12 Tech Trends That Will Define 2012, Selected By Frog’s Design Minds

From the long-promised rise of gestural UIs to shopping powered by social networks, these are the forces shaping the future of technology.


According to the Mayan calendar, 2012 will spell the end of the world. But while the Internet is playing host to various survival strategies, we at frog are thinking of other things that will shape culture this year. We surveyed frogs from across the globe and across disciplines to share their favorite tech trends that’ll crop up this year and what their impact would be on design, business, entertainment, and our daily routines. Without a doubt, this is shaping up to be a year of hyper-connected, highly personal, ultrasmart computing that, well, might just skip the computer altogether.


Here, our tech forecasters, drawing from their expertise in everything from strategy to engineering, make their predictions for 2012. Among them: moving beyond the computer interface toward voice and gesture recognition, building more intimacy into social networks, and the continued exploration of biomimicry.

Connected Cities

Chief Creative Officer Mark Rolston

In major cities today, cameras, sensors, and networks provide literal and statistical pictures of where people are and what they are doing at any given moment. Homes and buildings are represented not just by white and yellow page entries but by a growing mountain of data in online maps, social networks, merchant reviews, location services, Wikipedia, private websites, and more. People can learn about and even experience a place before ever setting foot in it. Our Austin studio recently hired a creative director from Brooklyn who used the fly-through experience in Google maps to get a feel for a neighborhood where he was home shopping. As this mountain of data becomes more accessible, we will find ourselves more connected with information, with each other, and with the city that surrounds us.


Taking Computers Out of Computing

Senior Principal Design Technologist Jared Ficklin, Executive Technology Director Robert Tuttle, and Assistant Vice President Marketing Adam Richardson

Interactions with technology are becoming conversational: We literally talk to them and they to us. Voice recognition is a key enabler of this. Apple’s Siri is the headliner, of course, but Ford has been employing Microsoft Sync–which also uses voice control extensively–in its cars for a few years. It’s being smart about offering it not just in its high–end models or Lincoln premium brand but in less expensive cars that appeal to younger buyers. It’s a great way to get a new generation engaged with the Ford brand.

Voice recognition technology has finally hit its tipping point of capability, and the stage is being set for a generation of users to start assuming voice control, just as touch control is now assumed for any screen. But the spoken word is only a fragment of any conversation. Computer vision–especially depth-sensing cameras–will be able to pick up nonverbal cues such as gesturing or body language that complete human communication. When voice and gesture comprehension are paired, humans will be able to address technology naturally, without command jargon. The tactical steps being taken in 2012 are to “design the human” as the primary interface device in support of that.


The Reductive Social Network: Technology Finally Gets Personal

Vice President of Business Development Nathan Weyer

Today’s technologies, products, and services do not adequately serve the human need for intimacy and personal connections. Although Facebook might have initially felt personal, it’s become one of the many social networks swamping us with digital data that we can’t possibly process. Our Internet personalities have evolved into amplified personas that aren’t truly us. The current fervor around cloud computing only exacerbates the problem: Now, my 10,000 digital photos are in the ether, but am I any more emotionally connected with them and sharing them with my three closest friends in a meaningful way? This is about culling from the terabytes and sharing with the single digits. In 2012, product companies will deliver new products that begin narrowing the social circle and capturing intimacy and authenticity.

Gadget Convergence Will Lead to Specialization

Creative Director Michael DiTullo


For the past decade we have been seeing a convergence of multiple pieces of hardware into fewer generalist devices. The smartphone is the almost perfect example of the convergent digital device as Swiss Army knife. It has absorbed much of the features of portable devices, like music and video consumption, digital photo and video capturing, email and calendar, and simple things like time keeping. I read countless blog posts proclaiming that dedicated devices, like the camera and the watch, will rapidly shrivel and die. Instead, I think new technologies will provide opportunities for them to get better. When users purchase a dedicated device, they are gravitating towards products with higher quality and better design to elevate their experience. It turns out that the convergent device is killing the commodity digital product while forcing everything else to improve. This is presenting companies and brands with an opportunity to do what designers love: Make things better!

Rein in the Clouds!

Senior Vice President, Engineering Mark VandenBrink and Executive Strategy Director Abby Godee

We’re rapidly moving into a technology space where mobility is becoming less about a set of devices and more about the pervasive mist of data that we all generate with every interaction on the Internet. Managing, securing, and understanding this data will play a huge part in technology over the next few years. Moreover, making that data comprehensible to the consumer is key. The question has never really been, Is this possible? but rather, When will we have an ecosystem of compelling and useful devices and services that will integrate seamlessly into people’s lives? We think that time is finally arriving in 2012.


Reputation-Enhanced Lending and Trading Goes Mainstream

Assistant Vice President, Strategy Tim Morey

The recession, coupled with the rise of the so-called sharing economy, has the early-adopter community abuzz with notions about the end of consumption. Companies like Airbnb and Zimride, which allow people to open their homes or cars to sharing or loaning for a fee, are cited as examples of new ways of using and exchanging goods and services. But the really interesting trend here is that new forms of trust are being enabled by social networking technology. We all joined Facebook and LinkedIn to stay in touch with colleagues and friends, but the upshot of mass adoption is that we can check up on virtually everyone we come across. Individuals who have never met or interacted are using social networks to validate one another. If I’m just selling something to you on Craigslist, it doesn’t really matter to me whether you’re a good or bad person: I take the cash, you take goods, and that’s it. But if I’m renting something to you, trust becomes critical. I want to know that you are not a crook, a thief, or just a generally unpleasant person.

By linking person-to-person transactions to social networks, we are reducing the need for cash deposits and other financial remedies to the bad-egg problem. While logging in to third-party websites using your Facebook identity is now commonplace, we are beginning to see person-to-person exchanges making use of social networks to broker trust. For example, before you stay at someone’s spare bedroom via Airbnb, you have to sign in with your profile. I recently rented someone’s house in Toronto for a few days, and between our respective social networks, we found enough friends, relatives, and colleagues in common for him to lend me the property with confidence. In 2012, this reputation-enhanced lending and trading will become mainstream. We will lease, barter, and trade with relative strangers, banking on their reputations and connections.


Low-End Mobile Innovation

Strategy Director Ravi Chhatpar

Smartphones will make significant inroads into an entirely new segment: the lower end of the mass market and the “base of the pyramid.” Huawei’s sub-$100 Android smartphone has already had significant success in Kenya, and major manufacturers are quickly following suit across Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and South America. These cellphones will not be notable for hardware innovations, as they’re stripped-down versions of their more expensive and feature-packed brethren. However, they’ll be notable for the fact that an eager population will be discovering the world of mobile technology and apps for the first time. This population is filled with experimenters, tinkerers, and developers who will unleash a new world of apps that address their own needs and pain points–those that have gone ignored by the companies catering to the top end of the market.

Interaction Becomes Gestural

Senior Principal Design Technologist Jared Ficklin


User interaction with technology is going above the glass. You no longer need an explicit tool or even direct manipulation to drive a user interface. With the ability of technology, like Microsoft Kinect, to see users’ movements in space, gestures are being added to traditional methods in new layers of interaction. Designing with this in mind requires new thinking about dexterity, ergonomics, and whether someone might feel silly or offensive with certain gestures. We are so involved in this space right now that we’ve had to move our design technologists’ desks to create enough room for all the hand-waving movements.

Flourishing Commerce in the Post-PC Era

Assistant Vice President of Financial Services, Innovation Strategy Group Toshi Mogi

The post-PC channels for commerce have come of age, and consumers will continue to migrate over to mobile, tablet, smart TVs, and game console platforms to conduct their business. Financial-services firms would be wise to ready themselves for this dramatic change in customer behavior and expectations. We will likely see firms convert their successful web experience to a more streamlined mobile and tablet capability. But as consumers’ experiences with these rapidly evolving post-PC platforms mature, they will expect much more. The post-PC platform affords mobility, portability, payment capabilities, video and collaboration, location awareness, natural language processing, gestures, and so on. Clever firms will wield this fresh and evolving palette to craft engaging experiences in the real and virtual worlds. The aim will be to drive customer delight, loyalty, and engagement.


Remote Collaboration

Executive Creative Director Holger Hampf

If you do business between multiple locations via phone and video, you may have experienced your fair share of frustrations: dropped calls, poor reception, and interrupted video streams are standard. Given the demand for more connectivity between both people and places, it feels like technology is far behind in addressing the need to work efficiently and with the same “directness” of talking to a person in the same room. We are so far away from a high-def experience that we may want to reconsider sending a smoke signal. Make no mistake, technology is moving fast, as shown by the popularity of Skyping with friends and family across continents. Unfortunately, the truth is that most of our conversations across distances are far from perfect and no fun at all. We need creative collaboration between design and technology to rethink these experiences so that they are more fulfilling and “direct” activities in our lives.


Consulting Editor Reena Jana


We’ll see increasing numbers of scientists, technologists, architects, corporations, and even governments looking to biomimicry–designing objects and systems based on or inspired by patterns in nature–as an efficient innovation strategy. Why? Often, nature can provide examples of energy-saving, environmentally friendly solutions to a variety of technological challenges. These solutions have also been “tested” via billions of years of informal R&D–by animals, plants, insects, and other participants in the natural world who have come up with ways of harvesting water from fog, for example, or possess sleek forms that are more aerodynamic than traditional man-made ones. While biomimicry has been an emerging field for some time, in 2012 influential thinkers will begin to apply biomimetic principles on a larger scale, including the planning of new cities and the updating of urban infrastructures. In addition, since more case studies are now available, experts will also begin exploring the pitfalls of biomimicry and share best practices.

Reshape: Humans Are Analogue

Frog Founder Hartmut Esslinger

The way of design is only achievable via creative model-making and prototyping by the designer. Tools, both real and virtual, connect our mind with the real world. However, tools also define how we shape things: Tools’ limitations enhance our deep involvement with them and the materials, and honing our skills ultimately leads to mastership. The curse of “easy” digital tools is to become complacent after relative early “successes.” This can lead to mediocrity and a loss of creative excellence. Like the new “polystyrene slates” of many new electronic products, where excellence is defined by how well the corners are shaped (a re-run of 1950s boxy design), our modern-day digital design software is the cause for zillions of repetitive and bland products. Charlie Chaplin’s classic film of mechanized dehumanization, Modern Times, is a déjà vu of our current state.


[The above is adapted from frog’s Design Mind; Images: Marino Bocelli, Pictureguy, Fedor Selivanov, Ruslav Semichev, and Mikhail hoboton Popov via Shutterstock]

About the author

Founded in 1969 by Hartmut Esslinger, frog is a global innovation firm with an interdisciplinary team of more than 600 designers, strategists, and technologists. Frog creates products and services across consumer electronics, telecommunications, healthcare, energy, automotive, media, entertainment, education, finance, retail and fashion.