15 Tech Innovations That Will Change the Way You Travel
Traditionally a hotbed and testing ground for new social apps—both Twitter and Foursquare took off here first—South by Southwest Interactive grows exponentially every year.
Surprisingly, this year’s confab in Austin, TX, was less about the next great travel app and more about future-leaning hardware. But there are plenty of intriguing and innovative developments in this area. Bitcoin ATMs, anyone?
It’s also clear that virtual reality is fast becoming real reality. The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset provides a glimpse into the potential of virtual travel experiences; think the Great Wall of China, without the hike or transpacific flight. The Skully AR-1 Augmented Reality Helmet is bringing the infotainment experience (GPS, hands-free texting) we see so often in cars to the motorcycle in a safe and compelling way.
Not to say there weren’t a few apps as well. Spokefly brings the Airbnb model to bikes, and Banter brings back chat with a mobile-optimized, location-based twist. Google dropped some of the biggest news: an Android Wear SDK that has the wearable market in a flurry.
Read on for the gadgets, trends, and next-big-thing-in-digital debuts that caught our eye.
Spokefly: Bike Sharing Meets Airbnb
Like Spinlister, the SXSW-launched Spokefly operates a peer-to-peer bike-sharing model but with a more affordable pricing structure: $30 a month allows members unlimited rentals in any city for up to five hours at a time, and for $80, they can hold on to bikes for 24 hours. Bike owners get paid to add their ride to the system. Using the service is a snap via the website or mobile app: find a bike, check it out, then lock it up anywhere as soon as you’re done. Right now the service is available in Austin with Bay Area and D.C. expansion plans in the coming weeks, and a national rollout to follow.
Oculus Rift: Virtual Reality Gets Real
Imagine exploring realistically rendered 3-D replicas of real-world locations such as Angkor Wat—without mosquitoes or tour bus hordes. Way beyond what’s currently available on Second Life and Google Earth, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset may be aimed at gamers, but it has clear potential for virtual tourism. At SXSW we tried a Game of Thrones–themed demo, and wherever we turned our heads that’s what we saw: 360 degrees of sky and precipitous cliffs (all while avoiding flying arrows). The addition of synchronized wind and rumbling effects—not unlike what can be found on motion simulator rides—made for a truly immersive and startling experience. A home version is due out in 2015.
Android Wear: The Wearables Market Is Nigh
At SXSW, Google announced that it would release an Android-based software development kit (SDK) for wearable gadgets—a game changer for the market since most products today, like smart watches, run on their own proprietary operating systems. This means everything from Google Glass to a new class of Android-powered smart watches will now boast countless apps created by independent third-party developers just like your phone. (Imagine Google Now–like functionality such as getting updates on traffic and responding to Google Hangout messages via voice recognition.) Upstarts like Pebble are going to have some stiff competition from first-adopters LG, Samsung, Motorola, HTC, and Fossil, which can only benefit consumers.
Robocoin Kiosk: Leave Your Wallet at Home
Early adopters of Bitcoin, the virtual, all-digital currency that’s run by computer networks instead of banks, now have an easy way to access it when traveling: four Bitcoin ATMs in North America (two in Austin, TX; one each in Vancouver and Edmonton, Canada). Robocoin plans to add 15 more from Boston to Israel, Ireland to Japan, all of which will allow new sign-ups and Bitcoin purchases. The best part? You don’t need a card: just enter your phone number and PIN then scan your palm, and presto, you get cash. This is ideal for spies or anyone who just likes to travel light—or may have suddenly lost their wallet during a bar crawl in Prague.
Vanmoof Electrified 10: Innovative and Stylish Electric Bikes
With its triangular body and standard-sized frame, the Dutch-designed-and-built Electrified 10 is the first electric bike that doesn’t look like an electric bike—and doesn’t act like one either. Unprecedented tech features include “Smart Power Assistance” technology, which learns your pedaling habits and adjusts its motor to give you just the right amount of push (up to 80 percent assistance), minimalist dashboard lights indicating remaining battery power, and a built-in GPS to track stolen bikes. A few early models were available for sale at SXSW, but for everyone else, preorder now ($2,998) for a July 2014 ship.
Skully AR-1: Actually Useful Augmented Reality
Augmented reality finally has a practical, safety-related purpose in the Skully AR-1 motorcycle helmet, which won SXSW’s Accelerator Award in the Wearable Technologies category. The helmet provides a heads-up display on the front face shield that shows temperature, turn-by-turn driving directions, and a real-time 180-degree rear view in a small secondary screen on the left hand bottom corner. Hook it up via Bluetooth to your phone, and you can also make calls, send texts, and play music—all hands-free via voice control, of course.
Epiphany Eyewear: Google Glass Videos on a Budget
Move over, Google Glass. Discreetly shooting HD video from your eyewear doesn’t have to break the bank—or require an exclusive invite. Starting at just $300, Epiphany Eyewear’s plastic and titanium frames feature a built-in HD camcorder that lets you shoot anywhere from two (8GB model) to eight (32GB model) hours of 720p video. Afterward, connect them to your laptop to store, edit, and share video on your social networks via YouGen.TV. Epiphany plans to open its operating system soon, which means additional third-party apps hitting the Epiphany Eyewear ecosystem. You may not get maps or Field Trip suggestions, but at one-fifth the price you may not miss the heads-up display.
Car2Go Black: Car Sharing Challenges Auto Rentals
Car2Go was an instant game changer when it launched in 2008 by facilitating easy urban car sharing—without having to return to the original spot, like Zipcar. It didn’t, however, address the desire of some travelers to rent cars for longer than a few hours or travel between cities. Nor did it help groups, since Car2Go exclusively uses tiny Smart ForTwo vehicles. Enter Car2Go Black, currently being piloted in Berlin and Hamburg (with worldwide expansion plans): drivers can rent much bigger Mercedes B-Class hatchbacks in either city with no time limit and return them wherever as well. Will this new model force traditional car-rental agencies to drop their high one-way charges? Let’s hope so.
Beam+: Amped-Up Virtual Visits
Live videoconferencing via Skype or Google Hangouts is a godsend to road warriors who want to stay in touch with family at home. Now Suitable Technologies’ Beam+ promises to liberate your digital self with a Web-connected video monitor on wheels that you can control remotely from any computer. The robot-like device may look goofy, but during a test drive, the ability to see, “walk” up to, and talk with people across the world in real time was compelling—and considerably more realistic than static options. Additional tele-travel applications could include grandparents who can’t get on a plane or people wanting a virtual site visit before booking a hotel room.
PonoPlayer: Better-Sounding Mobile HD Audio
On the last day of SXSW Interactive, Neil Young launched a Kickstarter campaign for the PonoPlayer ($400), a Toblerone-shaped portable music player that can handle any kind of music file format, including HD audio tracks that can sound 25 times better than a standard MP3 on an iPhone or iPod. With 64GB of memory, the PonoPlayer can hold about 800 of the highest resolution tracks (or about 5,000 CD-quality songs). In addition to a stereo analog output for plugging into audio systems, a dedicated headphone jack is designed to optimize the sound on your earbuds. Not surprisingly, Young’s Kickstarter campaign raised more than its $800,000 goal in just two days.
IBM Cognitive Cooking Project: A Brand-New-Flavor Hunt
IBM’s Watson cognitive computing system may be well known for its prowess at playing chess and Jeopardy, but at SXSW it put cooking to the test: more than 35,000 recipes were crunched to figure out the best combinations of ingredients. Each day, users voted on options via Twitter—Vietnamese Apple Kebab, Austrian Chocolate Burritos, Belgian Bacon Pudding, Peruvian Potato Poutine—and four chefs served up the results from a food truck. The ability to create delicious new (if not usual) flavor combinations could be something that’s inserted into restaurant computers and traveler smart phones in the future, making a simple beachside barbecue or campfire cooking session a culinary adventure. Portuguese Lobster Roll, anyone?
Banter: Return of the Chat Room
Remember AOL-style chat rooms? They’re back—and mobile-optimized with location-based twists. Banter loads you into themed chat rooms (music, food, shopping) filled with other people who are nearby, which has intriguing potential for travelers whether they’re planning a trip, checking the lineup at Coachella, or coordinating meet-ups while abroad; private chat rooms offer alternatives to making calls while roaming, especially since you can share photos, videos, and URLs. What’s more, Banter can be anonymous, and public conversations are logged for only 24 hours (private ones for six months), which gives it something in common with other quick-hit IM programs like Snapchat. It’s an intriguing technology to watch, should a post-SXSW uptick in users emerge.
CarPlay: Better iPhone Integration for Vehicles
The latest evolution of Apple’s in-car integration of iOS syncs to your iPhone or iPod via the Lightning connector and offers a more custom-to-the-car interface: bigger, fewer buttons and better voice-activated controls let you access everything from messages and music to maps and Spotify. What’s more, it’s designed to integrate easily with existing car infotainment and navigation systems, such as steering wheel buttons on the test Volvo on view at SXSW. CarPlay compatibility will also find its way into cars from Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz this year, with almost every other car manufacturer following suit starting with 2015’s models.
OlloClip 4-in-1 Photo Lens for iPads: Ditch Your Phone
The new iPad Air’s lighter weight and slimmer profile means it’s much easier to slip into a carry-on or day pack while you’re on an excursion, which means it’s increasingly a go-to device for taking images. Certainly the bigger screen makes it easier to compose a shot. Now with the release of OlloClip’s 4-in-1 Photo Lens ($70), there’s finally an external lens option that matches those available for the iPhone. Optimized for the iPad mini, the iPad mini with Retina display, and the iPad Air, the lens clips easily onto the corner of your tablet and switches between fish-eye, wide-angle, and both 10x and 15x macro zooms.
CallSnap/CallCheck: Never Have to Pick Up the Phone
An enhanced version of smart phone–standard canned text message replies (“I’m in a meeting”), Tip Solutions’s CallSnap lets you take a picture to explain. While this won’t be appropriate if you’re touring the Sistine Chapel or in a meeting, it’s just right for a live concert or while you’re mid-hike up Mount Hood. Come this summer, CallCheck will let you see all your missed calls as well, even when your phone is off (as when on a long flight or while in an international roaming zone). Both apps are Android-only, a SXSW trend likely indicative of Google mobile operating system’s rising popularity over Apple’s iOS.