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Prototypes Today, Gadgets Tomorrow

By Team Digit | Published on 01 Jul 2005
Prototypes Today, Gadgets Tomorrow
The lines between functionality of gadgets are being blurred. Remember the days when savvy executives were seen walking around with so many gadgets strapped to their belts that they looked more like handymen than executives? A walkman for aural entertainment on the move, a pager to keep in touch with the office and a digital diary to store their contacts…

Fast forward a few years into the present, and the story isn't too different. MP3 players are about the size of a matchbox, and a lot easier to carry around than the huge walkman of yore. Pagers are passé, as the latest mobiles come equipped with cameras, address books and basic PDA functionality.

An addition has been the laptop, which is a lot bigger than anything we would carry around earlier, but about as essential to our fast-paced lives as our kidneys.

In essence, we're having to lug around a lot more gadgets, and as a result, more weight than we did before. Hopefully, this won't last for long and technology will find a way to bring relief to our aching backs.

What's New?
We still have the demarcations of products: PDAs are still mainly PDAs, laptops are just being segregated into tablet PCs and laptops, but cell phones, however, are anything but just plain cell phones today. Recently, cell phone manufacturers seem to have caught the innovation bug, and no one is complaining. If anything, we wish the rest of the segments would start innovating just as much.

This doesn't mean that the big names in technology have been sitting idle, churning out boring gadgets. In fact, there are some very exciting products scheduled to hit the markets soon, or at least prototypes of gadgets conjured up by creative minds. Let's take a look at some cool gadgets that we think have the potential to make it big.

BenQ's P50
This PDA phone is 120 x 60 x 20 mm large and weighs a mere 170 grams. It sports a 240 x 320 pixel touchscreen that displays 256K colours. The OS is Microsoft Windows PocketPC 2003. From the cell phone angle, it is quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900), has 64-channel polyphonic ringtones, supports GPRS class 10, MMS, infra-red, Bluetooth, WAP 2.0, and a Li-Ion battery with a standby time of 100 hours.

In terms of PDA functionality, it has handwriting recognition, inbuilt 64 MB memory, SD/MMC slots, JAVA for downloadable games, a USB port, 1.3 megapixel camera with a top resolution of 1280 x 960 pixels, video capture, photo album, MP3/MPEG-4 player, Wi-Fi, and not to forget, the QWERTY keyboard.

If recent trends are anything to go by, this device will fit right in when it is finally released. As you can see, cell phones are becoming much more powerful than ever before.

Samsung's SCH-V770
It's a phone with a camera! No, it's a camera with a phone… the argument continues, especially here at Digit. Whatever it is, it's both, a cellular phone as well as a camera-and a good one at that!

The phone boasts of a 7-megapixel camera with 3x optical zoom and 5x digital zoom and autofocus, and yes (finally!), a flash as well. In fact, it's the inclusion of the flash that's got people at Digit arguing over whether it's a camera-phone or a phone-camera.

The camera supports the attachment of teleconversion and wide-angle lenses-a first on a phone, for sure. It offers a host of other camera features, including manual control of focus and focal length, shutter speeds, control over exposure times and auto exposure locking, and advanced features such as aperture priority and shutter priority.

It also records video at QVGA resolution (16 million colours) at 15 to 30 frames per second, and has a TV-Out connector so you can view both, stills and movies with the family.

From the phone point of view, it's pretty standard-CDMA, 64-channel polyphonic ringtones, and so on. It also throws in an MP3 player and a card reader!

Somehow, one gets the feeling Samsung is just showing off their technical prowess by making this gadget-not that anyone's complaining, right?
Nokia's 770 Internet Tablet

This product is hardly a prototype as it's available for purchase, but it's a worthy mention when talking about truly mobile gadgets.

The 770 boasts of 64 MB of DDR RAM and 128 MB of Flash memory (64 MB available to users), and a 64 MB RS-MMC card. The dimensions are 141 x 79 x 19 mm, with an 800 x 480 resolution touchscreen that can display 65K colours. At 230 grams, it can hardly be considered heavy, and the black and matte silver colour add style to its looks.

The OS is Linux-based Internet Tablet 2005 software edition. Applications bundled are a Web browser, Flash player 6, an e-mail client, a news reader, media players, an image reader, file manager, PDF viewer, notes, sketch, games, a calculator, and a clock. The playback of most audio and video formats such as MP3, Real Audio, MPEG4, AAC, WAV, AVI, MPEG1, MPEG4, Real Video etc. are supported by the tablet.

It also supports popular image formats such as JPEG, GIF, BMP, TIFF, PNG, Animated GIF, SVG-tiny, and ICO.

It connects to your phone via Bluetooth, and to a WLAN using Wi-Fi. It also connects directly to your PC via USB, and offers a 3.5 mm stereo output for audio. Overall, if surfing the Net and checking your mail wherever you are is something you just have to do, this is the answer to your prayers.

Polymer Vision Rollable Display
Polymer Vision, a sort of subsidiary of Philips, already has a product called PVQML5, which is an ultra-thin (0.1 mm) QVGA (320 x 240 pixel) monochrome display. It measures about 5 inches diagonally, and has only four grey levels, but it's a step in the right direction.

There are already talks of mass producing e-newspapers using this technology-connect the display to the Net using a mobile phone, and you get news content from your favourite sources delivered to you, which you then read like a regular newspaper.

E-Ink Corp's (pioneers of paper displays) bi-stable electrophoretic display effect is used here, and this results in minimal power usage by the display-ideal for mobile displays. The contrast is high (10:1) which provides ideal reading conditions, even under direct sunlight. It's slated to hit the production lines in less than two years.

The ideal scenario for rollable display implementation is in mobile devices that require larger screens at times, such as when viewing Web pages. Mobile devices can increase display size on demand, and the larger rollable display adds no weight or dimensions. It doesn't affect the device's power consumption either.

Such displays could also be used to make stand-alone products. Think of a pen that rolls out a display on which you can read stored e-books, or perhaps even connect to a phone using Bluetooth and download and view your favourite e-books. And you need not worry about your screen cracking, no matter how often you drop your gadget!

Polymer Vision is working on larger screens with colour capabilities and also a touchscreen option-they aim to make all this available at affordable prices. We can easily imagine a smartphone that contains one of these screens: just unroll the screen, watch your favourite movie, and then roll it back up and return to business on your phone's small screen!

ICUITI's V920 Display
Another form of display that has been around for some time now, but just doesn't seem to have caught the fancy of geeks, is the wearable display, or eyewear display.

The concept is simple-just create a virtual display in front of your eyes using spectacle-like devices. As a result, various wearable displays offer various virtual screen experiences-from the effect of a 17-inch display viewed from three feet away (the weirdest we could find) to a 105-inch display viewed from 10 feet away. We chose ICUITI's products only because their V920 display was chosen as an Innovations 2005 Design and Engineering Honouree, in the Personal Electronics Category, at CES 2005.

The V920 connects to almost any video source, using one of multiple cables provided. It also features stereo headphones to offer you both audio and video privacy when worn. It claims to offer a viewing experience equivalent to watching a 42-inch LCD monitor from 7.5 feet away. It weighs just 100 grams, and bundles a controller weighing about 110 grams (with batteries), which is used to set typical settings such as brightness and contrast, and volume for your headphones, and also connect to your DVD player, game console, laptop or PC.

The displays are dual 640 x 480 resolution backlit LCDs, with independent focus for left and right eyes. The set can also be worn over prescription spectacles, and the controller uses 2 AA cells. When connected to a PC via USB, it is powered by the USB port, so no batteries are needed in this mode.

Overall, this gadget seems great for home or indoor use, but we doubt anyone would be caught dead wearing these on the street, even though they offer a 15-degree tilt for a non-immersive view.

What's New Tomorrow?
Sure, we were salivating when we were reading up on all these cool gizmos and technologies, but something was missing. That's the whole problem actually-something's always missing.

When you see a cool smartphone with a 7-megapixel camera, PDA functionality, a hard drive bigger than what desktops had five years ago, and a mobile CPU faster than what was on that same five-year old PC, you still end up saying, "I wish it had a notebook's functionality!" We're geeks, and we're happy to admit that we're never satisfied!

Well, whether any manufacturer bothers to listen or not, we decided it's OK to dream. We sat down and tried to come up with our dream gadget, or more correctly, every geek's dream gadget.

We called our gadget GOD. Now, before you get all righteous, start screaming blasphemy, and damn us to eternal torture in hell, you should know that GOD, here, is an acronym for 'Gadget of Our Dreams!'
We decided we needed a gadget that obviously had the functionality of a cell phone, because mobility is pointless without communications. The next thing we decided we needed was PDA functionality, because things like address books and e-mail need to be available on demand and easily-as they are in PDAs. Then we decided to get greedy, and wanted laptop functionality as well, because, well, why not?

It would be nice to have a gadget that gave you the quick usefulness of a PDA, but when required, would let you open up Photoshop to edit the image you just clicked, or play your favourite games! And while we're adding a laptop, we thought, "Oh what the hell, why not make it a tablet PC as well…"
We decided that GOD should be no bigger than a current PDA-after all, why would anyone want to lug around a device any larger than that in the first place? So the dimensions were fixed at a maximum of 140 x 100 x 30 mm (h x w x d). We really don't like the idea of holding up such a gadget to our ears in order to use the cell phone functionality, so the first thing we did was add a Bluetooth headset. Ironic that we started on the bundled goodies even before we started designing the device itself, isn't it?

Now that we had settled on how it would be used as a phone, we decided we needed to have a look at the front facia. Number keys were a must, and if it was going to be a PDA as well, screen area was worth its space in gold. We decided to offer most of the front face as a screen, no buttons at all.

This is an imaginary scenario, so we decided that batteries are supercharged, and can last for days, even with the screen and Bluetooth turned on all the time. Also, storage is not a problem, as the device uses a non-volatile RAM/HDD (see

So we designed the front display to have two modes: phone and PDA. In phone mode, the display is divided in two, with one part displaying virtual QWERTY or number keys, which can be used as normal keys thanks to touchscreens, and the other part acting as the regular phone display. Only when required, would GOD switch to PDA mode. Now the problem was that we needed a trigger for this to happen. Sure, we could just add a PDA mode virtual button, but that wasn't cool enough.
We decided that apart from adding a PDA mode switch into the phone menu, we would also add a trigger in the stylus mechanism-pull out the stylus, and GOD switches into PDA mode. Cool, isn't it?

Pictures, we decided, could be clicked only when in PDA mode, using the 5-megapixel camera-PDA mode offered the best area for the LCD viewfinder.

Someone pointed out that we needed to think of what would happen if you got a call when in PDA mode, so we decided that the calling number would blink on one corner of the screen, and you could choose to either switch back to phone mode or just take the call using your Bluetooth headset. Simple, huh?

That done, we now had to figure out a way of cramming a tablet PC into this device. Easier said than done: we had no space to work with. "What about the length?" someone asked. "What about it?" "Well, 140 mm isn't bad for a monitor's width, settle for a small display… better than nothing." OK. So GOD would flip open on a hinge attached along its length-much like Nokia's Communicator series. The whole inside face would be made of a foldable display.

When half flipped open, GOD would function as a laptop, again using one half of the display as a virtual keyboard, and the other as a 140 x 100 mm screen. Somewhat like a tablet PC in laptop mode. In order to convert GOD to full tablet mode, all you need to do is open it up fully, at which point, GOD automatically converts to a 200 x 140 mm tablet PC-switching display orientation.

We had our share of arguments, especially over the small display when in laptop mode. One other option that seemed to make sense was not to have an intermediate laptop mode (with GOD flipped half open). Instead, use Bluetooth-enabled eyewear to project a virtual screen, and use GOD's internal touchscreen display as a keyboard instead. This would keep users from having to squint to find icons on the tiny desktop! It's already possible-there were no drawbacks in terms of technology.

We decided that GOD was, well GOD, and could do all the above. Besides, we now got to include a cool pair of virtual display goggles in the bundled accessories! Apart from the odd dreamer-geek who screamed for a 3D holographic display, most of us were satisfied with the results.

That was about it. We had included everything we could think of, and it didn't take us more than a few hours-if only production lines were as easy to calibrate as our imaginations!

GOD In A Box
Now that we'd made GOD, we needed to package it, and that included a specification list. Here's what we came up with:
250 GB non-volatile RAM/HDD
X850 XT/6800 GT GFx
100 x 150 front OLED touchscreen display
240 x 160 internal OLED foldable touchscreen display
Software Bundle
Windows / Linux Tablet PC OS
Handwriting recognition
Driver CD
128-channel polyphonic ringtones
Bluetooth / Wi-Fi / Gigabit Ethernet
5-megapixel digital / Web camera
Unlimited address book / SMS / MMS storage
Palm / PocketPC functionality
And much more…As for GOD's price, we decided people would definitely be willing to pay even up to $5,000 (Rs 2,20,000) for this dream gadget. So the price was set to Rs 2 lakh.

Back To Reality
Every good thing has to end sometime, but as we reached the end of this article, we decided that our dream hadn't ended… in fact, it was just beginning-thanks to some great work being done by research labs and scientists around the world.

The reason we kept it believable-imagining only the use of technologies that exist, or, at most, are under development-is because GOD is not fictional! The thought that within a few years from now, we could be testing gadgets like GOD in a shootout for our readers is what makes our jobs-nay, our lives-worthwhile.

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