It goes without saying that 2020 was a year for the record books—even though it wasn’t always in a good way. Throughout the year, technology helped salvage much of what the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to take away. It kept us connected, helped us be productive, and gave everyone some hope that the future will be brighter.
Now that 2021 is just a few days away, it’s time to take a look at the technology trends that will define the new year. Some are easy to guess. Others might be more surprising. Ultimately, however, these areas are the ones that are likely to have the biggest impact throughout 2021 and the years to come.
Autonomous and Electric Vehicles Keep Rolling
Today’s cars are coming closer and closer to the milestone of full autonomy. A number of startups and well-established companies are pursuing the goal. Whether it’s to make commutes easier for consumers or to roll out a fleet of robotaxis, autonomous cars are a hot area in the tech world.
Look for that trend to continue in 2021 as the pandemic subsides and companies can restart their widescale autonomous driving tests. Keep in mind that a safety driver is required in most cases. That fact has limited self-driving car tests in 2020 but will be less of a factor next year.
Meanwhile, cars powered by clean alternative energy will continue inching closer to the mainstream. Battery-powered vehicles from makers like Tesla as well as traditional car manufacturers continue to sell at high rates. As battery prices continue to drop, electric cars will be more affordable for everyday consumers. Of course, hydrogen-powered vehicles are also starting to make some headway thanks to Toyota and its Mirai lineup. Next year will likely be a big one for the electric transportation industry.
Work from Home Continues
Aside from the first few months of the year, almost all of the world’s business was conducted virtually in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic forced a shift towards work from home models for companies of all shapes and sizes.
Although the vaccines currently rolling out around the globe provide hope for a more “normal” 2021, the pandemic won’t go away immediately. This means that remote work will continue to be a huge part of the global economy—especially in the first half of the year.
Meanwhile, many companies saw the benefits of remote work and offered employees the chance to work from home indefinitely. Tech firms like Microsoft and Twitter are especially open to the idea. With this in mind, the work from home shift seen in 2020 could become a permanent feature in today’s business landscape. What happens in 2021 will shed more light on the future of remote work.
5G Goes Mainstream
2020 was supposed to be the big year for 5G. Although some progress was made, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly stifled the plans of both device manufacturers and telecom providers.
This coming year will be the one where 5G finally gets its moment. Service providers are well underway with their network rollouts, meaning that 5G availability is no longer limited to large cities. That will help boost its adoption. Consumers will be shopping for new 5G-enabled devices as the economy starts to recover from the pandemic.
Of course, 5G isn’t limited to consumer devices. Companies have already shown off impressive tech that relies on the ultra-fast network. Things like remote tattoo sessions, hyperaware smart cars, and real-time blockchain management in the field will revolutionize how work (and play) is done.
AR and VR Become More Accessible
One could argue that 2020 has been the biggest year yet for technologies like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). The tether-free Oculus Quest 2 headset and AR features for smartphones have helped make the technologies more accessible.
Gartner estimates that spending on wearable devices will double by 2021. That paves the way for further adoption of VR headsets. As more consumers get on board, developers will devote more efforts to creating high-quality VR games and entertainment products.
Meanwhile, rumors have been swirling in the tech industry about AR-enabled eyewear and headsets. While these aren’t entirely new (think of the Microsoft HoloLens or Google Glass) AR glasses have mainly been reserved for business use. Apple plans to debut an AR headset of its own in 2022.
In the meantime, look for companies to continue pushing the boundaries of what AR can do on smartphones. That will get consumers used to the technology and make the adoption of AR eyewear much smoother.
Esports Continue to Rise
The gaming industry got a massive (albeit unexpected) boost thanks to the pandemic. With people stuck at home, millions turned to video games and streaming platforms like Twitch to pass the time.
Meanwhile, with traditional sports put on hold for several months, esports had their time to shine. Gaming competitions were broadcasted on major channels like Fox and ESPN in primetime slots, exposing entirely new audiences to the world of esports.
Look for the industry to capitalize on its new following in 2021. As in-person events resume, esports tournaments will draw bigger crowds than ever. Universities will also try and establish varsity-level esports teams as an additional source of revenue to help recover from the pandemic.
Experts predict that esports have only reached a fraction of their potential popularity. Next year will be another big one for the world of gaming.
Artificial Intelligence Shapes the Globe
This one almost goes without saying. Artificial intelligence (AI) is making its way into every industry. Even so, it is barely scratching the surface of what it is capable of.
Consumers and businesses alike stand to benefit from AI integrations. That will help its adoption continue to skyrocket in 2021.
An interesting sidenote to this trend will be the formation of ethical guidelines regarding the use of AI. As the technology is adopted around the world, government agencies, large companies, and independent organizations will seek to regulate how AI can be used effectively while keeping things fair and safe.
Telehealth Stays Popular
Much like remote work, the COVID-19 pandemic caused an unexpected spike in telehealth usage during 2020. With the virus still on a global rampage, telehealth will continue to play a major role in the healthcare system in 2021.