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Friday, July 07, 2006

Communication Devices of the Future (according to Forbes)

Someone at Forbes Online thought it would be a good idea to put together a list of next-generation communication devices. Some of these things are downright scary.

The Hug - a pillow that feels your pain1_1024feat
If the writers at Forbes had their way, we would all be like this crazy lady hugging a pillow - maybe in the future we'll all be crazy and confined to rubber padded rooms. First let me clear something up, this is more than just a pillow, its The Hug, a melodiousness wireless phone and fuzzy pillow that enables people to communicate using sensors, heating pads, buzzing motors, and lights during a phone call.

The Hugs "purpose" is to allow a physical interaction to carry over long distances using the same technology that carries data and voice. It was designed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon's Project on People and Robots that implements the fundamentally significant idea of using technology to communicate emotionally and physically thereby enriching and personalizing communication.

But you've got to admit that this seems a little wacky and I can't help thinking that this is just another sign that we are all too disconnected from the world. Almost everything we do involves the net and studies have shown that the Internet is the likely cause of people having less close friends. I wonder how much they paid this lady to hug the pillow and what the photographer was telling her for inspiration.

More futuristic communication devices after the jump.

The Phone Glove - surf's up dude!2_1024feat
The next gadget on Forbes list is the Phone Glove, similar to the Bluetooth headset you were forced to buy because talking on your cell phone while driving will get you a ticket. Created by Jason Bradbury, the device is a Bluetooth headset that's been disassembled and reassembled into a glove. While Jason's design isn't earth-shatteringly ground-breaking it is part of a bigger movement called wearable computing. You have actually seen examples of wearable computing such as the Bluetooth RAZRWIRE Oakley Sunglasses and the ScotteVest (www.scottevest.com).

The area of wearable computing is very widespread in academia. The Wearable Computing Lab, part of the MIT Media Lab has developed several new communication and computing devices which may be put into production in the future when the cost of embedding these devices can be reduced. The real advances in wearable computing will finally come when these devices can be manufactured for single use and can be embedded into our clothing and attire.

Micromedia Paper - video here, there, and everywhere3_1024feat
Another major advance in communication will come from the use of electronic paper or as Forbes refers to it, Micromedia Paper. Various designs of this device will allow whole books to fit on a single memory-enabled, polymer sheet, displayed using infinitely reconfigurable magnetically-charged pigments; or futuristic printing technologies that will allow mass-produced super-cheap color screens that could be applied like wallpaper.

One of the more interesting e-paper concepts is by Lunar Design. They have imagined a product called MicroMedia Paper that is an ultra-thin, mini color screen with replaceable "power sticker" batteries and would be controlled using touch sensitive buttons and a volume dial that adjusts the integrated speakers. Video, pictures and teleconferencing imagery could be transferred using a built-in wireless connection. All of this will fit in the dimensions of an 8 1/2" x 11" sheet of paper, a fraction of an inch thick.

My only fear with the advent of this technology is how much media, specifically video advertisement will become a part of our daily life. If digital displays can become as cheap or close enough to traditional print, we will the immediate booming of the video billboard sign, not just on highways but everywhere (taxis, shops, trains, classrooms, offices, etc.). We won't be able to go for more than a few minutes without encountering some form of media.

$100 Laptop Challenge - a laptop for every child
The next futuristic communication device Forbes mentions is the $100 laptop, which I would argue isn't a futuristic concept, just a present day concept done cheaper. If successful though, it can potentially change how the rest of the world communicates. Many people think computer usage is as widespread in other countries as it is in the USA. Unfortunately, developing nations often have trouble with computers because of the tremendous economic barrier. I wrote about the $100 laptop challenge a few weeks ago; it is a practice in practical engineering where every piece must be considered to so the ultimate price of the laptop can be $100.

The Ubik - digital Swiss Army Knife
This Swiss Army Knife-style foldable phone, gaming device and multimedia player of the future is going to be the next must-have all-in-one device. The Ubik uses a borderless, flexible high-resolution screen that folds in half when the device is closed. The outer casing is constructed of two hard shells that also work as OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screens themselves both inside and out, allowing the user to customize the look of the phone with displayed imagery and creating either gaming buttons or a telephone keypad on the inside depending on how the Ubik is being used.

When closed, it is the size and shape of a Post-it Note, and it opens two ways depending on what you want to do with it. One configuration serves as your phone, e-mail and instant-messaging device. The other way turns the Ubik into a gaming machine, photo viewer and video and music player. And to make sure that you are the only one using your phone, there is a built-in biometric optical scanner.

Haptics - redefining your sense of touch
6_1024featHaptics is another area of major research for future devices that is the science of applying touch (tactile) sensation and control to interaction with computer applications. Again the Media Lab is also involved in this kind of research because it makes controlling objects and applications more intuitive. If you have played a PS2 or GameCube you have used a device with haptics; the small vibrations you get in response to your action in the video game is a primitive form of haptics.

One area where haptics is being developed is for eBooks. The biggest complaint from users is that the reading experience is nothing like a traditional paperback or hardcover book. eBook manufacturers hope to take advantage of haptics-inspired features bringing the tactile nature of reading to digital devices. Haptics is also used in force-feedback mechanisms to provide the controller with a sense/feeling of what they are controlling. More sophisticated haptic-based devices will obviously require more complex -and thus more expensive - hardware and software which will undoubtedly be developed in the coming decade.

The rest of the devices on Forbes list are really just new features that will enhance/improve/cheapen how we communicate by phone. They include VoWi-Fi a Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) phone technology that will be adapted for use on wireless (Wi-Fi) hotspots, WiMAX (802.16) wireless technology that will provide large bandwidth to mobile devices for video content and more, walking bio-identification that identifies users by how they walk, and iMOD, a power-saving technology for LCD screens. For more information on any of these topics take a look at the Forbes article.

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