5 cutting-edge trends that defined (and revived) the PC in 2016

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2016 was a year full of innovation in the PC space. What makes it particularly interesting is that many of its advancements are in early stages. Call it the year of the beta: many innovations were either first introduced in 2016 or barely made their way from the concept stage to the market.

PCs started to think for themselves

Artificial intelligence has taken on significant real-world importance in everyday computing, after spending decades as a darling of science fiction, and relegated to researchers running experiments on massively parallel systems. And indeed, “strong AI” – a machine that’s as intelligent as a human – remains a goal for far in the future.

But there’s a different kind of AI that’s becoming real today, called practical AI. Companies are integrating it into our PCs and other devices by way of personal digital assistants, bots, and learning algorithms. You can debate whether this is “real AI” or merely advanced machine learning, but the fact remains that practical AI is having a real impact on our lives.

Apple’s Siri started things off on iOS in 2011, Google Now followed on Android a year later, and Microsoft completed the triumvirate with Cortana on Windows Phone 8.1 in 2014. It was only in 2016 that the personal digital assistant became a PC phenomenon, however. Apple pushed Siri to macOS Sierra to catch up with Cortana, which has run on Windows 10 from the beginning, and Cortana made her own strides in functionality.

Practical AI is starting to have a real impact on our lives.

While personal digital assistants are mostly limited to answering questions and processing computing instructions (setting reminders and running apps and so on), they continue to expand with new skills that are often server-side, and so simply show up to users as new functionality. Those skills can come from the companies themselves or from third parties.

For example, Microsoft has been particularly aggressive in expanding Cortana’s skillset, tying her into Microsoft properties through moves like adding AI-powered functionality to Office 365. It also recently announced a beta of the Calendar.help appointment-setting service, which can coordinate meetings among multiple attendees without any user interaction.

There’s talk of practical AI representing the future of computing, and becoming a new computing platform. That topic is open for debate. But more than anything, what 2016 accomplished for practical AI was to start making us comfortable with its presence in our lives.

Virtual and augmented reality became…reality

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Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) continued to make headway in 2016, moving from the drawing board to shipping systems for a host of applications. In VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive led the way, releasing PC-based VR gaming systems at relatively affordable prices. Sony also shipped a PlayStation VR system that works with the PS4, and Microsoft described a host of low-cost VR and AR headsets for 2017, alongside the next version of Windows 10, the Creators Update.

In AR, Microsoft was the most visible leader with its HoloLens system. HoloLens is expensive and not yet a consumer product, but it pushed AR into the general consciousness in a way that smartphone-based AR software never could. Windows Holographic makes adding AR to applications relatively easy for Windows 10 developers, meaning that by the time a consumer-level HoloLens from one of Microsoft’s partners makes it to market, a host of applications should be ready — and developers will have tools built to code even more.

HoloLens isn’t Microsoft’s only effort in this space. Its joint project with Intel will bring a range of mixed reality – that is, a combination of VR and AR – head-mounted devices (HMDs) in 2017. As mentioned above, devices were announced at Microsoft’s Creators Update event and will start at $300 with lower PC performance requirements than VR gaming systems, opening up mixed reality to a wider audience.

Gaming became less isolated

Gaming is becoming a social affair that’s not tied to a single device or platform. Multi-player has been around forever, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about barriers between players. 2016 is the year cross-platform gaming – between consoles and PCs – became real, even if in limited form.

Microsoft’s introduction of Xbox Play Anywhere at its 2016 E3 Xbox event was the turning point. Not only can Xbox Play Anywhere games run on both Xbox and Windows 10 but game saves, game add-ons, and achievements carry across systems. You can buy the game once on either a Windows 10 PC or an Xbox One and it’s available to you on either platform.

Almost every Windows PC builder made a handful of excellent PCs in 2016.

2016 was also a banner year for esports, competitive gaming events with professional gamers and large cash prizes. While esports are nothing new, 2016 marked a sort of turning point where people began taking esports seriously. Signs of this transition are numerous: ESPN created a site dedicated to competitive gaming, and Activision Blizzard partnered with Facebook to expand its Major League Gaming (MLG.TV) streaming platform. While esports might not be a 2016-specific phenomenon, it was an important part of gaming this year.

At the same time, it’s not just massive, organized, and professional competition that took off in 2016. Individual game broadcasting also gained new life this year. Twitch and other game streaming platforms have been growing in popularity, with Twitch alone enjoying 9.7 million daily active users engaging in over 2 million unique streams each month. Microsoft also entered the fray with its Game Broadcasting feature for Windows 10 and Xbox, announced as part of Creators Update, which will let gamers use Beam technology to broadcast games from both PCs and console to the Xbox community.

Gaming is no longer a solitary actively, even when playing games that are single-player. Streaming, online communities, and cross-platform play mean it’s easier than ever to enjoy a game with friends – or strangers.

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