Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Culture: Five predictions for 2012

From the rise of 3D printing to the increased personalization of mobile news aggregators to the detection of ripples in the fabric of space-time, 2012 could be a very big year for culture.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
The first Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental takes off on its initial flight on March 20, 2011. When the first Intercontinental is delivered to Lufthansa early in 2012, it will mark the end of an era of the development of iconic passenger planes. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Here at Geek Gestalt, every day is different. The world of geek culture is broad--sometimes bewilderingly so. A typical year's coverage can easily include stories on everything from Burning Man to Lego, aviation to 3D printing, NASA to tech startups, MythBusters to Pixar movies, and so on.

That makes coming up with predictions for next year in culture a difficult task--but we're here to serve, so that's just we're offering. Of course, trying to settle on just five ideas for 2012 means leaving a lot of things out.

Still, prognosticating culture's next steps meant talking to some of the people doing the best work in the space, and so, for the most part, the following list is based on the most crystal clear thinking from the people who should know what next year holds in store.

3D printing
There are a lot of hot technologies out there, but the one that we here at Geek Gestalt are the most excited about is 3D printing. These days, this is something that people are only just starting to hear about, despite the fact that it is being used by an increasing number of companies, in a growing number of serious ways. It's being used for commercial prototyping, for production-quality jewelry, for fashionable prosthetics, and even in consumer robotics. Of sorts.

But 2012 could well be the year that 3D printing becomes truly mainstream. To begin with, one expert believes that next year could be the year that a company like FedEx Kinko's will start offering 3D printing as a consumer-level service. Though there are already companies like Freedom of Creation, Shapeways, and Ponoko that offer people the ability to have their models 3D printed, there's still a technological barrier to entry that has restricted such business to people able to overcome those hurdles. "A local 'print while you wait' service would connect with many novice and hobbyist users--the real growth market for 3D printing," says Scott Summit of Bespoke Innovations.

Personalized 3D printing will gain more traction than ever in 2012. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

All of this means, Summit says, that a company like Autodesk, which is pioneering the software tools that people will use to innovate in 3D printing, could become the Apple of the creative space.

At the same time, 3D printing is also on the verge of breaking in to some new--and important--areas. One is space. And there's ample evidence that there could soon be 3D printed structures on the International Space Station. "Research groups have shown, in limited test cases, that [3D printing] is possible in zero-gravity," Summit explained. "The next step is to apply this to the real world--so to speak: Applications beyond the terra firma."

Aviation innovation moves beyond the big boys
The world of commercial aviation is vast--there's almost no limit to the number of airplanes flying passengers around the world these days. And while most people can't tell an MD-80 from an A320, there are three planes that have truly captured enthusiasts' imaginations over the last decade.

First, Airbus' A380 changed the game. By putting a true double-decker in the skies, a plane that can carry more passengers than any other commercial plane in history, Airbus grabbed the aviation world by the scruff, and hasn't yet let go.

Boeing, of course, has had its own days in the sun. While its 787 Dreamliner struggled to get off the ground--it was years late, and always seemed about to suffer through yet another delay--it finally did. Now airlines are flying the plane, and everyone seems to love it.

Hundreds of Boeing employees and partners escorted a 787 Dreamliner toward the center of the celebration for the aviation giant's handover of the first one of the next-generation airplanes. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Early next year, Boeing is expected to hand over the first 747-8 Intercontinental--the next generation of the most iconic jumbo jet in history--to Lufthansa. That will mark yet another big day for the company, and for the industry.

But it will also be an important day for another reason. Once the Intercontinental is a for-real, passenger-flying plane, it will mean that there are no more iconic planes on the horizon. None. There will continue to be new planes from the likes of Airbus and Boeing, and others--and there are new projects being worked on in the private space industry, like the Stratolaunch, that are getting people very excited. But for at least the next 5 or 10 years, commercial passenger aviation will most likely be developing aircraft with little personality that will hardly get anyone truly worked up as they get off the ground.

So watch for the beginning of the Intercontinental era in early 2012. We won't see another new striking commercial passenger plane take air for a long time to come.

One of the biggest consumer-electronics products to hit the market in the last few years was Microsoft's Kinect motion controller. The little device is now being used in dozens of video games, and has stolen much of the gestural thunder from Nintendo's Wii.

But where the true innovation will likely come from is the Kinect hacker community. Within days of the release of the device, hackers had already figured out how to hijack the device--much to Microsoft's initial chagrin. Later, the company realized what an opportunity it had on its hand, and tried to make everyone forget that it had originally threatened anyone messing with the controller with legal trouble. The company later came out with a software developers kit that makes it possible for a wide variety of people to come up with new and ingenious ways to use Kinect.

Microsoft's Kinect motion controller. Microsoft

And that's likely to be more true than ever in 2012, says Phillip Torrone, a principle with open-source hardware leaders Adafruit Industries. "In November, 2012, it will be two years after the open-source, robotics, art, and design communities innovated and created amazing examples of what can be done with an open-style Kinect," Torrone said. In 2012 "we'll see a higher-resolution version of the Kinect that will change gaming and desktop interactions, and the hackers and makers will lead the way again with cool projects."

That means stay tuned for an infinite number of new ways to control applications with nothing but your limbs. The only question is whether the Kinect will find its way onto Macs or other non-Windows or Xbox devices.

News readers
It's a long way from 3D printers and Kinects to tablet- and smartphone-based news readers, but in the world of tech culture, aggregators like Flipboard, Zite, and Pulse are growing in importance every day.

In part, that's because we live in a world with an exploding amount of information, and an exploding number of places to get it. There's lots of ways to filter what we read on our desktops, but we are an itinerant people, and we spend more and more time on the go--away from our main computers. That makes applications that can distill down what we're interested in seeing some of the most important we can cram onto our iPads, iPhones, and Android devices.

Still, while there have been lots of new aggregators to appear on the scene in the last year or so, there's a school of thought that says the traditional big media players are going to be the ones that control the genre going forward. As Mark Johnson, CEO of Zite--which is now owned by CNN--puts it, there's not likely to "be a significant influx of new entrants into the [reader] market" in 2012. Those big boys are pretty much all on board already--Yahoo, AOL, and Google, for example--and Microsoft could prove to be the one that can still get in the game, Johnson thinks.

The Zite reader for iPhone Screenshot by CNET

Others may join the party, but they'll have to do a great job of differentiating themselves from what's already on the market. And one reason that could be more difficult than ever, Johnson believes, is that smaller players will have a hard time getting the capital they need to build readers capable of standing up to the established leaders.

Still, anyone making a reader that focuses on delivering a strong, personalized experience could make hay in 2012, Johnson admits. "I expect aggregators to figure out more ways to give users an overview of what's in their total magazine," he says.

Big Science For years, the scientific community has been waiting to see what happens when it's possible to detect the reverberations from the collision of two black holes.

Now, with the potential for the first direct detection of the "ripples in the fabric of space-time generated by colliding black holes," we may be on the cusp of the initial findings, says Jonathan Amos, the chief science correspondent for the BBC. And if the first results arrive in 2012--in the form of the direct detection of a gravitational wave by large laser interferometers in either the U.S. or Europe--as Amos thinks is possible, and if they confirm some of Einstein's theories, it could pave the way for a new way of studying the universe that requires no light.

"This is necessary because most of the cosmos is 'dark,'" Amos said. "The majority of its matter cannot be seen with traditional telescopes. The new approach would also give scientists the opportunity to prove the universe's earliest moments, by observing the remnant gravitational waves from the Big Bang that should still pervade all space."