Gadget Of Our Dreams?

Published Date
01 - Jun - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Jun - 2007
 
Gadget Of Our Dreams?
Of all the technology subjects we talk about, this one sets our senses tingling the most-our Sixth Sense, that is. Personal Technology is also the hardest area to play soothsayer for, because if the past is any indication of the future, it will change consistently, radically, and at a very brisk pace. In under a decade, we, the end-users, have gone from hunting for Public Call Offices (PCOs) to making and receiving calls while roaming the globe. A large percentage of you have only started using cameras in the last five years, and already most of you have digital cameras. Net access is also not confined to PCs anymore: today, it's accessible via your phone, laptop, or PDA. Call rates have fallen from as much as Rs 16 per minute to a pittance.

We Indians bear witness to the way personal devices have infiltrated the common man's life. But what's the future got in store for us?

Convergence
Convergence, which was quite the buzzword two years ago-our June 2005 anniversary issue talked about it-is something we take for granted today. Almost every mobile phone has a camera, can play music (FM/digital audio), does basic Personal Information Management (PIM), and a host of other functions. The big addition in recent times has been Net access. Gaming is another popular use for Indian mobiles. We're not playing Half-Life 2 on our phones (yet), but Snake, Bejeweled... you get the idea. Faster hardware and better mobile software platforms have added the ability to run applications from simple Java games to complex software such as Documents To Go (PDFs, Word, Excel, and more). Touch-screens and PDA-like functionality are now becoming the norm in mobile devices of note, with prices starting from as little as 14K.

Expect 5 Megapixel cameras to be the normin a few years, if not less

As we've discussed elsewhere, India is all set to bypass 3G altogether, and jump onto the 4G bandwagon. This means blazing fast Net access for mobile devices (compared to today, at any rate), which will mean we can expect to see more online services for mobile devices.

Streaming video and audio to your mobile devices will be the norm, and content providers will start cropping up. This is only a natural progression; the only thing limiting this is network bandwidth (or the lack of it). A shift to 4G, whenever that is, will end all our bandwidth woes-whether it brings all-new ones along with it remains to be seen!

As mobile phones go, the market buzz is all about Apple's iPhone. Apart from a 480 x 320 multi-touch screen, it runs OS X, has a 2MP camera, Wi-Fi, EDGE, Bluetooth 2.0, and 4 / 8 GB Flash memory. It should be out in the US by the time you read this, and will hopefully be available in India soon.

What's important about the iPhone is that it's running a lite-OS, which makes much more possible on mobile devices than making calls and basic Internet connectivity.

Nokia's latest mobile, the N95, has a 5MP camera, and can record video at 30 fps 640 x 480 (VGA). Quite some time ago, we mentioned Samsung's SCH-V770, a prototype 7MP camera with phone functionality, which was Samsung's way of telling everyone, "We did it just because we could." Expect 5MP cameras to be the norm in a few years, if not less.

Almost every phone today doubles up as an MP3 player, with maximum capacities ranging from as little as 256 MB to as much as 4 GB. And not just the MP3 format, but AAC, WAV, WMV, and more, just like any standalone MP3 player. With screens getting bigger and better on mobile devices, video playback is the order of the day. Mostly in the 3GPP/3GPP2 format, but support for .AVI, .MOV., .WMV, etc., is improving. You can get a DivX player for your Palm  / Symbian / UIQ / Smartphone / PocketPC device from http://mobile.divx.com/.

As you can see, portable entertainment is no longer only a laptop or media device function, it's now coming to your mobiles. With 4G bandwidth, you can theoretically stream HD content to your devices; mobile audio / video looks promising.

The biggest road block for every convergent device, however, is storage. Hard drives are slow and unreliable, while Flash drives are limited in size. But what if mobiles could have laptop-sized storage devices? Say, 100 GB? Enter nanotechnology, promising to revolutionise storage. With compact mobile devices, such as phones, what's required is tiny drives with large data densities that work on little or no power. Research underway in the UK-Imperial College London, Sheffield, and Durham universities, to be precise-has yielded prototypes of an entirely new chip design that mimics the way the human brain stores data. At the nanoscale, they've recreated the axon-neuron pattern of the human brain-a complex mesh of nanowires that perform computing functions at the nodes where the nanowires meet. We cannot explain it in detail in this space, but you can read more at http://tinyurl.com/2u9qxp.

The bottom-line of all this is that we foresee mobile phones becoming very pocket-able mobile computing devices, which can also make calls-as an afterthought.
Prosumerism

 
If you don't like what's available, make one...

There are three ways to define "Prosumer": for the consumer, the professional consumer, and the producer / consumer. For the consumer, "the customer is always right" is the attitude a lot of companies adhere to, and that's the end of that. What interests us more in terms of future trends-and sets our Sixth Sense a-tingling-is the professional consumers and the producer / consumers.

Professional Consumers
Those of you old enough to remember things the way they were a decade or two ago should think back to the way technology was bought, the way it was advertised. Because of the use of marketing gimmicks, fights for price, useless TLAs, even the love of your country in "be Indian, buy Indian" type ads, you could tell that the brands considered the Indian consumer to be, well, dumb. Be honest: how many of you knew how TVs worked, or even used a computer more than a decade ago? There was no Net, there was no trillion-dollar IT industry, and engineers and doctors got the best marriage proposals!

Fast-forward to today, and you see features and more features. You see ads for any sort of electronic device-from a TV to the iPhone-with all the specifications that can be crammed into the space. Have you seen LCD ads? They expect you to know what HDMI stands for; ditto for HDTV, 720p, the difference between "p" and "i" and other such indecipherable jargon. Ads for speaker sets have started telling you about watts per channel in RMS, not PMPO as it was done before-well, most speaker sets anyway. The bottom-line is that manufacturers know their target audience is well-informed.

How Did This Happen?
Thanks to computers, the Net, the infiltration of technology into everyday life, and magazines like Digit, consumers have learnt more about technology, and are generally more interested in it than ever before. Manufacturers have kept pace with the consumer, offering multiple solutions and products to please the consumers' new-found fancies. You read about a technology because you want to, then you see an advertisement, you see the falling prices, and you want to buy it. The age-old system; the twist is, you now are a much more discerning buyer. It's the same old circle of product-life; you just know more about the birds and the bees now.

Producer/Consumer
Alvin Toffler, noted futurist and author, first used the word "prosumer" in his book The Third Wave back in 1980. He predicted that with the burgeoning number of producers/manufacturers, markets would be inundated with options for us end users. Once this reached saturation point, the only way forward would be to give the end user exactly what he wanted. His definition of "prosumer" was the amalgamation of producer and consumer. He referred to it this way:

"…the rise of the prosumer. Third Wave civilization brings with it the re-emergence of a huge economic sector based on production for use rather than for exchange, a sector based on do-it-for-yourself rather than do-it-for-the-market. This dramatic turnabout, after 300 years of "marketization," will both demand and make possible radically fresh thinking about all our economic problems, from unemployment and welfare to leisure and the role of work."

Toffler thus predicted that the lines between consumer and producer would blur, that producers would make simple, standard products, and allow the consumer to choose what to add and what to subtract to make for ultimate personalisation. A lot of people continue to see such ideas as absurd, considering the costs that manufacturers would have to incur in order to make customised products; however, we already see working examples in our lives today.

You And Your Tech
Consider the PC market. Once upon a time, less than five years ago, if you wanted to pick and choose components to build a system, your local assembler was the only way to go-branded PCs were way too expensive. Today, most big PC brands allow you to customise almost every component of your system. Take Dell for example; all you have to do is pick a base system, starting from a processor-motherboard combination, and then choose what else you want to add to it. You get to choose.


It's the same old circle of product-life; you just know more about the birds and the bees now

How come? Well, in order to break the local assembler's stranglehold on the market, big corporations had to submit to the whims and fancies of the professional consumer.

We see this happening universally, for all technology sectors: after all, why shouldn't individual customers get customised solutions? We want to be able to choose our cell phone talk plan, the amount of RAM in our systems, the texture of the seats in our cars, the toppings on our pizzas, the TV channels we don't want, the capacity of our iPods, whether or not our Xboxes should have hard drives, the strap colour on our swatches, the bezel for our phones... you get the drift.

It Doesn't End Here
More than hardware, software is being targeted at the prosumer. The entire open source movement could be considered prosumer-friendly.

Don't like a feature? Just get rid of it! And it's not just open source and Linux developers that are promoting prosumerism: Microsoft released XNA Game Studio Express in the second-half of 2006. This development tool will allow novices and amateur game developers to create games for Windows as well as for the Xbox 360. Although users need to pay $99 (Rs 4,300) per year to be able to test games on the 360s, Windows development is free. So this means that anyone who's played a game and thought, "This sucks, I'm sure I can build a better game..." will have to put their money where their mouths are and prove it.

The current trend of providing end users with heaps upon heaps of choices just to ensure that everyone's interested does seem doomed when you look at the advantages that a true prosumer industry would have. However, it's not about to happen overnight.

The desire to customise has even prompted us to provide you with various DIY (Do-It-Yourself) workshops in this issue. A few of these are alternatives to commercially available products, and built for your needs. Are we looking at a global adoption of the Nike slogan? Wait and watch, our Sixth Sense tells us.
 
Human Device Interaction  (HDI)

Interface better? Better interfaces?

How long are we going to be tied to the keyboard and mouse? How long will we have to type SMSes and make phone calls using our already sore thumbs?

Over the years, we have heard of and seen a lot of technologies that promise to radically change the way we interact with technology, gadgets, and gizmos. The keyboard-and-mouse was revolutionary, then came the stylus and tablet PCs, speech recognition promised but still needs some work, eye control and brain control is being researched with prototypes already out... the future seems promising, or is it just teasing us?

In recent times, two products have caught the world's fancy: the iPhone and the Wii. The iPhone is remarkable for a lot of reasons, including the fact that it runs OS X on a phone, but it captures the limelight mainly because of its interface. It's not new technology, not by a long shot… all Apple's done is use its patented multi-touch technology on a screen, something that MacBook users have already become used to when using the touch-pads on their laptops. A touch-pad that recognises the touch of two or more fingers isn't wild enough to have technology enthusiasts raving, but the fact that it's on a phone is good because it changes things radically. No more pressing buttons, just tap screens. Pinch to zoom in, reverse the action to zoom out. The iPod is already famous for its much-acclaimed interface, as is Mac OS X.

The Nintendo Wii, on the other hand, changed things drastically. The controllers are simple but brilliant, and get us more involved with the games we play, and Wii are loving it! Shameless puns aside, you can read more about it in the Gaming section of our Sixth Sense special. For our purpose, however, it's the way you interact with the Wii that catches our fancy. The Wiimote and the Nunchuk are cool, realistic controls, and hold a lot of promise for near-future products-even for PC gaming. We expect a lot of products that focus on actual movement to crop up in the next few years.

Operating systems today seem to have gone 3D in order to look better and help you put things in perspective when using the PC. Both hardware and software have a role to play when it comes to HDI. Vista and OS X apart, you should check out Project Looking Glass (PLG-www.sun.com/software/ looking_glass/), open source software that promises to make the entire PC environment a 3D world, with the ability to see what's on the back of the regular windows you work with.
Consider a bookmark: it's just an icon in your favourites menu, but what if you could load the bookmarked site, flip the window around and write notes on the back of the browser window? With PLG, you can!

We're not here to state what is obvious to everyone though, and it's time to light the incense, sit in a circle, join hands, and gaze into the crystal ball...

Speech recognition seems to be the most promising form of input yet. Why type when you can dictate? The problem is that speech recognition systems generally fail to be of any use in noisy environments. The immediate future will definitely see more of them, and hopefully, noise reduction will bring up the accuracy of the software.

Coming back to touch screens, we've mentioned the iPhone's multi-touch screen about a gazillion times, but even that seems lame when we talk about Jeff Han, a consultant for New York University's computer science department. Just imagine a touch-screen that multiple people could use at once, and use all 10 digits of their hands at that. Han's Frustrated Total Internal Reflectance (FTIR) multi-touch system allows just this. Using it, he can draw anything he wants on a screen, manipulate anything, and do it much faster and better than even the most competent PC professional. Yes, we can't explain it… there are multiple videos on YouTube and on his NYC homepage as well. You really have to see this to believe it. So here are the links:

http://cs.nyu.edu/~jhan/ftirsense/
http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/65

Apart from input devices, there's a lot being done in terms of displays as well. A lot of it we have spoken about in previous issues of Digit, including holographic displays, and paper or foldable / rollable displays. Looking into the distant future, technology seems to be headed the way of 3D displays, but it's still too early to speculate, and our Sixth Sense doesn't really tingle much here. Apart from holographic displays, most other 3D technologies involve wearing some sort of headset, which, honestly, is something none of us want to do. 3D Autostereoscopic Displays (no headgear needed) is still in research phase,

 
Jeff Han recently showed off his multi-touch display of the future

but is eventually what we want to see. There are a few products available as well:

www.dti3d.com
-Dimension Technologies develops autostereoscopic displays that can display 2D/3D visuals.

www.holografika.com
-Holografika also makes autostereoscopic displays, and you can actually walk around the screen seeing shadows and aspects change to give you the true feeling of viewing a 3D object.
In a sense, the computing experience is all about the interface. How long can it possibly be before our keyboard/mouse combo will be called "Jurassic"?
Better Batteries

Alternative ways to power devices

Every family has its black sheep, every armour a chink. Batteries and hard drives have come to be the bane of technology's existence-hard drives are bottlenecks and batteries just don't last as long as they should, especially now that they are are gaining in importance with everything shifting towards mobile computing, and sadly, they have been found wanting-desperately.

Enter the sugar battery. It's still a fuel cell, but in this case the fuel is anything that contains sugar-even soft drinks. If this catches on, you will be sharing your Coke with your phone and laptop. Not only do these batteries last up to four times longer than Lithium-based batteries, they're easy to recharge, are bio-degradable, and run on sugar, so you keep wondering when someone will yell "April Fool"! Such innovations are desperately required in the battery segment; the change this promises is radical, because we might soon see ourselves refilling our own batteries and never running out of charge. The developers of this technology are based at Saint Louis University, Missouri, USA, and you can read their press release at www.slu.edu/x14605.xml.

Of course, you have to understand that fuel cells are plagued with problems of their own, which is why you haven't heard much about them in recent times. For starters, they have a warm-up time, which means they cannot deliver power right away in cold conditions, which is bad for mobile devices. They also work best only at a particular rate of current pull-and this limits their use. Another major problem is longevity, which is far less than your standard Lithium-ion battery.

Researchers at MIT are investigating the use of capacitors as batteries! Many of you know how capacitors work-they hold charge. They can be charged in seconds. The problem with using them as batteries has been that they can't hold quite enough charge. The answer? Cover the electrodes with carbon nanotubes, which increases their surface area, and thus their charge-holding capacity. We spoke about this in our March issue, and the researchers say the technology could become commercial in five years' time. Another nanotechnological advance is that of using nanotubes in conjunction with solar cells; this makes for, well, nano solar cells. Unfortunately, many of these "five year" predictions go awry, and we can't speak with confidence about nanotech coming to the rescue.

 

So is there anything other than fuel cells that promise more? A magical technology like in every other segment? Sadly, no. As the chinks get ironed out, we will see fuel cells being adopted as primary batteries, but we'll still be in search of the proverbial king of battery technologies.

An absolutely different field of research is charging by induction, which basically means that you never hook up a battery to a power source; you merely place it in the vicinity of an induction charger. All you have to do is place your mobile phone or laptop on top of this pad and the battery charges. Research is underway to see if it's possible to do this at longer distances, but challenges include not damaging the delicate internal components of devices from the heat generated because of induction, and besides, the charging happens too slowly.

All this is still just stop-gap methods to our battery woes. This is the only segment of technology in dire need of radical changes. Our Sixth Sense, sadly, tells us that battery woes are only set to multiply over the coming years...




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