When it comes to technology in day-to-day life, the formerly improbable keeps becoming possible. We can simply ask our devices to do tasks for us, to keep track of everything we do and immerse us in imaginary worlds. All of these are themes for this year’s holiday season.
Apple’s Siri got us used to talking to our phones, but Amazon has made that functionality part of our homes with the Echo ($180) and this year’s smaller Echo Dot ($50). Echo looks like a cylindrical speaker, but you can ask its digital assistant, Alexa, to play music from streaming services; read the news, weather and traffic; order pizza; get a ride; and control your Internet-enabled home devices, such as lights, thermostats and the television.
It lacks a cute name, but the Google Home ($129) voice-activated speaker will do pretty much everything Alexa will, but you have to say “OK Google” instead. Google Home, shaped a bit like a fragrance candle, also answers questions about anything you can search on the Internet, tells you what your schedule and travel plans look like, and will translate words for you.
Not stopping at talking speakers, this fall Google unveiled its own smartphones, the Pixel (from $649 unlocked) and the slightly larger Pixel XL (from $769).
Google has also jumped into the hot virtual-reality market. The Google Daydream View ($79) turns a smartphone into a virtual reality platform. Just slide a compatible phone into the headset, and you’re ready for new worlds. Only Pixel phones were compatible to start with, but other phone makers are likely to join in.
The Daydream View follows the lead of Samsung’s Gear VR, which also fits a phone into the headset. The Gear VR uses technology from Oculus, which disabled support for the device for Samsung’s Note 7 phones that have been plagued by fires and explosions.
Sony’s virtual reality headset, the PlayStation VR ($399) released in October, works with the PlayStation 4. That’s cheaper than earlier entrants like the Oculus Rift ($599) and HTC Vive ($799), particularly since for those you need a powerful PC to handle the headsets.
Microsoft HoloLens combines the virtual and the real into “mixed reality” so you can interact with holograms in the world around you. The HoloLens opens up possibilities for science, medicine and business as well as just fun.
Duke University surgeons, for instance, are testing whether the HoloLens can be used to aid in emergency brain surgeries, such as those used to relieve excess fluid pressure in the brain. The development edition was priced at $3,000.
If it’s real action you’d like to remember but at a lower price, consider the tiny Polaroid Cube ($99) action camera, or go higher end with the Garmin Virb Ultra 30 ($400) with voice commands or the latest from market leader GoPro, the Hero5 Black ($400), which offers voice control, a touchscreen and GPS and is waterproof to 33 feet.
If you’d like to go further afield, a foldable camera drone may be just the thing. The Hover Camera Passport ($549) foldable drone from Zero Zero Robotics has face- and body-tracking capabilities to follow you and take panoramic selfies. GoPro offers the foldable Karma drone ($799 or $1,099 with the Hero5 Black), or check out the Mavic Pro ($999). They all fold up for easy transport.
If you just want to get away, there’s always the ultimate gadget, a Tesla electric roadster. That will really take you places. You’ll have to get in line for the Model 3, which starts at $35,000 and won’t be available until a Christmas future.