Each day it seems we get closer to the technological wonders found on the Discovery One, the U.S.S. Enterprise (the starship, not the aircraft carrier), and the Millennium Falcon. But don’t be deceived. We may be well into the long dreamed of future of the 21st century, and a talking computer may have just beaten two humans on Jeopardy!, but when will we have a transporter, faster-than-light warp travel, and the phaser? Most likely, not anytime soon.
Even without these improbable sci-fi gadgets, the past year has seen furious futuristic developments, from tablets and 4G networks to glasses-free 3D and gesture-based gaming.
But that’s not enough for us. We want more technologies once considered fantasies. That’s why we’ve identified five innovations that can’t get here soon enough.
You’ve likely heard of Powermat, the inductive wireless charging pad. Its success—3 million sold since its introduction in October 2009—has prompted 70 companies, including all the major mobile phone makers (save Apple) to join the Wireless Power Consortium. The WPC has come up with an inductive charging standard called Qi (pronounced “chee”). Fighting back, Powermat is partnering with Qualcomm, which has its own inductive charging technology called Wipower (WEE-power). The two will combine their technologies to create a yet-to-be-named competitive wireless charging standard.
Both WPC and Powermat are pushing to have their technologies built into gadgets rather than requiring the usual inductive sleeve cases, but the WPC has a huge head start. HTC, LG, and Samsung, for instance, are all about to introduce 4G phones in the U.S. with Qi built in.
Both groups also are aiming at ubiquity—including charging surfaces built into desk and countertops in homes and public locations. For example, Windsor International Airport in Windsor, Ontario, already has installed Qi charging stations. Meanwhile, Powermat has signed deals with an airport seating company and with General Motors, which will start to build Powermat charging surfaces into Buicks, Cadillacs, Chevys, and GMC trucks in 2012.
Wireless charging pioneer Fulton Technologies, Intel, and MIT all are developing wireless charging using the same magnetic resonance technology behind Qi and Powermat’s inductive charging. It’s essentially two matching coils—one transmitting and one receiving at a certain frequency—except no physical contact between the two is necessary.
At CES, Fulton demonstrated a prototype charging pad for the Tesla Roadster and other electric cars. Fulton envisions parking garages (maybe even your garage) lined with wireless power mats. In the future, you could just park your eCoupled-equipped electric auto over a pad, and your car would charge while you shop, eat, work, or sleep.
MIT’s Witricity has demonstrated a system creating enough juice to power an HDTV and a Blu-ray player. However, right now a black monolith around three feet tall is supplying the juice, which stands just inches away from the gear. The transmitting coil is designed to be embedded in a wall.
The team behind Intel’s closer-to-product Wireless Resonant Energy Link (WREL) system needs to solve size, range, and efficiency issues. If you get any farther apart than about the width of a basketball, effectiveness radically drops off. According to Intel researcher Emily Cooper, a transmitter could be built into the rear of a computer monitor or HDTV to power nearby peripherals or components.
Intel is working out not only technology issues but product development and ecosystems. Cooper believes Intel will have small, low-power WREL products within two years and higher-powered devices in five. RCA has a separate power over Wi-Fi project, but there is no ETA.
PHONE AS WALLET
Yes, we know—you’ve been hearing this song, sung to the tune of “Near Field Communications,” almost since the standard was initiated in December 2003. But this year, we promise, NFC is coming to the U.S.
How do we know? The Nokia C7, the Google Nexus S, the Samsung Galaxy S2, and any future phones running Android 2.3.3 will have NFC capabilities, and Google will be conducting mobile payment trials in New York and San Francisco. Cool.
Responding to a recent question about putting NFC in BlackBerrys, RIM’s co-CEO Jim Balsillie said, “We’d be fools not to have it in the near future—and we’re not stupid.” As of press time, RIM had confirmed that it will be integrating NFC into most BlackBerry devices going forward, and the company is trialing mobile payments with Bank of America.
Then you have James Anderson, vice president of mobile product development for MasterCard and an NFC Forum board member, saying they’re ready to jump on board: Priceless.
Considering that NFC technology has been “just around the corner” for so long, we assume you know all about it. If not…
Near Field Communications is an open standard contactless chip technology that enables two-way communication related to RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) in the 13.56 MHz frequency range, designed to replace magnetic strips. When two NFC devices are within a few centimeters of each other, they can talk and perform a wide range of predefined tasks. Many credit cards use NFC to pay at the 265,000 PayPass merchant terminals in the world—half of which are in the U.S.
There are multiple NFC usage scenarios. For instance, you’ll be able to use an NFC phone to check yourself into a hotel via a terminal at the check-in counter, use it as a room key, check yourself out, and pay for the stay. NFC phones can also replace subway cards or tokens on mass transit.
But NFC’s most common purpose will be as a digital wallet. Your phone could store all your credit and loyalty cards along with information on numerous accounts for both where you keep your money and where you spend it.
What’s the hold up? MasterCard’s Anderson was surprised at how long it took for NFC to come to handsets, but mostly the holdup has been due to banks and other institutions. NFC creates new processes and a new business model for many businesses, and a host of security issues. But Visa and MasterCard have been conducting NFC pilot programs around the world. In fact, both companies have been conducting European trials with an iPhone 4 and an iCarte NFC dongle from Wireless Dynamics.
Yes, this is the year for NFC.
One aspect of Star Wars is already part of our present: the Force. Amazing as it sounds, you can move things with your mind—provided you have the right gear. For instance, toy maker Uncle Milton makes a $129 gadget called Star Wars Trainer. The Trainer looks like the floating ping pong ball test from The Right Stuff, except you make the ball float using your brain waves. Futuristic-looking headgear turns your electrical alpha and beta waves into wireless impulses. These impulses are translated by algorithms into action, in this case operating the fan at the base of the tube, which floats and spins the ping pong ball.
Another game, Mattel’s MindFlex ($79), uses your brain to move a foam ball around an obstacle course. A follow-up game, MindFlex Duel ($99; coming in August), will allow two minds to compete against each other.
Though these games don’t allow you to complete everyday tasks with your mindpower, they actually work. And they are based on real, decades-long neuroscientific research that promises far more real-world mind control applications.
The engine behind the Star Wars Trainer and MindFlex games is called ThinkGear. Created by brainwave sensor company NeuroSky, it uses algorithms that translate brainwaves into measurable information which games and applications can analyze and use to execute various actions.
Future applications could be mind control over wheelchairs for those whose minds are trapped in non-functional bodies, training ADHD children to concentrate and perhaps wean them off medication, and cars equipped with sensors that detect when you are falling asleep and automatically pull the car over before you nod off into a fatal accident.
The same brain wave algorithm technology is at the heart of multi-million human-machine interface research at Intel, working with Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. But instead of physical activity, the goal of Intel’s Neural Computing Initiative (NCI) is essentially to create a brain wave dictionary. According to group leader Dean Pomerleau, your brain’s electrical signals or impulses actually represent concepts or things, regardless of language. If you see a cow, for instance, your brain generates an electrical signal that means “cow.”
Intel is using an array of scanners—EEG (electroencephalography), fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and MEG (magnetoencephalography)—to map and decode the brain’s electrical neuron activity.
According to Pomerleau, the research is still exploratory but already indicates that thought-based device user interfaces are not as far-fetched as one might think.
Until then, you can at least make a ping pong ball float.
The iTunes Store and Android Market are chockfull of language translators (iTunes has more than 500)—many priced at more than $25 for translating from English to just one other language. But you need to consider just two: Google’s new free Google Translator and Jibbigo’s apps for Android and iOS. Both companies acknowledge these programs represent only stepping-off points toward Star Trek and Babel Fish-like instantaneous universal translation.
Both the Google Translator and Jibbigo apps use well-established statistical machine learning technology—also the basis of IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing Watson. Instead of programming in a lot of complex rules, the algorithms let the device “learn” from example. Google’s translation computers, for instance, have analyzed billions of documents that were already translated by humans, and scanned them for patterns. The rest is a matter of speech-recognition technology.
While the Google app performs as advertised, it may not be the best tool for actual conversation with a non-English speaker. For one thing, the process is clunky—you have to speak the phrase, then affirm that what you’ve spoken is correct, then have your phone “speak” the translated phrase to whomever you’re speaking. A bigger problem is that you need to be connected to the Internet and Google’s vast translation library for Google Translate to work, which adds a 5- to 10-second connection time between translations, all while racking up foreign roaming charges.
Jibbigo (a combination of “gibberish” and “on the go”) is more seamless and self-contained. You simply hold down the push-to-talk button, say what you need translated, let go of the button, and the app repeats what you said in the desired language. Hold the button down again, have your conversation partner reply in their language, let go of the button, and you hear your response in English. Simple and easy.
The proprietary machine translation from Jibbigo, and sound or phonemerecognition algorithms, were developed at Carnegie Mellon’s International Center for Advanced Communication, where Jibbigo’s founder, Alex Waibel, is the director. Jibbigo doesn’t require a web connection; each of the eight languages available ($4.99 to $27.99) has an onboard dictionary of about 40,000 words, most of which are travel- and medical-centric.
Jibbigo is working on other language translation gadgets, such as a heads-up display for glasses that overlays subtitles under the foreign speaker, and a system that uses a camera and OCR technology to translate local signs.
The goal for the last 20 to 30 years in the field of machine learning has been the Star Trek universal translator: language translation capabilities built into devices to render language differences moot. Given the speed of recent developments, universal translation could be just 5 to 10 years away.
BENDABLE & ROLLABLE DISPLAYS
On an episode of the alien invasion show V earlier this season, the V princess Lisa gives her human boyfriend Tyler a present—a metal tube with a scroll inside. Except what Tyler pulls out isn’t paper, but a rolled video screen.
Being able to bend or roll up a screen solves every portable gadget screen size problem: You wouldn’t need to decide whether you had enough room for your phone or tablet on your way out the door. You could just roll out as much display space as you needed.
Like many highly desired future technologies, the basics of flexible screens have been known for years. In February 2008, an offshoot company of Phillips called Polymer Vision debuted a prototype eReader called Readius, which had a diagonal rolling screen which used an electrophoretic front plane over an organic thin film transistor backplane. Even with its 5-inch screen, the Readius measured just 2.2 inches wide, 3.9 inches tall, and 0.8 inches deep and weighed just 4 ounces. It never went on sale, however.
Since then, LG has shown off a 19-inch flexible E Ink display for yet-to-be-determined devices, and at CES 2011 Samsung demonstrated a 4.5-inch, 800 x 480-pixel flexible AMOLED screen that curved rather than rolled. Neither company provided an actual timetable for rolling out these displays, which made the products just seem like some especially cool vaporware.
More practical work on bendable displays is being done at the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University under Nicholas Colaneri, with funding from the U.S. Army. Considering all the armor and gear a modern soldier has to wear and carry in combat, a laptop with a light, flexible, and unbreakable screen is highly desirable.
Making a thin film for display, as LG and Samsung have demonstrated, isn’t the problem—it’s the “substrate,” what the liquid crystals are set on, which needs to be plastic, or thin stainless steel. We’re talking about creating a new class of flexible ancillary electronics, including transistors, power, and other circuitry.
For consumer applications, Colaneri expects larger screens before smaller ones simply because there’s more interest in compressing size. Expect to see flexible screens on portable gadgets—perhaps in the next three to five years.