innovations would have a critical impact on consumer electronics and the services and infrastructure we depend on decades later.

3G and Mobile Internet

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Mobile phones had only just started to get smart in 2002 as models like the Sony Ericsson P800 (yep, the two companies used to be good buds) introduced one of the earliest full-sized touchscreens with a numeric keypad that conveniently flipped out of the way so users had more room to poke around with a stylus. A mobile data connection on your cellular plan allowed these early smartphones to access a stripped down version of the internet wherever you roamed: which at first was mostly a novel distraction that was occasionally useful enough to justify the added cost.

As smartphone capabilities expanded, so did users’ demands for more reliable and speedier internet on the go. EDGE and 2G mobile data connections eventually led to 3G when using the internet on a mobile device finally felt fast enough to be useful, and a modern 5G connection promises data speeds that rival many home internet services, finally allowing many consumers to say goodbye to a tethered ISP altogether.

Broadband on the go has helped turn our smartphones and other mobile devices into full-fledged media players, navigation devices, online gaming systems, video phones, and even miniature live broadcast studios: all features that wouldn’t be possible without a high-speed internet connection. All you need to do is activate Aeroplane Mode on your smartphone to be reminded that most of its usefulness is tied to being able to access the internet everywhere.

GPS and Location Tracking

The Tech We Had No Idea Would Become So Critical

A useful tool for wilderness explorers for years, the popularity of GPS devices skyrocketed in the early aughts when companies started releasing touchscreen versions with full colour screens and turn-by-turn directions designed for use in cars. But knowing exactly where you are at all times is now far more useful than just as a way to avoid getting lost on vacation.

GPS and other location tracking techniques now allows apps and websites to serve up unique content to each user, customised for their location on devices like smartphones, computers, and even wearables. It can make finding the closest restaurant or ATM a breeze, and makes it much easier to remember exactly where every single photo in your overflowing camera roll was snapped. It’s become the backbone of tracking devices like Apple’s AirTags making it easy to find where you left your keys, or the location of a stolen car, and it’s a critical part of autonomous vehicles that seem closer than ever at this point.

It’s also ripe for abuse, as anyone who’s ever tried to access region-locked content has discovered. Companies and websites not only use your location to serve up ads with the most relevant content and impact on a device, they can also track your movements through a store or across a city using your smartphone’s various wireless connections, and as useful as those AirTags are for finding missing items, they remain a concerning tool for stalking.

Voice Recognition

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Two decades ago, voice recognition technology was a relatively new thing to the general consumer. Its most useful application was in software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking that allowed emails and memos to be dictated to a computer instead of typed out on a keyboard. The technology worked — sort of — but was limited by the capabilities of decades-old processors, rendering it a mostly niche product whose biggest selling point was making PCs more accessible.

Voice recognition technology is now the cornerstone of voice-activated smart assistants available through our smartphones, smartwatches, laptops, speakers, and various home appliances (with questionably smart upgrades). It was arguably one of the technologies that makes devices like a smartwatch a viable alternative to using a smartphone for common tasks such as messaging or even setting a simple timer, and it’s allowed us to continue to our mobile devices in vehicles without taking our eyes off the road.

The technology even allows smart assistants to recognise who’s speaking to it, serving up content specifically tailored to individual users in a home, and every time you call your bank and telco with a question, there’s a good chance your identity is being partially confirmed by your unique voice. Voice recognition’s usefulness has expanded well past simple dictation, and as we slowly approach a future where devices in hand are replaced by smart glasses strapped to our faces, simply speaking to our devices isn’t going to become an even more important form of interaction.

Biometrics

The Tech We Had No Idea Would Become So Critical

Biometric security has long been a staple of science fiction and Hollywood, and we all kind of assumed that one day, if granted access to a high-security vault or secret research facility, a retina scan would be the only way to confirm our identities and get inside. In 2002, biometric scanners were niche devices for consumers, allowing devices like laptops (IBM was the first to add an integrated fingerprint reader to a laptop in 2004) to be secured and made easily accessible with a fingerprint swipe from the right person.

On many of our devices, biometrics are now a welcome alternative to remembering passwords and passcodes, unlocking a smartphone or completing a purchase on a computer with an effortless finger press or quick glance at a camera. But the biggest impact of biometrics today extends far past our personal devices.

Step into an airport or wander around some public places and there’s a good chance your presence is being monitored by cameras attempting to match your face to a database. Airlines like Delta now make it easy to breeze through check-ins and find your gate with a quick face scan, while many countries now require some form of biometric to pass through customs services during travel. Biometrics have become a critical part of policing and other government agencies that promise safety and security, but it’s one of those technologies that many privacy watchdogs probably wish hadn’t become so critical and widespread over the past 20 years.

GIFs

The Tech We Had No Idea Would Become So Critical

The Graphics Interchange Format was a cornerstone of the early internet, bringing life to static internet pages before streaming video was a possibility and long before Adobe’s Flash came along to muck everything up. Once released upon the world there was no way GIFs were ever going to completely disappear from the internet, but by the early aughts they had more or less become an antiquated design tool (PNG file’s offered transparency with much better quality) and they were a telltale sign you had stumbled across an abandoned website from a forgotten era of the web.

In a time when it seems like there’s now a 50/50 chance of any video shared online getting DMCA’d and taken down, bitesize GIFs feel like a bullet proof alternative to share a favourite pop culture moment, spreading too fast and too efficiently to ever be eradicated. With high-speed data connections on every device we use, GIFs are also now an effective communication tool: often serving as the perfect reaction or comeback without having to type a single word. The antiquated and overly-compressed file format (all part of its charm) can even be considered a potential metric for something or someone’s true celebrity and fame. Would Tim & Eric have as big a cult following today without the millions of GIFs the show spawned?

Cameras on Phones

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Even flip phones like the wildly popular Motorola Razr released just a year after Gizmodo’s debut had cameras built-in, but their tiny lenses and even tinier sensors made them nothing more than a novelty. You couldn’t even snap a photo of the sun without the results coming out grainy, noisy, and utterly disappointing. However, being able to quickly snap a self-portrait and text it off to a friend become such a popular use of mobile phones that there was no doubt it would be a staple feature for years to come.

Smartphone cameras have improved dramatically since devices like the original Razr, and are more or less responsible for point-and-shoot digital cameras going the way of the Dodo — but that was an easy prediction to make back in 2002. What we didn’t see coming was the other ways that a camera on a mobile device would be useful. Social media has turned everything from selfies to photos of dinner into a true artform as everyone tries to impress their friends and followers, while features like Apple’s Face ID turn an iPhone’s front-facing camera into a more convenient alternative to a passcode.

Cameras on mobile devices have also allowed us to interact with the world in ways we never thought possible. Translating a sign in real-time is now as simple as pointing your smartphone’s camera at it, as is measuring the dimensions of a room, or turning an object into a 3D model. Games like Pokémon Go had throngs of players crowding parks and public spaces waving their phones around in the air, and that’s just the start of how augmented reality can leverage the feature. We’re even at the point that if a notable event happens and no one captured it with their smartphone, we start to question if it really did happen.

Bluetooth

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Now considered relics, the first Bluetooth handsfree headsets were revealed just two years before Gizmodo launched, and the first mobile phones and laptops with built-in Bluetooth only started shipping to consumers the year before. Not having to hold a phone to your head during a long conversation was really all it took for consumers to welcome Bluetooth into their lives with open arms, but that was just the beginning of how useful it would become.

Today Bluetooth feels like that one employee who’s been with the company for 20 years, knows all the ins and outs of the organisation, but is clearly overworked and trying its best to handle a heavy workload that grows with new responsibilities year after year. Everything from wireless headphones to speakers to gaming controllers to kids toys to appliances rely on Bluetooth to talk with each other and to our mobile devices. Open the Bluetooth settings on your phone and you’ll probably find a long list of devices that have at one time or another wirelessly connected to. The protocol is long overdue for a major overhaul, but no one’s going to let it retire any time soon given how critical it’s become.

Wifi

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Wifi is a household name and probably responsible for three out of every five calls you get from your parents, but in 2002 it was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is today, the earliest devices to take advantage of it, including the Apple iBook which in 1999 was the first consumer product to come with wifi built-in, showed us that a future without network cables was a glorious one.

The earliest wifi routers could easily handle a couple of computers surfing the web at the same time, but over the past 20 years wireless routers have been reinvented time and time again to handle an explosion of devices all demanding untethered access to the internet. These days even microwaves, light bulbs, watches, and kid’s toys are dependent on a wireless internet connection to deliver all their promised functionality, and homes are filled with wifi router nodes designed to share the load and demand. Would you even bother booking a hotel room or an Airbnb if wifi wasn’t included?

In the near future, wifi is going to become more than just a convenient way to access the web. Those signals can already be leveraged as a way to track the movements of people in a home or other building, turning wifi signals into invisible security systems, and eventually a way to monitor the health of anyone in range, detecting even a person’s breathing patterns without ever actually having to touch them.

Artificial Intelligence

The Tech We Had No Idea Would Become So Critical

In 2002, artificial intelligence was a buzzword mostly related to a Spielberg film that would have probably turned out a lot better with Kubrick in the director’s chair. Most were aware of the term from science fiction, but it was always applied to robots, cyborgs, and killer super computers like 2001’s HAL-9000 who relied on AI to act and behave as realistically human as possible.

In reality, artificial intelligence was already a hot research topic in computer science labs decades prior as a way to recreate how the human brain thinks and processes data, and was critical to making the earliest voice and image recognition tools function. Today, artificial intelligence has become notorious for the creation of deep-faked videos and images that bring everything seen on the internet into question.

But it’s also a critical part of the voice-activated smart assistants we regularly use, and image editing tools like Photoshop that now make complex tasks that would have taken professional pixel-pushers hours to perform in years past. Every time you snap an image on a modern smartphone it’s probably leveraging some type of artificial intelligence to dramatically improve the results. Many algorithms are born from AI-powered processes, for better or for worse, as you’ve probably discovered questionable recommendations based on what you’ve watched or listened to on streaming services. There’s no denying the tech has a long way to go, but AI already plays a big part in so many of the devices and services we rely on now.

Chips in Cars

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Upgrading the stock stereo system to a multi-disc system with DVD capabilities and a pop-up screen was one of the few ways the benefits of chips and electronics in cars were immediately obvious to the average consumer in 2002, when most in-vehicle electronics, like that those controlled anti-lock braking systems, were hidden away.

Two decades later, as is evident with companies like Sony, Apple, and even Dyson trying to break into the automotive industry, cars are becoming more and more like rolling electronic gadgets. The electrification of the motor car brought with it incredibly elaborate infotainment systems relying on giant touchscreens and even voice recognition. Meanwhile other electronic upgrades, such as cameras and sensors keeping tabs on everything else on the road, have facilitated features that will autonomously keep a vehicle in its lane, automatically break for obstacles, and even identify and obey speed limit signage (YMMV).

Cars that drive themselves without any human intervention are allegedly just around the corner, and in a few years the vehicle in your driveway will have more in common with your smartphone than the Model T. As with a smartphone, consumers eventually won’t really care what’s under the hood, as long as a car gets them from point A to point B and thoroughly distracts them during the ride.