Tuesday 18 August 2015 6:37 pm

Meet the Gartner Hype Cycle for 2015: It's all about self-driving cars and smart dust in emerging tech trends

You've probably heard of the self-driving car, but smart dust probably isn't on your radar just yet.

That's because the autonomous vehicle trend has hit what's known as the peak of inflated expectation. Smart dust on the other hand, is at the earliest stage of innovation, as defined by Gartner in its annual research on emerging technologies from which it creates its "Hype Cycle".

The Hype Cycle if you're new to it, is a simple graphic that plots the development of new technologies and where they stand in the cycle of development, including the time it's expected to take to reach the plateau of productivity – when mainstream adoption of that technology takes off – which can be anywhere from two, to more than 10 years.

Read more: Look, no hands: The driverless car, as imagined in 1971

Early success stories can propel technology, like self-driving cars which are secretly being developed by Google and Apple, to the peak of inflated expectation, however, proven widespread adoption may be far off and other companies still may not jump on board with the development.

The next stage is the trough of disillusionment, which this year is where augmented reality sits (not to be confused with virtual reality, which is almost a the slope of enlightenment – benefits are more widely understood and second and third-generation products appear). 

The trough of disillusionment is exactly what you might expect, and in Gartner's own words: "Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters." Here also lies cryptocurrency exchange technology, despite it making its first appearance in the cycle, and cloud computing.

Connected homes have shifted forwards from post trigger in last year's cycle to pre-peak as a result, Gartner said, of the entirely new solutions and platforms being developed by new and existing manufacturers.

Off the hype cycle completely comes the quantified self, the smart workspace and wearable user interfaces. While some of these may have fallen out of fashion completely, others may have been removed because they have now gone mainstream – in the case of wearable interfaces, Google Glass and the Apple Watch demonstrate both at once – or particular technologies may have merged into a larger trend.

Here are three innovation triggers which could just be the next driverless car.

Smart dust

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Smart dust sits at the earliest, and possibly most exciting point in this year's cycle, called the innovation trigger.

Smart dust are tiny computers no bigger than a snowflake which could potentially be all around us monitoring temperature and movement and feeding back data on our surroundings.  

"The potential benefits of smart dust are compelling and transformational. Given the embryonic stage of this technology's development, vendors should stake their claims via patent development for commercial applications, direct funding for research projects or equity funding for companies engaged in research and development," said Gartner analyst Ganesh Ramamoorthy, of the embryonic technology which is expected to have a "transformative effect on all areas of business, and on people's lives in general."

"Smart dust will transform the way humans interact with their surroundings and create new ways for businesses to deliver services, while reducing costs in the process. This will have wide-ranging implications for businesses' technological, social, economic and legal practices across the globe."

Market penetration is less than one per cent and development of the technology remains in the research labs of places such as the US military's Defense Advanced Research Laboratory (DARPA).

People-literate technology

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Making a new appearance in the cycle which Gartner says is this year defined by technology for digital humanism – the notion that people are the central focus in the manifestation – is people-literate technology (PLT).

"We have entered the conversational age where we are focused on the objectives of technology rather than the technical details," according to Gartner's Tom Austin. While we may have speech recognition such as Apple's Siri, there's still a long way to go. "Speech recognition and translation are brilliant, but imperfect. To deliver natural-language dialogue services, more work is needed on understanding and reasoning. Think back to the last time Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa (or any other conversational aid) actually asked you a qualifying question. They don't," said Austin, citing IBM's Watson as one example of a step in the right direction.

"Imagine the ultimate 'clean screen' approach – workable on a desktop, a large screen, a phablet, tablet, phone or watch – a blank screen with only one blank dialogue box to which the user can type or talk and which responds intelligently, retaining and reusing previous information from earlier dialogs with this user and often asking qualifying questions before responding substantively to the user's wants or needs," he explains in the report. By 2020 40 per cent of the population are expected to interact primarily using PLTs. Market penetration currently stands at one per cent.

Brain-computer interface

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Controlling an app or device with just a thought? That's not science fiction. Its development may be at an embryonic stage, but there are already commercial products being made by companies such as InteraXon, Emotiv and NeuroSky in areas such as neuro-gaming – yep, that's playing games – and neuro fitness, said Gartner's Jackie Fenn.

"Many of the advances are arising from research on activating prosthetic limbs by using people's natural brain patterns, and researchers at Brown University have succeeded in reading neural signals from a low-power wireless system implanted inside the brain. The Obama administration's decade-long Brain Activity Map project will also drive improved interpretation of brain signals," said Fenn.

However, there are other areas of development – speech recognition, gaze tracking – which offer more flexible interactions and are not limited by the non-invasive, but unsightly headbands which the technology uses.