Virtual reality finally arrived. Self-driving cars started wandering streets and past red lights. SpaceX aborted a rocket launch four times within a week. Samsung started strong with the Galaxy S7 and finished with the Note7 nuking itself into orbit while you slept.
We had new graphics cards, and most of them were pretty damn good. Consoles broke the mould by releasing new hardware mid-cycle and becoming more like PCs than ever before. And, unsurprisingly, we found out once again that Einstein really knew his shit.
It’s been a big year for tech. Let’s break down this year’s biggest moments.
Google ditches the Nexus Line, replaces it with a true flagship
It might have more of a Nexus-esque price in the United States, but the Google Pixel really is a phone to behold. The iPhone 7’s processor might be better, but the Pixel’s camera is a lot smarter and the Pixel Launcher is a clever, clever thing.
Cam described the Pixel as having a “feeling of completeness in knowing you’re holding a phone that has been built by the same guys from start to finish”. That’s always been the problem with the Nexus line, in that another brand has gotten involved and, to varying degrees, buggered it up a little.
But that didn’t happen with the Pixel. It’s out, it’s a valid competitor to the iPhone, and it’s the kind of product fans have been screaming at Google to create from the beginning.
Speaking of getting ditched, here’s the Galaxy Note7
The Note7 was still a great piece of technology, with one small problem: it kept blowing up. One bloke copped third-degree burns on his wrist. Samsung tried to bribe a Chinese owner to take down a video of the phone exploding. Another bloke was admitted to hospital for smoke inhalation after his phone went full Icarus in the night.
So after dragging out the inevitable, Samsung finally killed it. They didn’t kill the Note line completely, which some thought might have been wise given the situation. But then there are some who told Samsung they’d only give their exploding, crippled smartphones back on their deathbed. Either way, the Note7 saga was one of the highest and most expensive failures of technology we’ve seen in a while, and the effects will be felt within Samsung for a long while to come.
SpaceX fails four times to launch a rocket, sticks the fifth and lands on a drone ship
Ahh, space. It’s a funny thing. And also really, really expensive. But that hasn’t stopped SpaceX or its investors from trying over and over again.
The Falcon 9 rocket was a case in point. The space agency had four seperate cracks in the space of a week at trying to get its new rocket launched, only to be met with multiple failures. The liquid oxygen fuel system was buggered. Then a boat derped its way into the launch zone and caused the launch to be delayed. And then after the boat paid attention to the massive rocket nearby and went somewhere else, something screwed up in the Falcon 9’s ignition system.
And then it all worked perfectly, making it the first time a rocket has taken off and landed on the ocean. It’s a massive accomplishment, least of all because the launch finally worked – but that the launch worked, and nailed the landing, without tipping over and blowing up like it did last time.
The more you think about it, the more it begins to dawn on you what a remarkable accomplishment it is. Our species is getting a whole lot closer to space, one step at a time, and it’s fascinating to watch.
The 14nm future arrives, and it is glorious
After years of delays associated from trying to shift from the larger 28nm manufacturing process, 2016 finally saw both AMD and NVIDIA take some massive jumps with the release of their Polaris and Pascal graphics cards. NVIDIA started with the GTX 1070 and 1080 cards, moving towards the more affordable GTX 1060 before eventually launching the GTX 1050 and GTX 1050 Ti at the end of the year.
But either way, gamers won big this year. AMD positioned themselves well for a DirectX 12 future, while NVIDIA still has the benefit of having the faster hardware, even if the performance-per-dollar argument doesn’t look so good in certain scenarios. And more importantly, both manufacturers pumped out affordable cards that can handle 1440p gaming without breaking a sweat, which is good news for people who want to upgrade from their ageing 23-/24-inch monitors, or would like to go the ultrawide, 21:9 route.
The biggest winners though, have been those with laptops. The GeForce 10 series means that laptops finally have the same full-size chip as their desktop GPU variants, albeit with slower clock speeds. And on the other side of the aisle, AMD jammed a full size RX 470 into an Alienware laptop.
2016 might not have been the year for a full conversion to 4K gaming. But it was great for making the jump to 1440p, and it was just as good for gaming on the go.
Telstra’s network takes several sickies
Telstra had a bit of a crappy year. Not only did the company find itself in the awkward situation of having to offer multiple free data days due to nationwide outages – one of which was caused by a patch to Telstra’s internal DNS that killed off Telstra’s fixed line broadband network in the process.
It almost deserves an award.
Beyond the public embarrassment, the outages cost Telstra millions. After reviewing its network in February, the telco began confirmed in May that they were rolling out $50 million worth of upgrades. The spend included extra redundancy, more capacity on the core network and new processes for “key network element restarts”, otherwise known as a How To Not Accidentally Break Your Entire Network guide. On top of that, the company announced on June 30 that they were spending $250 million to shore up flaws in their mobile network to make it more resilient, among other things.
Later that afternoon, Gizmodo reported that Telstra’s business and enterprise services were offline in Victoria. Understandably, Telstra executives didn’t get any bonuses for their efforts.
People are still confused about the PS4 Pro
Consoles don’t change until there’s a new console. That was the orthodoxy, at least until this year when rumours began to leak about Sony and Microsoft releasing new hardware mid-cycle.
Both manufacturers are targeting 4K, but Sony was first out of the gate with the PS4 Pro in November. But while the benefits are obvious for those who own a 4K TV, the problem is for people who aren’t upgrading their hardware – or for those who invested in PSVR.
By giving developers the freedom to decide how they would use the PS4 Pro’s additional grunt, Sony lost a critical marketing avenue to people who weren’t upgrading to 4K. If you’re on a standard 1080p screen, which doesn’t support HDR, what do you get out of the PS4 Pro? And if you have PSVR, does the PS4 Pro get you better performance?
The answer: it depends. Some games, like Farming Simulator 17 (no, really) and Paragon, get a massive visual upgrade on the PS4 Pro. Others only add improved effects and anti-aliasing, and other cases the only benefit is a simple resolution upgrade (which you can’t take advantage of if you’re stuck on a 1080p screen). You’ll also get better image quality and more effects in certain PSVR titles, but it’s a case-by-case basis and even then it might not be worth it unless you’re heavily invested in the PSVR ecosystem.
A lot of users haven’t upgraded to the PS4 Pro for that reason – if you haven’t upgraded your TV already, it’s not clear what the benefits are. And there are still plenty of games, like Destiny, that haven’t been patched to take advantage of the PS4 Pro at all. That’ll change over the next 12 months, but there is still a good deal of confusion in the market – and with the Switch and the Scorpio on the horizon, that’s not good for Sony.
Zika starts a global emergency
The panic around the Zika virus has finally began to subside, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have people properly on edge. The mosquito-borne virus started to get the radar around 2014, and in 2015 it was finally identified as the disease responsible for spreading throughout Brazil. Later that year, scientists began making links between Zika and microecphaly, but it didn’t hit until early 2016 just how dangerous Zika was.
Experts began focusing on developing better diagnostics for the virus this year, which was handy once scientists started talking about Zika being responsible for brain damage. And given that Zika can be sexually transmitted and that the virus could cause birth defects even when the mother isn’t showing symptoms, it’s no wonder the World Health Organisation held an emergency session.
WHO ended up declaring an international emergency; the CDC in the United States started paying men for their Zika-infected jizz. Science found itself pitched in a race against time and Mother Nature’s population curbing instincts, and while a global epidemic has been avoided for now the battle is well and truly not over.
It all made so much sense: let’s move the Census online. Let’s try and cut down on all of the manual paperwork, and try and automate the process. That makes sense for 2016.
And it does. But if you’re a government department taking a process as important and as critical as the national census online for the first time, you’d better not fuck it up. And oh boy, did the ABS do a number on this one.
First they told everyone that the Census website was down due to a DDoS from overseas hackers. Which came after Small Business Minister Michael McCormack, who oversees the ABS, said the website was hacked. And then it was a number of DDoS attacks. And then it wasn’t really a series of attacks, but DDoS attacks from abroad.
After that glorious tragedy played out in public, Nextgen revealed that they had offered IBM a solution for safeguarding against DDoS attacks – which IBM rejected. That meant traffic from Singapore was allowed to come and play silly buggers with the Census website, which always sounds good when you’re hauled up in front of an upper-house inquiry to defend your geoblocking strategy.
So who was to blame for the $30 million of incompetence that taxpayers got slugged with? ABS said it was IBM’s fault, since they were the IT provider responsible. IBM pointed the finger at Nextgen for not properly implementing IBM’s geoblocking strategy. Nextgen said IBM should have gone with its DDoS solution instead, and IBM engineer Michael Shallcross told a Senate inquiry that IBM restarted two routers to remedy the DDoS attacks, which resulted in the router connected to Telstra not rebooting because of a glorious configuration fuck up.
IBM ended up paying a settlement for the misery, and a review recommended that federal ministers should go to a “cyber bootcamp” to learn the basics about cyber security. On top of that, the credibility of the ABS as an institution was fundamentally shattered and public faith in the census itself was damaged, thanks to the bureau’s staggering arrogance towards concerns about data privacy.
Inspires confidence in government, doesn’t it.
Conspiracy theorists 1, Africa 0, Facebook -$125 million
Mark Zuckerberg’s had a bit of an uncomfortable year. And while he can’t have enjoyed watching the fallout of the election, and subsequent spotlight Facebook’s algorithms have been placed under, it’s preferable to watching ~$125 million quite literally explode.
That was back in September, when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket decided it would go up in smoke and flames. On board the rocket was a Facebook satellite designed to provide free internet to Africa, a satellite that unsurprisingly burned just as efficiently as everything else attached to the Falcon 9.
A month later, we heard that SpaceX were investigating potential sabotage. Apparently a white spot and a weird shadow were spotted on the roof of the nearby United Launch Alliance building – nearby being 1.6km away. Yes, if you’re wondering, there’s a conspiracy theory about a sniper.
Tesla launches the Model 3, fans peg their money en masse
There’s always been a cult following for Tesla, but that changed massively this year with the Model 3. It’s the first affordable long-range electric cars in Australia, which was previously the domain of millionaires and CEOs like Simon Hackett.
But after pre-orders were announced for $US35,000 pre-incentives, people went ballistic. Around $172.5 million of deposits were taken for the Model 3, even though people were dropping $1500 a pop just to secure a pre-order. $1500 for a pre-order for a pre-order.
The price was fully refundable, of course, but it was just staggering watching people quite happily drop such a large amount of dosh on a vehicle that buyers couldn’t see, something they couldn’t touch, and more importantly – something they don’t know the full price of.
The company also started rolling out its Supercharger network in Australia, designed to extend the fast-charging range of the Model S and the Model X. It doesn’t sound like an awful lot, but it does mean it will be possible (at least once the Wendouree supercharger station is online) to drive from Adelaide to Brisbane for free.
Virtual reality arrived, didn’t impress
2016 was pitched as the year of VR, but the reality was this was the year VR started. The problem that faced VR at the start of the year was one of content, rather than engineering. And while most of the headsets were actually really well designed – Google’s Daydream was surprisingly comfortable, while the mid-range PSVR is the most comfortable headset on the market to date – the reality is the platform is still lacking quality games.
It was a case of quality over quantity, with users bombarded with small, short experiences. And it perhaps says everything about VR in 2016 that two of the best applications weren’t video games at all: Google Earth VR, which lets users fly around the world using Google’s 3D map data, and Tilt Brush, which lets users create 3D paintings in a virtual space.
Or, as Mark discovered, dickbutts.
Even then, VR’s biggest problem was the barrier to entry. If you want all the bells and whistles for the Vive or Rift, it’ll cost you more than $1300 locally. That’s more than some people’s entire PCs, and it doesn’t include the cost of any upgrades you might need (like a Pascal/Polaris-series GPU).
Even the $559 PSVR is a steep ask, especially when you consider how much more expensive PSVR games are compared to their Rift/Vive compatriots. PSVR also doesn’t have the range of content that the Vive or Rift does, and the substandard tracking via the ancient Move controllers means some multi-platform VR titles are lacking on Sony’s hardware.
VR’s challenge going forward is simple. As John Carmack bluntly put it, developers need to stop riding on the novelty of VR and start using the technology to offer an experience that offers far, far more than it would on a regular screen. That’s not the fault of the hardware per se, but it certainly suffers from it.
Nintendo becomes cool again
If you can ignore the part where Wii U had another year of irrelevancy, Nintendo has had a great 12 months. In many ways, people are more excited for the Switch than what Sony or Microsoft can do with 4K, and for good reason.
The Switch offers something that current consoles don’t do, and it fulfils the promise of the Wii U. I can take Skyrim on the train. I can pull Zelda out of my bag and play it for a bit on my lunch break. That’s amazing, and if you can do all of that for less or at least the same amount as a base PS4 or Xbox One, Nintendo is onto a winner.
But it wasn’t just the hype around the Switch that came off for Nintendo. The world of Pokemon had a fantastic year, with Pokken Tournament early on, the massive success of Pokemon Sun & Moon towards the end and the ridiculous obsession with Pokemon GO in the middle. If that wasn’t enough, people went bananas trying to buy the Classic Mini NES – although that wasn’t helped by Nintendo not making enough stock available in the first place.
Put simply, people are excited for the Nintendo brand again.
Hollywood finally gets its injunction
After years of losses or only small victories at best in the courts, Hollywood finally got an injunction. The win for Village Roadshow and Foxtel means that Australian ISPs, such as Telstra, TPG and iiNet, will have to forcibly block access to the URLs of the most popular torrent hubs, including The Pirate Bay and KickassTorrents.
It’s all for naught, of course, since you can bypass the blocking in a heartbeat. You’ll have to fork out for the VPN of your choice, but paying a pittance every month is worth it to dodge the Wall of Hollywood (and Netflix).
Gravity makes some waves
Image: R. Hurt, Caltech / JPL
Here’s a rough, and correct me if I’m wrong, explainer on gravitational waves. They’re ripples in the fabric of spacetime, caused by things like exploding stars. It was predicted as part of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and as part of that it was posited large objects or sources of matter could the fabric to warp, creating waves that we’re now able to observe.
In that sense, gravitational waves have been around forever. But thanks to some hardware upgrades to the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational Waves Observatory, scientists haven’t been able to properly observe them.
So when the American LIGO detectors picked up the gravitational waves earlier this year, the first main thing it did was reinforce our current understanding of the universe and gravity. Einstein’s theory still holds strong, basically. But the other key part was that scientists can now learn a whole suite of things about the universe that they would have never seen before.
Astronomy, you see, works predominantly through a series of telescopes that observe light waves – x-ray, infrared, radio waves and so on. Gravitational waves can’t be picked up by these means, and so in February we learnt about the kinds of things we can now detect that would have ordinarily gone noticed.
Like what happens when two black holes merge. (There’s no flashy visuals, but personally I’m grateful that it’s not happening close enough that humans can see it.)
Apple ditches the headphone jack, probably convincing others to follow suit
People hated the idea of losing the headphone jack, but you know what’s more painful? The fact that it’s going to make a lot of money for Apple eventually. Airpods cost a staggering $229, which is already on the high end for canalphones. Lose one of the Airpods, and Apple will sock you another $99.
And that’s the real kicker: no matter how hard you fight for the headphone jack, the sheer potential for revenue is too tempting for other manufacturers not to follow suit. I can envision a HTC or an LG keeping the 3.5mm plug, but word is spreading that Samsung is set to follow suit. And the reality is, whatever those two do typically ends up getting copied across the wider industry. (Minus the whole exploding phone thing.)
What’s the opposite of the Midas Touch? Yahoo
If it wasn’t the messy takeover with Verizon, the ongoing public obliteration of Marissa Meyer’s reputation or the laundry list of companies acquired to no avail, Yahoo was getting hammered over revelations that at least half a billion users had their accounts breached by a “state-sponsored actor” – two years ago.
Perhaps the only thing that went right was the fact that Verizon was interested in Yahoo’s assets at all. And then we found out it wasn’t half a billion accounts breached, but over one billion.
Naturally, Verizon turned around and asked for a discount. Even when there’s a signature on the dotted line, Yahoo still couldn’t get it done in 2016.
Our self-driving overlords are here
It’s not just Tesla that’s building autonomous driving tech. Google is working on partnering with a car brand to get its advancements into an existing car model, with the self-driving part of the Google X division being turned into a separate business unit.
Australia’s not ready for a driverless future yet. For one, there’s a whole set of tricky ethical questions that need to be resolved. There’s also a minefield of regulations, not just around testing but in the day-to-day usage. But the government is already envisioning that automated cars will become “transformational”. Autonomous driving has been a theory for a while and 2016 was when it became very, very real.
Those are our biggest tech moments, across gaming and the real world, of the year. Did we miss something? How do you think 2016 stacked up for technology? Let us know!