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The ABCs of 2012, Part II

Here are more of the terms you should know if you want to feel plugged into innovations changing the way we live this year

The X-Box Kinect is one of the ABCs to watch in 2012. Image courtesy of Flickr user popculturegeek.com

Seeing that one of my New Year’s resolutions is to finish what I start, here’s Part II of the ABCs of 2012, a list of innovations you’ll hear more about this year.

In case you missed it, here’s Part I.

Near Field Communication (NFC): A wonkish name for the digital voodoo that will let you buy things with your cell phone. As yet, most smartphones don’t have the NFC chip they need to communicate with digital readers in stores or restaurants. But a lot of people think that will start to change this year, especially if the iPhone 5 comes with an NFC chip, as expected.

Open Graph: Remember when Like buttons started popping up on websites everywhere. That was Phase 1 of Facebook’s plan to encourage everyone to share everything they can about themselves. Phase 2 of its “Open Graph Protocol” came last September when mobile apps made it possible for your friends to see on Facebook, in real time, what you’re listening to on Spotify or watching on Hulu. Phase 3 begins this month when websites will be able to replace their Like buttons with any combo of verbs and nouns, such as “Hiked this trail” or “Read this book.” Mark Zuckerberg calls his “frictionless sharing.” Sounds so painless, doesn’t it?

Pinterest: While we’re in share mode, here’s the hottest property in the social network universe. Pinterest is a website and app where members—you have to be invited by another member—share photos of things they find interesting, usually organized around subjects such as fashion, cars, décor or food. But it could also be cats or quilts or cats on quilts. The idea is to connect, through images, people with like interests. It seems to be working. In November, Pinterest moved into the Top Ten of social websites.

Quantified self: If your idea of a high-tech health device is a thermometer that’s beeps, maybe you should skip this one. Quantified self is a philosophy-turned-movement built around the mantra of “self-knowledge through numbers.” There now are thousands of “body hackers” around the world dedicated to using technology to track what they’re doing to their bodies—whether it’s recording how much REM sleep they get every night or capturing data on their attention spans, caffeine intake, and yes, their sweat output.

Recommerce: Talk about an idea whose time has come. If you have any doubt, look in the closet where you’ve dumped all your antique cellphones, iPads and laptops. Some companies are now making a nice business out of recommerce—taking your old things in exchange for cash or gift cards, then restoring and reselling them. Not only does this keep a lot of stuff out of landfills, but it provides a payoff for our now annual tradition of upgrading our gadgets.

Social robotics: As talented as robots have become—they can pour drinks, make sandwiches, tell the difference between a human’s smile or frown– they’re still pretty clueless when it comes to expressing feelings, or even reading our feelings. So a lot of focus now is on social robotics, namely how robots and humans interact. In New Zealand, for instance, more than 30 robots are working in a retirement community as part of a new study. The good news is that when robots finally get the social thing down, they’ll already have their own version of Facebook. Imagine being de-friended by your vacuum cleaner.

3D Printers: It’s easy to get carried away with the potential of 3D printers. They’re being hyped as the future of manufacturing and the innovation that could bring the demise of our throwaway culture. And now that companies like MakerBot have brought the price down close to $1,000, even the more fanciful notions–kids will start using them to design and build their own toys—no longer seem so far-fetched. As PCWorld put it, this is a technology awaiting its iPad moment.

Ultrabooks: Last year the world went gaga over digital tablets; this year it’s likely to be ultrabooks. They’re the ridiculously thin, light laptops that come with an actual keyboard. They weigh less than three pounds and are only ¾ of an inch high. Plus, there’s that 13-inch screen. Up to now, the MacBook Air has ruled this turf; expect a bunch of challengers to roll out in the coming months.

Voice control: No question that Apple raised the bar on voice control when it trotted out Siri on the iPhone 4S last fall. Now you can have the semblance of a real conversation with a device, one with exquisite deadpan delivery and an impressive awareness of upcoming weather. Android smartphones have their own version of a voice-operated buddy, named Speaktoit Assistant. Already, one new app, Air Dictate, allows you to use Siri on a Mac computer, and another one, named Zypr, will make it possible to give voice commands to other devices, including TVs. But what should really pump up the volume on voice control will be Google’s launch this year of its Siri rival. It’s codenamed Majel, after the wife of Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry. Geek alert!

Wearable tech: We now have jeans that can pull pollution from the air, T-shirts that can convert sound into energy and a prototype of a contact lens that can display text or images right in front of your eyes. But wearable tech is also one of the latest fronts in the war between Apple and Google, with the former reportedly creating an iPod that wraps around your wrist and the latter developing peripherals that, when attached to your clothing or body, will be able to communicate with an Android smartphone.

Xbox 360 Kinect: This was designed to be an innovative way to play video games by allowing people to control the action just by moving their bodies. But then hackers took over, pushing the Kinect system in all kinds of new directions, even into hospital operating rooms. Eventually, Microsoft caught on and started celebrating what it dubbed “The Kinect Effect” and not long ago announced “Kinect Accelerator,” a program designed to help developers and startups create original products using the Kinect. And the word is that the next version of Kinect will be able to read your lips and facial expressions and gauge how you’re feeling by the tone of your voice.

Yelp: Not everyone loves this San Francisco-based user feedback outfit, particularly restaurant owners who knock the credibility of its diner reviews. But clearly Yelp has become a favorite of people looking for dining options on their smartphones. In fact, a Harvard Business School study of restaurants in Washington State found that a one-star rise in Yelp ratings can drive business up as much as 9 percent and that growth of Yelp in a market tends to hurt franchise restaurants. And a few weeks ago, BMW announced that BMW drivers will soon be able have Yelp reviews read to them by their vehicles. This year we’ll find out how much all of the above really means when Yelp goes public.

Zeo Mobile: When you consider how much sleep is lost by people worrying about not sleeping, not to mention their anxiety about what kind of sleep they’re getting when they do manage to nod off, you have to like the prospects for a product that lets you track what’s going on in your brain every night. The Zeo Sleep Manager has been out there for a few years now, but it’s mobile version—basically a headband that connects to an app on your smartphone—gives you the same lowdown on your night in the sack, breaking down how much time you spent in REM sleep, heavy sleep and light sleep. And it’s cheaper.

Video Bonus: If you still have doubts about 3D printers, watch this clip of a wrench hot off the printer.

Be innovative this year.

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