The new hotness: Personal tech in 2007

If you're a gadget freak, fasten your seat belt and hang on - it's going to be one hell of a year

The year of the media cell phone

Will Apple announce a media-playing cell phone in 2007? If so, will it be called the iPhone? And will it be popular?

Our predictions: Yes, no and sort of.

The Apple phone may be announced at Macworld, and may ship in 2007, but it won't be called the iPhone. That trademark train has already left the station. (More likely branding: the iPod Phone.)

We're predicting that it will not be a runaway hit like the original iPod was, mainly because it's not 2001 (when the original iPod shipped), and it's not the media player market, which was easy for Apple to dominate. The mobile phone market is mature and jam-packed with awesome devices that have in many cases built strong loyalty among users. Still, Apple is Apple, and the phone will do pretty well.

More importantly, the move will make the world safer for media-playing cell phones.

Most of the better phones these days play music, but consumers are slow to change their behavior for several reasons, including iPod brand loyalty, weird pricing and downloading schemes promoted by the wireless carriers -- and habit. But Apple's entry in this space will accelerate the pace of adoption across the industry and give those who have invested heavily in iTunes media a phone to play their files on.

The year of face recognition

Face-recognition technology will be red-hot this year, and will show up in a growing number of consumer products and services, including digital cameras, online photo search engines and biometric security devices.

One of the most exciting new features in an increasing number of consumer digital cameras this year will be face recognition -- or, more accurately, face detection. Artificial intelligence software onboard these cameras knows the difference between a human face and other objects in the shot. When you press the "face recognition" button, the camera favours faces for focusing and auto-exposure. Face detection is currently available in the Canon PowerShot SD900 Digital ELPH, Fujifilm Finepix cameras and others. It's a great trick, and superior for casual users.

We currently search photos online based on keywords and tags; in other words, based on words rather than images. But face recognition can help us find photos of people -- "show me more pictures of this guy, whoever he is" -- from the massive quantities of photos online. The free Polar Rose browser plug-in employs the kind of face-recognition technology used by law enforcement agencies. But Polar Rose is a consumer search engine that combines tagging with face recognition to help you find pictures you'd never find otherwise. The technology will take off this year, and will go mainstream when Google and Flickr embrace it.

And, finally, face recognition will come into its own this year as the hottest new form of biometric security for PCs and laptops. The technology has been around for a decade, but new improvements in quality will boost its usability for consumers this year. Lenovo's Y300 and Y500 notebooks, for example, have cameras and face-recognition software that prevents people it doesn't recognize from gaining access to the system.

The year of the professional camera for amateurs

The longtime trend of ever-lower prices for ever-better digital cameras will continue unabated this year. A significant percentage of amateur but enthusiastic photographers will abandon "prosumer" cameras and start buying up full professional digital cameras.

We're going to witness this year the spectacle of parents buying a 12.8-megapixel SLR digital camera with continuous drive capabilities of over four frames-per-second and professional-quality lenses to take pictures of their kids playing little league. And by the end of the year, they'll pay as little as US$1,500 for these extreme cameras formerly reserved for the exclusive use of professionals and formerly costing over $10,000.

Likewise, the point-and-click snapshots crowd will move from amateur to prosumer cameras, with the amateur cameras reserved for children and cheapskates.

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