Wednesday 31 December 2008

Happy New Year 2009

Predicting the year ahead is rather too short term for a futurologist ... but in the gadget's area I specialise in there are a few continuing trends.   Smart phones will continue to be used by more and more people for internet access and communications when out and about, as the user experience improves and eco-systems for adding new applications become more important, both distinctive features inspired by the iPhone.  As the year ends, and we finish this festive season in 12 months time, we will begin seeing more Near Field Comms functionality in the high end smart phones allowing people to use them in place of travel cards and for small payments etc.  There are also indications that the home media server may become more palatable to consumers as they realise the amount of personally valuable media that has accumulated on their various devices.  Gaming is gradually becoming more mass-market through devices like the Wii - we should see the success of this learnt from by one or more console producers.  Finally we will see yet more advances in processor development, lower power devices despite more processor cores included in one package, and more software support for exploiting multiple cores as well as for utilising graphics processors for more general number crunching.  

Happy New Year!

Tuesday 30 December 2008

Technology abuse

When pondering the future, it is easy to paint all positive pictures... but as futurologists we are always conscious that every technology developed for positive reasons will likely be used by some people for less desirable purposes.  There are many examples of this already, never mind the future.  In the BBC news today was an article about cyber-bullying guidelines being produced in the Czech Republic.  I myself was involved with the production of similar guidance over a year ago for the education sector in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Guidelines themselves don't prevent bad things happening, but they do bring to public attention the issues that should be addressed and not swept under the carpet.  Such guidelines are relatively simple to construct retrospectively.  It is more of a challenge to predict in advance what will be helpful for technologies which are yet to be developed or become mainstream. 

Sunday 28 December 2008

Clearing up time?

So you had a nice Christmas dinner? You were feeling all full and content after the various courses.  Or perhaps feeling rather stuffed like the turkey that appeared on so many dinner tables?  Either way, when you ventured back into the kitchen afterwards, it is likely that you were confronted with a significant cleaning task!  Wouldn't it be great if in future, many surfaces or materials were self-cleaning?  Well this could well be the case.  Nano-sized bio-organisms will be produced that use light as an energy source and will target the molecules of whatever dirt or foreign bodies are present.  This could not only be applied to kitchen surfaces but also clothing, destroying all the molecules that otherwise cause unpleasant odours to be emitted!  Such auto cleaning is some decades away as yet so unfortunately can't help with this Christmas or next!  

Thursday 25 December 2008

Family gatherings at Christmas

Traditionally families come together at Christmas time.  Increasingly some families are dispersed over large distances and travel a long way to come back together to celebrate the festive season.  As I am typing this, my Mother-in-law who has travelled 800 miles from Poland to join my wife and I for Christmas and New Year is joining the rest of the family back home by video chat over the internet.  They have finished their main Christmas meal 24 hours before, it being the tradition to have that and the opening of presents on Christmas eve there.  We have completed our festive meal today but the whole family can see and hear each other using the net.  

In the future, there will be an even more natural integration possible online.  Haptics and the whole integration of the virtual and real worlds will negate the need for many people to travel to feel that they are with the family.  The video chat will not be a time-bounded novelty event but rather an integrated part of life which all parties are used to, and use naturally as if they are physically and geographically co-located.   Display technology will mean that the walls of the rooms that people are in can display the remote end video rather than people having to position themselves around a particular device or screen in one particular room.  

Whoever you are with this Christmas I wish you a happy time and hopefully you will continue to follow this blog in 2009.  

Tuesday 23 December 2008

The future of Christmas ...

Usually in this blog, I do actually try to write entries which contain the topic in the title!  Today however it feels a bit like Christmas and so there are lots of things to do.  I like to keep the blog going though even through festive times... so I entitled this entry the future of Christmas.  However on this occasion I am going to cheat from writing something and instead point to an article I contributed to for the BBC's Focus Magazine last year on this very subject - Christmas 2057!   It was also made into a BBC Podcast.   Despite being a year old ... an article about 50 years into the future is hardly past its sell-by date!    

Merry Christmas!

Thursday 18 December 2008

The new capitalism ...

I have to admit that I have never found the BBC's Robert Peston's reports on TV news very appealing.  However I read this entry on his blog entitled "the new capitalism" and was very impressed.  It provides a very interesting and succinct summary of the economic position now in the current financial crisis but also makes some excellent points about the likely future now that this has all happened.  This provides an excellent context to examine technology futures in 2009.  I thoroughly recommend reading it.

Wednesday 17 December 2008

Future democracy - networked?

The Internet can be seen to have already made the world smaller in a number of ways.  It also can be said to have improved democracy and there are many examples of coalitions of communities separated by geography but united by a cause across the net who have come together to deliver a message or lobby their point of view.  Indeed in some less open countries, the ability to bring local what is global has caused some Governments some trouble with their misguided attempts to prevent information reaching their citizens.  I noted today that China has again limited the ability of its people to view certain content from the BBC for example, a practice which was suspended to some extent during the period of them hosting the Olympic Games.  Similarly there was an interesting radio programme I heard while in the car the other morning about the way the net has allowed people to express themselves in ways that the public culture would simply not allow in some middle-eastern countries for example.  Even closer to home in the UK, the Government now accepts official e-petitions via its website.  

The net is also often criticised for creating a divide between those who have access and use it and those who do not or choose not to.  The effect of being offline will continue to be more marked in future.  So what will the balance be between the democracy supported and the exclusion that results?   Not being able to participate due to not being online rather runs contrary to the democratic ideals it can provide.  

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Projecting an image...

One of the gadgets that many organisations have come to take for granted in meeting rooms and for doing presentations is the projector.  In recent years they have become smaller, quieter, cheaper and brighter through technology such as DLP (Digital Light Processing) taking over from LCD.  Remember when they first came out, there was so much fussing around with users not understanding how to connect their laptop computers and match the resolution required so as to fit the whole screen on the projected picture.  And to be fair to the users, the systems software on many computers didn't make it easy to achieve this either.  However today, things usually go much more smoothly.  I have used shareware (iPodShow) to project video/slides via a traditional projector using my music player rather than having to drag my laptop along everywhere.

Already the size of these projectors is coming down.  The term pico projector is now in use to describe the tiniest ones available which some mobile phone manufacturers are now planning to incorporate into their devices within two years.  I only hope that people will think twice about boring audiences with Powerpoint just because they are able to share slides with those present simply by whipping out their cellphone.  It is the quality of the presentation and the story being told that we need to improve in many cases rather than the ability of the presenter to project the image.  Rather it is the total image they convey which is often overlooked by the presenter - something Max often addresses in his blog.

Monday 15 December 2008

Robots & music... danger?

The human brain is thought to process different aspects of music in many different parts of the brain, some of which are specific to music and some which are not.  One consequence of this is that the brain can relate sequences of music to pieces it has heard before.  A professor at Plymouth University has build some robots that can similarly recognise music sequences, as well as imitate sounds.  The robots effectively learn their own rules for what is musical.  However this is not simply useful in the context of music.  It should help autonomous robots to agree collaborative strategy in order to perform a task together.  This task could itself be learning! Future machines will not need programming in the traditional sense.  They will learn what should be done themselves.  As such they will need no humans to program them.  That could be very convenient when the robots are doing 'good' things.  It might be very difficult to stop them when they learn to do more undesirable things.  Let's hope that they learn some ethics too!

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Christmas card futures?

Ok so who really enjoys writing their Christmas cards each year?  Putting decorations up - maybe, choosing gifts for friends and family - possibly, but writing all those cards ?  And here in the UK particularly, the greetings card industry has really expanded beyond common sense ... there are cards for everything ...  My computer already prints all the labels from my "xmas card group" in my address book so at least the envelopes don't need writing.  But a trigger in the calendar could cause the computer to prompt me whether I would like them printed off, in time to post even the overseas ones.  And the cards themselves could be formed from the list and a suitable design produced from some template.  Some recipients do now get e-cards from me.  But I still have to organise it all. 

In the future, I just want to be prompted to think about the card greetings and have it all produced for me.  And a little further ahead I want the greetings to be triggered in my mind and for the recipients to feel the greeting in their heads and hearts.  This would save a lot of recycled paper and card and still maintain a personal touch to the greetings.  Some folk occasionally ask me why I cover future biotech in the context of future communications.   This is one example of why.  

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Happy birthday rodent !!

It's 40 years since the first computer mouse was demonstrated in public.  Of course now we take this device for granted, and it has become the most accepted way to control a computer, as the pointer on the screen follows the movement of the mouse.  The modern mouse now has multiple controls, multiple buttons and often scrolling controls too.  And many have now lost the cable which reminded people of a mouse's tail 40 years ago, relying on radio technology to make the connection.  They also tend to use optics for tracking now rather than wheels underneath. 

Of course we have all probably heard stories about computer help desks fielding a call from a confused new user about not being able to cope with the supplied footswitch (meaning the mouse!)  For most people, this rodent provides a relatively simple way to point and click on screen icons and menus to cause the computer to do things instead of typing in commands.  And it will probably be around for a considerable time to come.  But we are already seeing touch screens that use your own fingers to point on to items without requiring a stylus or mouse device.  We will get better at using gestures to control machines as a bigger and bigger de-facto standard library of them is developed which people come to understand intuitively as they have done with the mouse.  And beyond that we will be able to simply think and control what we want machines to do.  There will be many small steps towards making computers easier to use over the next decade or so.  But we have to strive towards thought-controlled computing because we need devices to ultimately be that simple to use.  in this way, we may reduce the chance of the help desk coming up against more mouse-footswitch confusion!

Sunday 7 December 2008

Christmas lights ...

Ok it's getting near that frustrating time of year again.  You dig out the Christmas decorations and find that the coloured lights for the tree or elsewhere don't work again.  They worked when you put them away last year.   But now ... nothing.  You hunt around the house for a while for the spares but any you find are the size and voltage that suited the set of lights you had before these.  In the end, you decide to go and buy yet another full set.   

In the past, you would have bought normal filament lamps.  Last year, this year or next year you will probably have bought, buy or will buy LED (light emitting diode) type decorative lights.  The low power consumption probably makes you feel good about the effect of so many bulbs on the environment.  In a few years it may be organic LED or OLED lighting that we are buying.  General Electric have talked about the possibility of OLED thin pliable wallpaper which can light up the walls or any other surface we desire.  Apparently we should look for it in home improvement stores by 2010.  

Saturday 6 December 2008

RIM takes world by Storm?

So RIM  has finally followed all the other mobile phone manufacturers and released a touch-screen based device - the 'Storm'.  No surprise there.  But like so many other attempts to compete with the iPhone, on this aspect they still don't get it.  Touch-screen does not equal Apple's Multi-touch, although granted it is not obvious to too many users what the difference is, unless they have tried the latter.  The 'sureType' mode for the onscreen keyboard also offers some tactile feedback when you touch type but I'm not sure that it really improves the user experience.  

The Blackberry Storm also has more pixels on its screen and on its camera.   No surprise there either.  What is a surprise however is the lack of Wi-Fi on any new device nowadays.  Compared to the iPhone, it is heavier, bulkier and lacking in the sexy design department, which will be important if RIM are targeting the consumer market rather than their staple diet of corporates.  Given the amount of prime time advertising they have suddenly begun doing recently at least on UK TV, this seems to be true.  I think with the advent of consumerisation of IT, it is easier for companies to move consumer devices into business than the other way around.  

Finally as I have said a few times in this blog, the competitors to Apple need not just focus on the device and the user experience with that, but also the ability to add applications to the device ... the eco-system which goes with it, and more importantly the user experience which goes with that eco-system!  

Friday 5 December 2008

Folding displays...

The latest example of a folding display I have seen is from Samsung.  It is of the active matrix type, and when unfolded reaches five inches diagonally.  A very thin film encapsulation technique has been used which the maker promises will give twenty thousand hours of use.  Other OLED displays struggle to meet this.  The display is only half a millimetre thick too and offers WQVGA resolution and 8 bit colour.  We could see such displays in commercial use sometime in 2010.  

Thursday 4 December 2008

Following interest rates..

So today the Bank of England lowered the base interest rate to the lowest for 57 years to just 2%.  While this makes life a little better for borrowers, it presents savers with a problem.  Commentators on TV today were recommending that savers faced with lower rates of return than in recent times should shop around and simply move their funds to the banks that offer the best rate for their savings.  This is fine in principle.  But actually there is much inertia to this apparent flexibility.  If you bank online, you really don't want yet another set of login credentials for yet another organisation, everytime you want to move banks.  Indeed this may involve having one time authentication pads or similar devices nowadays.  

People have enough credentials to look after for online services without introducing more just to move money around.  And this is likely to be relatively short term, as each bank offers other deals.  You can spend your whole life checking and re-checking for the best deals on mortgages, savings, insurance etc etc etc.  and then moving all your details around.  Most people don't have that time.   In the future, we will need transparent automatic trusted proxies that act on our behalf, maintaining profile information, and anonymising this information as we require as we go about our online lives.  As we move from managing relatively simple personal profiles of textual information to multiple whole avatars and identities in the virtual world, this need will become even more acute.  For those that already feel they suffer from information overload, you haven't seen anything yet!

Wednesday 3 December 2008

A prediction at Chinwag...

I agree with a number of other bloggers I have seen so far that the actual hard and fast predictions were few and far between last night at the Chinwag Live event at which I was one of five panellists.  At those sorts of events, the discussion tends to just flow in non-deterministic directions according to who says what.  In fact the time scale we were concentrating on is a bit short for me personally ... as a futurologist I am more used to discussing decades ahead rather than years!   However one of the topics covered was around small payments using technologies such as near field communcations (NFC) built into devices and one prediction I made at that time was that a majority of high-end smart phones will have NFC built into them by the end of 2010.  

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Having a good chinwag ...

Tonight I had the pleasure to be at the Slug & Lettuce in Soho, London to be part of a panel discussion and debate on a number of issues to do with the digital media industry by 2013 organised as part of the Chinwag Live series of events.  

The topics were many and varied about devices, business models, innovation, downturn, and privacy, amongst others.  There were some excellent other speakers on the panel too.  And many of the questions from the audience were very good ones.  It's always a pity on those occasions that the time available seems to pass very quickly.  It was great to be able to chat to many of the audience afterwards.  

Monday 1 December 2008

Open Innovation

It used to be that companies always kept their R&D secret.  It used to be that research was largely an internal function of a company.  And it used to be that it was only the research department that was charged with responsibility for innovation within a company.  Invention is only innovation when it means something for the customer.  Research and generating inventions expressed through intellectual property is relatively easy.  Turning that invention into innovation is much more challenging.  

Nowadays some companies are breaking these rules from the past.  And its not just the innovative companies that might first spring to mind ... such as Apple.  Even former monopoly telecommunications company BT has changed enormously.  It is now recognised as an innovation leader.  It has transformed from that old monopoly into this innovation leader by taking an open approach to innovation.  It runs scouting teams globally to find the best technology out there.  It has formed strategic partnerships both with academia including the best universities in both the UK and US, and also with suppliers and customers.  The latter is quite novel, through a specific programme of engagement with key large customers to apply research to their problems.  It has the largest foresight team in the UK and its ideas scheme within the company is a leading example of how to harness the innovation of people throughout the organisation.  And it works with New Venture Partners to identify potential spin outs and start-ups for technology it develops in-house.  This sharing of early innovation is perhaps a slightly counter-intuitive way to turn an internal research project into a solution, but has many advantages, including widening early adoption.  

In the future, it is clear that the old models won't be so successful any more.  Supply chains will be more fluid and much more collaboration will be evident all along it.  Rather than just selling to customers, joint development between organisations will shorten timescales and sharpen focus on the solutions to real problems.  In future we won't just be talking about mesh networks of computers, but mesh networks of organisations too.

Thursday 27 November 2008

Photographic WiFi

The most recent class of consumer electronics gadgets to begin introducing WiFi connectivity inside them is the consumer camera.  While the number of pixels (most unnecessarily) goes up with every new range of camera launched, the addition of wireless connectivity is a slow burn supplementary feature.  Two aspects of the cameras which have this feature surprise me a little.

The first is that WiFi is being added to cameras routinely with a standard which is two generations old.  Many WiFi cameras are equipped only with the 801.11B standard, not even the G standard which followed, let alone the more recent N standard.  This may not be a problem in the speeds required for the camera, but it is a little annoying for users that the performance of their wireless home network for their broadband connected computers is reduced by the introduction of a brand new camera into the home.

The second surprise is the variety of uses that WiFi on cameras is being put to.  The most common facility provided seems to be wireless printing directly to wireless-equipped printers. Some models allow pictures to be uploaded to online services, or emailed to specific people.  Others simply allow connection to the PC in the home to save plugging in via a cable.  Some more innovatively allow the camera to be controlled from the PC.  But why are some manufacturers making such strange choices and limiting the uses that such connectivity can be put to?  It makes little sense.  Let's hope that all of these features become standard amongst the cameras that have WiFi at all.

Friday 21 November 2008

Getting under your skin ...

Various developments are often popping up in the area of sensing and new sensor technology.  Scientists in Belgium have now announced a way of using optical components such as waveguides, light sources and detectors in a flexible substrate, potentially offering a new type of pressure sensor.  Because the form of the substrate may be a flexible foil type of structure, it is possible to imagine its use as an artificial skin material.  This might have applications in robots or indeed other machinery where such a sense is of use. 

A thin layer of silicone is arranged between two polymer waveguide layers and the amount of crosstalk detected indicates the pressure applied.  in the absence of any pressure, there is no leakage between the layers.  This makes for a potentially very cheap pressure sensor.  The ultimate aim of the researchers is to make a stretchable skin which is sensitive to pressure, touch and deformation.  

Thursday 20 November 2008

IET Annual Healthcare Lecture

It was a pleasure to deliver the keynote presentation at this year's IET Healthcare lecture at the organisation's headquarters in Savoy Place, London this evening.  It was also my pleasure to give out some prizes to the leading students recognised by the organisation before starting to speak.  

So what if your ageing relatives are cared for by robots?  And what if the only way to control a pandemic outbreak was to chip and track humans?  And what if your surgeon told you he wasn't going to be in the room with you when he carries out your operation?   These are all topics which I mentioned as part of glimpsing the future on this particular occasion.  

The questions afterwards were very good, understandably given the calibre of the audience present!   But the most interesting part for me as always, was the discussion over dinner where I could hear from some of the audience about their views and their work.  

Monday 17 November 2008

Future reading ...

This evening I had the pleasure of dining with a whole lot of people responsible for the provision of libraries in both England and Scotland.  The question of how people will want to "read" or consume such media in future was obviously raised.  Note about 'want' rather than 'be able' to!  Yes sure we all know about e-paper technologies and also that books can be delivered just as a bitstream like all other media ... eventually directly to the brain.   But this fails to capture the experience for people.  And that is important.  

Libraries are already changing from silent buildings with only racks of books stacked up.  But not every library user is yet ready for the audible experience that might result from some of the other activities that a library could offer, especially to attract younger 'readers'.  And new ways of checking items in and out are already providing self-service and utilising such technology as RFID tags.  The challenge in future is probably to find the right combinations of technology which enable people to have the optimum experience in the library and want to return there for the social experience as much as the media content.

Friday 14 November 2008

Small world ... big co-incidences!

Today I had the pleasure to be the keynote speaker to 150 people gathered for an event in Suffolk, England.  I mentioned during my presentation my recent trip to the MIT media lab in the USA.  Then at the end, one of the audience came to say hello and asked if I knew one of the professors there called Tod Machover.  Tod does some really excellent projects in the area of music and is currently working on a fantastically innovative opera.  It was co-incidental that a member of my audience today also called Jonathan also knows Tod so well!   Similarly it is co-incidental that one of my similar  presentations of future technologies last year was also given at the Sage, Gateshead - the venue for the premiere of Tod's opera!  It's a small world!

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Nano loudspeakers

There is so much potential in nanotechnology.  Some researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing have found that there are acoustic properties to exploit in sheets of carbon nanotubes such that they could form the basis of a new type of loudspeaker.  Rather than relying on mechanical vibrations through any physical movement of the nanotube sheets, it exploits small temperature changes which occur when alternating electric currents are passed through them.  Thus the pressure changes in the air (producing sound) are caused by thermal oscillations instead.  Because the nanotube sheets can be flexed and formed into different shapes, it may be possible to weave a loudspeaker into clothing for example!  Wearing your loudspeakers will be one way of taking your music with you!  

Friday 7 November 2008

Healthcare in 7 minutes?

General practitioners (GPs) and family doctors have on average about seven minutes for the consultation with each patient who visits them, within the National Health Service (NHS) of the United Kingdom.  These GPs are increasingly being offered more technology support in their work, more complex drugs to prescribe, and more options for followup treatments.  The future vision for healthcare often points towards more individual care, more targeted prescriptions and drugs for each patient.  Biotechnology marches on towards such a vision.  It is difficult to align these two things.  It is difficult to see how even the best doctors will cope with an even more complex world with so little time available to them.  I wonder if more intelligent pre-briefing of patient records will even scratch the surface in respect of making their task any easier.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Future buildings

Businesses are often accused of thinking too short term for commercial reasons.  In my role however I find that in most organisations there is at least one or two people who take the long term view.  Some organisations are forward looking too ... in the way they invest in their property and real estate.  The way that people will work and the places that they will work in will be very different in future.  The built environment of work places of the future will be instrumented by different technology and offer new capabilities for the businesses and employees that occupy them.  Sustainability is the buzzword for buildings now.  Much of the technology will be concerned with supporting this as much if not more than the work that people do there.  

I had the pleasure of an evening with the 2016 Medite group; it was great to hear how wood could play a large part in the sustainable built environment of the future, from representatives of many companies who take the long term view.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Technology driving cars

There is lots of potential for adding yet more technology to the motor car.  In the past, this has often focused more on the environment within the vehicle.  More recently the focus has been on assistance with navigation.  Technology assisting the driver with control of the car has mainly been associated with error or exception conditions, such as emergency braking, anti-skidding, etc.  But there is more scope for technology that assists the driver more actively in normal driving or rather taking activities away from the driver altogether.  

Cars are already out there which use millimetre radar to actively manage the distance between it and the car in front.  One of my own cars is able to take control of the steering to automatically park itself either parallel or perpendicular to other vehicles.  It is not such a step from this for cars to identify and propose safe overtaking or lane changing opportunities.  Hopefully we will eventually combine many such systems to allow the total capacity of our road network to be increased by more dense packing of vehicles at speeds and distances totally regulated by the cars themselves rather than the human occupants.  

I enjoy driving a good deal, but I would rather give up some of the activity if automation allows less congestion and therefore reduces the propensity of Governments to regulate for less use of personal cars and more more of a move to public transport.   Using my own personal transport with all of its advantages, is more important to me than needing to drive it myself.

Friday 31 October 2008

A magic week...

As my visit to Boston comes to an end, and I fly out of Logan airport on Halloween night, I reflect on a week of meeting some top people.  These include students and faculty of MIT media lab, and those from other companies that were also there at the same time.  The innovative environment there seems to get the creative and collaborative juices going amongst most of those present.  

Today I met a professional magician, and a researcher of the power of wonder.  It was a fascinating as well as very apt way to conclude a magical week in Boston, Massachusetts.  I also wonder if there must've been some magic going on that ensured my return flight was on time for a change too! 

Thursday 30 October 2008

Robots with feeling...

One of the more memorable aspects of visiting the incredible innovative environment which is the MIT Media Lab is always the robots they have on show.  This has been true of all my previous visits and was no different today this time.  

Robots which just do mechanical tasks that humans and then simple machines used to do previously, such as welding pieces of cars together, are already relatively accepted and therefore unimpressive to many people.  Robots that take movement further and are mobile and appear to solve more general problems tend to seem more impressive to more people.  

But robots that can appear to empathise with humans and even exhibit aspects of emotional understanding and expression themselves are more impressive still to almost everyone.  This often has an emotional effect on visitors and people who meet such robots for the first time.  It is most impressive of all when the inventor and constructor who has built the robot feels emotionally affected by the result of his/her work, ... by the appearance, actions and behaviour of the robot.  This is beginning to happen.  It will be very important in the future.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Bubbles and benefits

There have been a few bubbles in the course of history.  Those bubbles have typically left us with benefits.  The 1880's bubble left the legacy of the railways.   The 1920's bubble left much of the public utility infrastructure in its wake... The 90's dot com bubble left an internet online infrastructure in its wake.   What will the current bubble of disruption leave us with?  Even if it leads to a revision of the way banks work, it's hard to see how any significant infrastructural investment will result.  The big benefits of the past have provided a partial springboard out of difficult economic times.   It's not obvious to many what the springboard will be this time.

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Hands on the G1

Today I had my first chance for an actual play with the first phone to be launched based on Google's Android architecture, the G1.   I had read many reviews and gave my synopsis in an earlier posting to this blog, but it was nice to touch and try one for myself.  

My first observation is that the reaction of a user to this phone may be very different depending on whether they have a Google account or not.  It is impossible to make or receive a simple phone call with this device until one has created a new Google ID or entered the details of an existing account.   The problem here is not that this costs any money (it doesn't of course), but rather that the people in the world who have or desire to have a  Google account are a particular skewed population.  This may be fine if the target audience for G1 matches this but not if the intention is to sell to a more general audience.  

My second reaction relates to the connector provided on the bottom of the G1.  It seems to amount to an HTC proprietary version of mini USB with extra audio connectors.  There is no separate audio jack to plug earphones into to listen to a call or music playing on the phone for example.  And the connector is hardly standard either.  Apple received (rightly) some flack for the decision to put a recessed audio jack on the original iPhone which restricted the earphones that could be used to the ones Apple provided with it.   They subsequently removed this restriction on the 3G version released this year.  I wonder if the successor to the G1 will also revise the thinking behind the connectors used.  I haven't seen much complaint about this for the G1 yet it not only requires a specific earphone termination but also USB connection/power cord too! 

Apart from some issues with how well the included mail program handles other IMAP mail systems and some user interface inconsistencies, the general performance of applications on the G1 seemed reasonable for the first version.   However those who describe it as an iPhone killer are missing many things ... including that Apple has added so many corporate-friendly features, a significant one being full exchange support in the iPhone software updates.  But the G1 is an interesting device and will probably achieve the idea of fragmenting the marketplace further from the established players, something that I feel may well be more important in the Android strategy.   Anyway I suspect a large number of technical internet-savvy, the open-source fraternity and tech-industry people will love it as their phone.

Monday 27 October 2008

Competing in an Open World...

While over here in Boston, I have been looking at some of Professor Rebecca Henderson's  (Sloane School) work, and specifically in the first instance her work on how corporates can compete in a world of public open standards.  It is a great example of how if you examine only the 'what-if' scenarios you seriously close off the possible rationale for change or for doing the unexpected.  Examining the 'what-if-not' scenarios however, which is one of the points Rebecca makes in her thoughts on competition in the public open world, can lead exactly to the unexpected and disruptive ideas for innovation.   And further, however unusual the alternative scenarios might be, 'what if you don't but your competitors do' can be an incredibly powerful driver for revising strategy!

For a week here in which I expect to be amazed by the technological, it is good to begin Monday by thinking more about business strategy and the non-technical.  One of the great benefits of visiting a place like MIT is to combine its output with the knowledge and understanding we have within the corporate environment of our customers' worlds and problem spaces.

Saturday 25 October 2008

American beauty in Innovation

Arriving here in Boston for a week of immersion at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I am looking forward to learning about many new technology innovations and meeting some of the best academics and students in a whole range of fields of expertise.  This has certainly been the case on every previous visit and I expect nothing less this time.  

The five hour time difference has meant I automatically woke at 5am this morning but that should improve over the next couple of days!  Particular areas I am looking to investigate this week at MIT include robotics, bio-tech, consumer electronics and nano-tech.  Those of you who have heard me speak will know that I already often use examples from MIT in a number of ways.  I hope to update and add new material 'to the pot' this week.  Relationships with top academia are very important in deriving a view of the future which also has groundings in real research objectives today.

Thursday 23 October 2008

Northern Ireland & Innovation

Well despite the last post to this blog, I did eventually get to Belfast and then on to Newcastle in Northern Ireland one day later than originally planned.  I gave my speech as intended to the Civil Service conference being held there.  The plane was evidently repaired from twenty-four hours before and indeed some of the flight crew remembered me from the aborted flight the previous day.  

While at the conference, and after I had made my contribution from the platform, I had an interesting conversation with one of the delegates on the subject of innovation.  I was able to outline the relative success of initiatives such as new ideas schemes, scouting teams in other geographies, and central facilitation and management of innovation within a corporate organisation.  We also discussed the idea of an 'innovation dividend' as a measure with which to evaluate the effectiveness of research on other operational areas of a business.  This exploitation of innovation is always the most difficult part, spanning the chasm between research and operations.  But it is insufficient to innovate only at the idea generation department.  The best organisations look to innovate all along the business value chain, from research through to operational support.  This not only re-enforces the culture of innovation throughout the organisation, but also provides for the biggest potential gains.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Aborted trip !

I was hoping to write this blog entry from Belfast today but my trip had to be cancelled due to a fault with the plane that I had boarded.  An eagle-eyed ground crew inspector noticed a few drops of liquid from one of the engines which turned out to be a fuel leak and after much testing, the plane was declared unfit to use until repairs had been effected.   The subsequent delay was too long for me to make the conference I was due to speak at.
I would like to think that some technology on board the plane would have detected such a problem, but it demonstrates the importance of the human touch still today.  

Friday 17 October 2008

Beware the bank fraudsters ...

My last couple of blog entries have been around the subject of data protection and the security of online computer activity ... this third in the series takes a topical spin on these subjects.  

The current financial turmoil affecting the banking sector and money markets offers a new fertile opportunity for the spammers and ID theft crooks.  With all the increased focus on retail banking security of deposits, and the subsequent taking over of some banks by others, expect to see a new wave of email scams in the names big name US and UK banks purporting to need you to do some account administration online which inevitably will require the submission of some personal data.  The renaming of any merged financial institutions will also open up the possibility of fraudsters using new domain names for spoof websites that seem realistic.  

Of course the thing to do is completely ignore the instructions of emails from your bank to offer up *any* information - no bank will use this method to request such data, especially by sending you to website link from an email.  Some banks have information on their web site which details an email address you can forward such phishing or other suspicious emails you might receive in their name to - so that they can be investigated properly.  Happy & safe surfing this weekend ... !

Thursday 16 October 2008

Personal computer security

Surveys show that there is a great misunderstanding and general ignorance about security on personal computers.  For instance, many people asked think their systems at home are protected by a firewall when the firewall is actually not enabled, or that because they have installed some virus protection software that they have done everything they need to do.   The general awareness of the public about how to be as safe as possible when using a computer online is actually very poor.  And on top of all of this, messages produced by software that runs on many personal computers which ask users to make a choice actually give totally inadequate information for people to make this choice rationally.  For example, the Windows XP system may announce to the user that updates are available for your computer... do you want to install them Y/N?  Many people have no notion of whether it is wise to say yes or no!   And there are many more technical messages that get issued which describe something that has been detected as happening and ask for the user to confirm some action, though most users would not understand the consequences of such confirmation. 

In the future, there will be many more ways that malware will attack personal computers and other devices.  These devices will be even more essential to people and carry even more personal information, and so people need to be better educated about what they can reasonably do to reduce the risk of bad things happening.  It is never going to be possible to make everything totally safe, but it is a question of better understanding risk.  I believe computer system manufacturers also have a responsibility to help users manage the risk better rather than giving them choices which are not explained and cannot be understood or acted on with reasonable confidence by ordinary users.

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Online data protection...

There are some that refuse to do online banking because they feel its too risky.  There are people who don't have credit cards and even bank accounts due to a lack of trust.  In practice these days it is already too late for the technophobic to opt out entirely from electronic data storage by the organisations they have to interact with or do business with.  At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who have so many store loyalty cards and are involved with so many Government departments or other organisations that they think nothing of the electronic footprint they leave behind.  Surveillance and security cameras also mean that many people especially in the urban environment are practically trackable wherever they move around. 

In the future there will be more electronic footprints left by more people, more tracking and surveillance by cameras and other sensors and less choice for people to be part of it.  There have been so many recent UK examples of data being left insecurely somewhere or lost entirely which adds to the concern of the population at large.  Fundamentally, most of the breaches of data loss, though enabled by electronic storage, have been down to human behaviour.  Culturally, this is something people have to adapt to.  This means both in terms of perception and behaviour.  The online data train has already left; it is a question of learning to deal with the cargo it carries. 

Monday 13 October 2008

Preparing for innovation

Some companies are better at innovation than others.  But much of the success is not about the ability to generate new ideas and implement them in products but how the organisation manages the process of innovation.  Apple has demonstrated many examples of this in the past and I believe are about to do it again tomorrow with the launch of their next generation of laptop computers.   I believe this launch will herald the beginning of a transition of Apple's Mac hardware to support the Open-CL facilities to be released in the next generation of their operating system known as Snow Leopard.   These facilities will provide for a significant jump in computing performance by the use of graphics processors to do more general processing tasks when they have spare capacity.   Apple did this before with the advent of WiFi 802.11N technology by ensuring that the bulk of machines out in the field would support it when the relevant software upgrade was dropped.  

I'm sure that tomorrow's laptop unveiling will mention a switch to Nvidia chipsets, but that there will be a few other headline grabbing announcements.   The significance of the Nvidia switch though will be that they are already committed to support for the Open-CL architecture.  For Apple, it will mean that the hardware pieces will be put in place for when Snow Leopard debuts, and the user experience of existing products can be significantly improved by updating the operating system.   It is this pre-planning of products which allows the software to exploit the hardware (or vice-versa) which is central to but often un-obvious about their business innovation.

Sunday 12 October 2008

Human, robot & hybrid employees?

The last blog entry mentioned the employment of robots within more organisations.  We should not expect robots to necessarily resemble human forms with arms and legs for example.  Many successful implementations especially when viewed from the viewpoint of human cultural acceptance of their new machine colleagues, will take alternative forms.  

Advances in bio-tech though will offer other opportunities.  This includes the 'enhancement' of humans through neurally-linked machine components.  Initially we will see this for those who require some help due to disability but later the option will be there for others, and in the corporate environment, it may be that for performance reasons there is some motivation to use the technology too.  We will eventually be more comfortable with humans being 'chipped' in the same way that animals already are.  The nature and capabilities of this chip will develop and evolve over time.  The initial impetus might be security, but it could also evolve into a platform for future human enhancement.  

Friday 10 October 2008

Work is an activity, not a place!

While as I remarked in a previous blog entry education has remained much the same over a very long period of time, the way business is conducted today is quite different from how it was in the past.  Businesses have evolved in the way they operate.  But still the future of business will be considerably different again. 

Structurally I expect a polarisation from the global corporate to virtual community-based enterprises.  While using the word virtual, businesses will build upon their fledgling use so far of virtual worlds for some activities and operations.  And employees will assume more power individually than they do today.  In response, businesses will have to be more individual about how they facilitate flexible working patterns and how they measure and reward performance through benefits.  The talent market for businesses to select from will be more diverse and more demanding.  Instead of assuming talent will come to them, companies will have to make flexible arrangements for employing the best people wherever they want to locate.  And the preoccupation with work-life balance will be superseded by work-life integration.   The latter will be supported by personal consumer-driven devices that integrate personal and business information filtering it as appropriate.  

More businesses will employ robots as well as humans.  Human employees will be valued much more for their abilities to be creatively innovative and to manage others from an emotional perspective, rather than simply valued because of their knowledge and skills.  Those who can manage relationships and networks of people will also be in demand, especially when they can effectively lead and manage people over distance.  

Thursday 9 October 2008

Apple's next act ...

It's now official that Apple will showcase new laptop models on October 14th.  Rumours have been circulating (as usual) for weeks.   Various interesting ideas about form factors are floating around.  But I guess that they will want to modify the design to perhaps incorporate some features from the most recent MacBook Air model, and any further slimming down over existing models will require some redesign or configuration of the ports placed on the edges of the device without compromising on the overall connectivity provided (which they could afford with the Air).  I hope they will also be bold enough to also incorporate some features from the iPhone in terms of multi-touch.  

Apple have also traditionally been very careful with the naming of their products and the addition of a new suffix word to the MacBook range with the advent of the "Air" will not have been a one-off and accident.  I suspect this is part of a plan.  The distinction has for a long time been between consumer and pro versions ... the era of the laptop is now well established and consumers are now beginning to drive IT sales for business use too (the consumerisation of IT) so a new wider range of laptops named by form factor and features would be very appropriate.  It would also match the naming convention adopted for iPods (touch, nano etc.)  

Apple have also prepared investors in recent calls for a lower profit margin through the introduction of upcoming revolutionary products.  Lowering the entry cost of their laptop range at the point that global western economies are entering recession would be a shrewd move. 

On the 14th October we will see what happens.  But I will be looking with interest given that I am writing this on a G4 Powerbook ... which is due for replacement.  

Friday 3 October 2008

Supermarket trust & privacy

As the world develops becomes more and more instrumented by sensors, cameras and other means of tracking people and their habits, some are increasingly worried about issues of personal privacy.   As more and more data containing personal information is stored on more and more electronic systems, there is an increased probability that we will see examples of information leakage such as the personal data loss examples recently occurring in the UK.   More people worry about the latter than what their supermarket knows about them, despite these sort of organisations knowing and deriving far more about their customers through loyalty card schemes.  The truth is that people worry less about giving up personal information if they perceive some benefit back in doing so.  In the supermarket's case, it may be money-off vouchers, online shopping lists and home delivery or whatever.  The fact that a benefit is perceived is more important than what it is.  

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Woz on innovation

Today I had the pleasure to meet personally Steve Wozniak, one of the co-founders of Apple Computer Inc.  It's clear from listening to him and reading his book that he worked extremely diligently on electronic design and to a lesser extent computer programming around the time of the birth of the mini and then the personal computer.  He was genuinely innovative as an engineer always priding himself on improving on the way others had addressed the same problems by thinking different.  It's also clear that one of the lessons of innovation success is often exquisite timing; being in the right place at the right time with whatever ideas come about.   Woz certainly managed that.  But it was nice to meet someone for whom the engineering achievement seemed genuinely much more important than fame or fortune.   

Monday 29 September 2008

The intelligent home ...

Tonight I had a very interesting evening visiting a colleague from work who has really thought through how he wants his house to respond in an intelligent way according to the people living in it.  In fact, not only the people, but he has also had to take account of the pet cat and how it would otherwise activate movement sensors!  But it is an impressive example of home automation.  The lights, the door bell, audio and video and temperature and humidity control are all catered for.  

The system allows him to inspect the status of and control devices in his home remotely over the Internet.  The system he has chosen to use is called Idratek and it presents an extremely flexible array of options using a wide array of sensors.  It all constitutes a leading edge example of what a future ubiquitous sensor environment combined with intelligent processing can do to enhance and optimise aspects of human living.  

As per the comment ... more info about the installation can be found on his blog.

Sunday 28 September 2008

Innovation requires more than the idea...

I just caught the end of a television programme where presenter James May was remarking that if the motor car was invented today, then it would probably be banned under safety regulations alone!  The invention might have been described as a small metal box that individuals pilot themselves and travel at significant speeds with very little training, and which are powered by a tank of highly flammable liquid!  It's quite believable that the invention would be squashed before it was allowed to take off.  

Similarly, if I had rolled into a meeting to design a new messaging service, and had admitted that it would be priced as the most expensive data messaging (£/Mb) known to man, I would've been shown the door.  Instead I might have described the user interface, whereby you press a small key once to type 'a' and twice for 'b' and three times for 'c' and that each little button has at least three functions associated with it, again I can imagine being told to go and think again.  However the SMS service has been extremely popular with billions of messages being sent around the globe daily.  Indeed it was originally never designed as a service, but instead a diagnostic tool for engineers.  

Innovations like these which we take for granted today might never have come to pass had the circumstances and timing been different.  I wonder how many great ideas we stifle today for similar reasons? 

Wednesday 24 September 2008

The first android phone...

The first phone based on Google's Android mobile platform has been announced and of course immediately compared to Apple's iPhone, but then all mobile devices are nowadays - which says something about what any new device has to cope with!  It's imaginatively called the G1 and comes with a touch screen (not multi-touch), lots of wireless interfaces and most of the usual features you would expect.  But I am not convinced it is the capabilities and features of the G1 which will determine its success.

The iPhone must be the most hyped device of all time.  And sure, it has a number of limitations.  But it is the phone that is in everyone's mind when comparing others.  It is very difficult to compete against the mind of the consumer.  It is also harder to launch a new consumer product in the advent of an economic recession.  But I think two other things may make Google's entry to the phone market very difficult.  Compared to Apple, Google doesn't have the same unique hardware and software capability, rather it will always be harder to come up with the best user experience on devices when they are effectively a product of many producers, all integrated together.  We've seen that in the difference of the user experience between the Mac and the PC.

The second very dangerous risk that Google is taking with Android is the application distribution policy and infrastructure.  The tech users and the hackers, the leading edge folk will love the openness and the ability to do absolutely anything with the phone, loading any software they like, with no certification or checking of what various downloaded software does or where it comes from.  But the normal user, the man in the street, may actually worry quite a lot about the exploits that the mis-users may attempt on their phones.  Again,we know from the PC experience how if some people can do bad things then they will, resulting in a virus problem that everyone detests.  

I hope that Android manages to do well despite the concerns I have raised here.  Certainly the market can do with more initiatives like this to provide better and more innovative advances than Windows Mobile or Nokia/Symbian would make if left alone.  Perhaps Google is simply using Android to attempt to fragment the marketplace and drive the eventual mobile applications space into the cloud?  

Tuesday 23 September 2008

People-led service requirements

Today I attended an event at Essex University.  One of the presentations was by an employee of Kodak about the process of moving from a people need through research to service development.  It was really well done, and concentrated on the way they had observed and analysed what people like to do with photos, in order to understand what service to offer through software support for managing digital images.  I wish so many other service offerings would begin from this approach.  

I often evangelise about the innovation of Apple in this blog - and I think they really do have some great examples, not just with product but also process and business models.  One of the reasons some of their innovations in the products and services they offer to customers are so good is because they also start from the perspective of what people like and want to do and accomplish.  This then drives how they use technology to simplify and break down barriers so that users can get done what they want, in ways that suit them ... without engineering hundreds of features that they don't need.   It was really nice to hear a similar approach from Kodak.  

Monday 22 September 2008

Are we all working comfortably?

Flexible working can mean very many things ... job sharing, flexi-time hours, working from home rather than the traditional office, or working part-time in some way to name just a few.  But while work is better regarded nowadays as something people do rather than somewhere people go, in the future work will follow an even more different pattern.  

We are already seeing how today's definitions of flexible working allow organisations to employ the best talent even if those people happen to have non-standard circumstances or requirements which would have otherwise previously precluded them because of processes that tried to fit them to a fixed templated work pattern.    In the future, working flexibly may also encompass the idea of working timeshared for different employers in a much more widespread way than happens today.  The employment market will be far more dynamic and accommodate much more individual preference about the when, how, where and for whom work is done - particularly in academic or administrative work roles.  

From the individuals' perspective, their value will not be so much in terms of skills and knowledge but rather their ability to network and maintain links between other people.   This networking will be crucial, both with people and with machines that will perform the tasks which people do today.

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Social or anti-social games?

Many people, particularly parents, are concerned about the amount of computer game playing time spent by children.  On the face of it, such games cause today's younger generation to spend yet more time in front of a computer screen.  There is an assumption that all of this takes place in isolated bedrooms up and down the land.  If children didn't get any fresh air then this would certainly be a problem.

But of course children play games, and actually, reality shows that many young people are playing games while socialising with their peers, either in person or online.  Communication is an important and natural thing for them to do while they pursue the enjoyment of gaming.  In fact many adults don't understand the concept of multitasking like this because in their generation it was different.  A change has taken place and is continuing to take place.  Secondly, many of the games which are popular actually involve thinking about moral or ethical issues, making decisions about the welfare and development of others in a community or involve some aspect of social care.  And thirdly, more and more young people will have mobile devices as time goes on which allows them to play games anywhere, outside, inside, wherever they are and whoever they are with.  In fact, in future, I think there will be more older people who are playing games of one sort or another too... I wonder if their view of the younger generation will change? 

Monday 15 September 2008

Dogs or robots?

I read recently how a biotech firm in Korea (RNL Bio) and the Seoul National University had trained a pit bull terrier to perform certain domestic tasks such as removing laundry from a washing machine, fetching things from the fridge, amongst others.  Then they cloned five other dogs from this well trained parent.  Articles were subsequently written about whether dogs trained in this way could rival and be better than domestic robots.  I suspect that some would have opinions about the ethical aspects of the canine solution to domestic automation.  

Actually, I would still prefer a robot anyway.  There are plenty of reasons why the dog could choose not to follow its training on any particular day.  The dog will also eventually tire from domestic work.  The programming "breadth" possible for a robot should out-strip the number of tasks that a dog can be trained to do.  Finally, the dog will always require more maintenance, and have a more limited lifespan.  Unless its training extends to clearing up after itself then I still prefer the robot alternative, all of the previous points not withstanding!   

What is perhaps more interesting than to debate the merits of robot versus dog, is to wonder what might be the motivation behind the scientists who chose to train and clone the pit bulls?  Which species of animal do would be considered next?  

Saturday 13 September 2008

Wearable computing research

Yesterday I received an invite to the beautiful Sophia Antipolis on the French Riviera for Smart Event 2008, which will focus on wearable computing.  There are a number of research projects running in different parts of the world at the moment in this area.    Specifically, some of these efforts are looking at wearable information technology (IT) in the workplace.  It's clear that there are a whole range of possible application areas for such technology including the personal assistant that never leaves your side, but doesn't disturb you, healthcare monitoring, emergency rescue and personal training.  Many of these wearable computing projects see the technology as a natural extension of the body and human capability.  Many of the benefits of it will only come about not only when the technological solutions are refined more, but also when potential users also share the idea of extension of human capabilities.   

Friday 12 September 2008

Innovation & open thinking ...

I have written blog entries before about how companies such as Apple innovate in the marketplace and drive others in their sector to innovate too at a faster pace than would otherwise be the case.  This is extremely important.  I have also been involved in a training event this week which was focused at improving the ways that messages are given in presentations, through specific techniques which exploit the characteristics of conversation.  

Often as BT Futurologist, I find myself being asked to give a keynote at some event which attempts to "open the minds" of those in the audience.  One of the desirable side effects of that is hopefully that the experts of their own domains in the audience begin to wonder what the impact of the future scenarios and developments that I describe might be on their worlds.  This may in turn stimulate thoughts of innovation within their organisations aimed at mitigating the impact that they have identified.  

One day, we will have direct machine to human brain interfacing which will allow the programming of an open mind!  Until then Futurologists like me will continue to try and open up minds, partly using the techniques I mentioned at the start! 

Tuesday 9 September 2008

iChat, therefore I am ...

So the last couple of nights while away at this event in the west of England, in a country hotel which provides little cell phone coverage, the broadband internet connection combined with my Apple laptop has allowed me not only to talk to my wife and friends but also show them around the place here using full screen video and pass web hyperlinks via text chat ... all using iChat, the conferencing application provided on every Mac.  The certificates issued to mobileme service members has also allowed these audio, video and text chat sessions to be seemlessly encrypted both ways - not that I believe there is anyone who would gain from 'listening' in!

The link has also allowed me to write this blog, to do my work and personal email, to confirm onward travel arrangements, share my calendar to those who need to know and keep in touch with the news ... both general and technology.  I am able to watch Apple CEO Steve Jobs perform on stage at the event that has launched the next generation of iPods in California and download the latest software updates released.  My laptop extends the ethernet broadband connection provided in the room here wirelessly to my iPhone.  I have all my required Internet apps to hand!

So do I really miss the coverage of my GSM cellphone?   Do I miss the GPRS data connection which it should provide?   No ... I would prefer the general Internet broadband connection anyday ... and in the future I believe this will be even more so for many more people.  

Cellphone freedom or loneliness

I am tonight writing my blog entry from the west country of Britain in a lovely old hotel which will host an event I am attending - they have broadband here, strangely charged until 11am each day ... but there is no cellphone coverage!  So my mobile devices are next to useless but my trusty laptop can plug in and connect me.  

In the future, the mobile access denied to me here will be ubiquitous ... but will that be a good thing or not?   Am I freed here without it to concentrate on the matters in hand, is it less stressful to feel I should check that mail or calendar appointment when I hear the "ping" of its arrival or am I suffering from not being online either all the time or at least as often as I choose to be?  

Well I think on balance I would rather be connected and exercise the choice of whether to act on the information that is pushed to me or not.   For the minority (I suspect) whose self-discipline is such that they cannot make this choice sensibly, probably it would be better to have no connectivity at all.  But my view remains that the future of constant broadband connectivity on the move will provide more benefits than disadvantages and that future services that we come to love will depend on it.  

Friday 5 September 2008

Connectivity withdrawal symptoms

In the future, connectivity will be ubiquitous and fast broadband widespread and everywhere.  Today we have a mixture of all sorts of relatively slow connections when out and about.  GPRS is the basic data service used by mobile devices and when it fails it can be very frustrating.  I have suffered this very problem today while travelling on business.   As I passed through various WiFi hotspots, my devices populated and synced my mail and other applications but in between times I was frustrated to be offline.  In fact it was really annoying.  I am used to being able to be online at some sort of speed of connection almost anytime I like, and here I was suffering withdrawal symptoms!   

At the moment its convenient to do lots of stuff online.   In the future it will be necessary to do lots of stuff online.  By then the withdrawal symptoms won't just cause frustration, they may make the difference between something really important happening or not.   

Thursday 4 September 2008

iPhone reflections

So Apple's iPhone is shipping in shed loads ... people bought the original one (with all its carrier and contract limitations in limited geographies) in their millions, and they are buying the newer 3G version in even more millions in even more countries.  The carrier options are diversifying (as many of us predicted) and now the App Store is open for business, non techie people are customising their mobile phone's capabilities like never before.  

The multi-touch experience on the iPhone is unlike any other touch screen device.  Some aspects of this user interface is being transplanted by Apple into its range of laptop computers and I believe the computer maker will develop this further as a key differentiator in the future.  Apple used the tremendous volume of iPods sold to get its component costs (and particularly flash memory) down so that it could introduce lower end models and incorporate cheap flash memory in other devices while maintaining margins against the bill of materials costs.  I believe it will play the same trick with iPhone components, including the touch screen.   When it has sold sufficient (against a business plan) volumes of iPhones, it is likely to offer a lower end model (perhaps with just voice and music) such as it did with the iPod Mini and Nano models of music player.  As ever I expect its marketing position and timing to be extremely carefully thought out so that sales do not cannibalise its higher end model.

The iPhone has made the rest of the industry sit up and follow.  Innovations are coming thick and fast.  Other manufacturers are now talking about equivalents to the App Store.  Hardly any players dare to have a range of phones without touch screens now, and yet none can come close to multi-touch.  I'm glad that Apple's foray into the mobile phone is being successful, not just because like other users, I love my iPhone but also because I think its important that innovation in the industry is stimulated in this way. 

Wednesday 3 September 2008

Machines that understand users?

We often hear stories about how users find themselves baffled by machines  ... they don't understand why the computer has done something, or can't work out how something should be configured to achieve the desired outcome.  So users understanding machines is sometimes rather a challenge!   So what about the other way around?

In the future, we will have machines that understand people.  ZDnet reports how Intel has already announced research it is carrying out into sentient machines, which use a whole raft of complex sensors to understand the world of the user and hence awareness of the user's situation.  One Intel project called "everyday sensing and perception" or ESP began during 2007.   Its aim is to achieve 90% accuracy of understanding 90% of an average individual's daily routine.  The sensors involved include very basic measurements as well as higher level interpretations of movement, emotions and words, as well as real time object recognition.  Currently the latter can manage at least 75% accuracy on automatically recognising seven objects, using video capture from a shoulder-worn camera.  The hope is to scale this to hundreds of objects.  This is example of how discretely worn devices in the future will interact with other devices to provide real time inputs - part of a wearable sensor network.

At present, the processing required for this real time event recognition is about 4 TeraFlops and about 10kW of power.  The power consumption aim eventually is less than 1 watt so that portable devices can perform the task.  

And this is only one set of research initiatives in this area.  So in a matter of a decade or two, it may be machines understanding users which is more common a practice than the other way about!

Monday 1 September 2008

Augmented reality coming true?

The power of the online world will be much more realised when we are able to truly combine it with the real world in real time.  This is often referred to as augmented reality.  We may have to wait a decade before many people are walking around wearing visual devices (active contact lenses or eye glasses with built-in projection) to enable a more immersive augmented reality experience.  
Today I saw this video on YouTube which shows a navigation unit from BlauPunkt ... probably the most reasonable commercial product step towards real time augmented reality I have seen recently.  

Sunday 31 August 2008

Intelligent cars with dumb drivers?

I wrote before about the idea of intelligent transport systems that allow cars to automatically drive people to destinations along highways that are excluded from human drivers.  I also mentioned about possible benefits of better packing density of cars on roads, fewer accidents and less congestion delay.  Much of this vision would be enhanced by inter-car communications, allowing the systems controlling the cars to talk to each other in a peer to peer type chain along a road.  

The EU has now agreed to reserve 30MHz of radio spectrum in the 5.9GHz band for precisely this function.  Of course they quote the same benefits, highlighting the number of road transport deaths due to accidents, and the amount of money lost due to congestion on European roads.  But can systems based on car to car communications provide any better information to drivers that they can act upon to attain these benefits?  Well I think it is marginal unless we take the bigger step of removing the driver from the control function of the car completely.  Making vehicles more intelligent without giving them control in place of humans is of little value.  This bigger step is much harder to achieve culturally.  It requires social change.  But one day we will.  

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Set that screen loose!

I have written about my vision of devices splitting apart into individual functioning parts and being linked wirelessly in the future, once personal area networking (PAN) technology develops and standardises sufficiently.  One main benefit of this future will be the end of cables between devices and the display screens that they use.  Wireless display technology may be one of the first parts of devices to be split apart.  Televisions are typically becoming screens connected to set-top boxes that contain the tuner and other functions.  WiFi based connections to LCD projectors have been available for a couple of years but performance is slow and patchy so they haven't really taken on.  Wireless video needs more suitable protocols and increasingly more bandwidth.  To stream uncompressed high definition (HD) 1080p video wirelessly typically requires between 3 and 5 Gbit/s.  This is what a wireless replacement for the HDMI connections typically found on modern consumer video equipment would need to handle. 

Those looking forward to shipping video around their lounge without wires will be pleased to know that a couple of initiatives already exist, each backed by a number of major consumer electronics manufacturers.  "WiHD" was the first of the two, and operates in the 60GHz band providing a full 5Gbit/s but uses such a small wavelength radio that it is easily attenuated by walls and requiring line of sight between transmitter and receiver, meaning that a multi-room scenario would need extra nodes or repeaters.  The second initiative is known as WHDI, and uses the 5GHz band, has longer range but permits only 3Gbit/s bit-rate.   The danger is that the fight between these two initiatives could be reminiscent of the Betamax/VHS debate.  There is also a chance that UltraWideBand (UWB) technology may also intervene and help accelerate the pace of development of such initiatives.  The promise is that if standardisation and developments continue as per manufacturers' roadmaps, we could see this in consumer products in around five years time.  

Monday 25 August 2008

It's in the mail ...

With 80% of email being spam these days, its hard to believe that anything of value is conveyed by this most basic and popular of internet services.  But it is possible to send money to an email address, and many websites use email addresses as usernames to access other systems that get even more done.  But in the future maybe we will be able to convey more complex things by email? 

Well, I'm sure that we'll invent a more suitable protocol than email but often the first idea of conveying stuff uses the most basic and best understood means available!  So what about when we begin to convey our emotions in real time over the net?  And the more awkward senses like smell and taste which are as yet not included in A/V?  Advances in haptics mean that we can already cope with touch.  Augmenting the sometimes very sterile online world with all of these additional characteristics will bring far more value to Internet communications, however much spam exists by then!

Friday 22 August 2008

Wireless power again!

So Intel have now announced their latest results relating to increasing the efficiency of wireless induction systems for getting power to devices without cables.  The approach, originally termed WiTricity by MIT who first demonstrated a 45% efficient system, has now been improved by Intel researchers. Since then, MIT have managed 90% efficient systems, which is more like the numbers that would be demanded in today's energy conscious world.  However I tend to agree that it will be 5 years before such an approach could be commercialised for widespread use and probably substantially longer than this in practice. 

Meanwhile, the current crop of lithium-ion batteries that are common in consumer electronics products today are likely to be gradually replaced by the next chemical technology for batteries, based on silver-zinc, from 2009 onwards. 

And devices will continue to be smarter at using less power by selectively turning parts of their functionality off automatically.  

So the power consumption issue won't be addressed by any one silver bullet solution, but rather by developments in all three areas ... New power systems, new battery technology and smarter more intelligent power management in devices. 

Tuesday 19 August 2008

Nanoscale sensors

I recently read about the combination of two different nanotechnologies which could result in more sensitive but lower power consuming sensor hardware.  The University of Southampton has been doing some work on this, through a European funded project, which would overcome the limitations of existing CMOS techniques.  The first nanotechnology used is nanomachining in order to actually construct such tiny sensor systems.  The second uses single-electron transistors consisting of a single bridge of airspaced silicon which confines individual electrons.  
This approach is being used to produce two types of sensor.  The first is able to sense the change in electrical conductance as a result of the charge transfer from a molecule captured on the bridge channel's surface.  The other sensor type uses the bridge gate in suspension to detect the small mass changes of captured molecules which signals an electrical change in the resonant frequency of the gate.

In a future world where sensors are a natural pervasive part of the environment, nanotechnology seems sure to have a number of applications ... the sensor approach described here being just the tip of the iceberg.  

Friday 15 August 2008

Designing future chips

The current trend in computer processing chips is multi-core ... and I have written on this topic before.  But lets look at the design of these chips and the numbers involved.  First lets consider the designers - the skilled folk involved in this process.  Back in the 60's and 70's, there were probably around 5000 highly skilled engineers who could design chips, working for the main manufacturers of the first integrated circuits.  The advent of Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) probably took the numbers of designers to the next order (say 50000) and today's 'design' of Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) chips probably multiplies by the same factor again ... so about 500,000 people.  Further automation through hardware and software systems can extend the numbers to five million and it is conceivable in decades to come that altering the functions of chips will be possible by many people who have little or no familiarity with the technology itself!   Chips will eventually be self-analysing, self-repairing and programmed at extremely high abstraction levels.  

Secondly, lets look at the fabrication sizes.  Already the large manufacturers are talking about 32nm processes.  When it gets to 22nm, the smart money is on optical approaches.  By the time we reach 15nm it will be about economics even more ... (extreme ultraviolet may by then be less expensive than conventional optics).  And when the numbers get 'really small', at about 11nm, the wavelength of the light used will be bigger than the sizes of the features etched on the chip!   In such cases, the best guesses at present are the use of computational lithography to achieve the a profitable yield from the process.  

There aren't many companies on the planet today with the capability to build and run the manufacturing plant required for such processes. There may be even fewer who can cope with these future developments. 

Monday 11 August 2008

HTC Diamond

Today I had the chance to play with HTC's Diamond phone for the first time.  It is the best HTC device I have seen.  It has a touch-screen and therefore the obvious comparison is the iPhone.  But that would be too superficial.  There is no multi-touch, no eco-system app store, and no deep level of integration between hardware, operating system and applications.  The latter means that the usual inconsistencies in user interface (fonts type and sizes, colour schemes, lack of shared behaviours between applications and hardware etc.) for Windows Mobile devices remain.  It is no iPhone.

However it is a very nice mobile phone, and the touch interface once practised is very usable.  It has some very nice hardware features (the touch wheel, accelerometers, etc.) but these are not exploited by all the applications which it offers.  It is slim, not too heavy and a nice form factor.  The screen size for such a small device is very good, and the resolution is excellent... video looks great on it.  HTC have done well with this device, and it is unlikely that such a phone would have come to market (along with all the other touch-screen phones) as soon as this had Apple not launched the iPhone.  We need more such innovation leaders so that very good phones like this are in the market for consumers to choose from.  

Sunday 10 August 2008

Robotic futures

I have blogged here about the impact of robots in the future a few times, but recently the number of scientists, researchers and articles featured on the BBC News website that agree with me has increased significantly!   This week alone there was a report about dancing robots, another about swarming co-operating robots, and a third about a robot plane.  Finally there was one about how robots could learn to move.

So is it just a fad?  Well robots are still interestingly different enough here in the west to make good news articles, and there is certainly plenty of research going on in the field of robotics to report about.  In Japan, I have seen more impressive robots than anywhere else.  And in Japan, the culture seems to accept the idea of robots much more than here in the west.  Perhaps if anyone reading this from Japan would like to comment on this.  I love to read the comments people leave on the blog here.  

But long term, no it is not just a fad.  Robots will be doing more and more, and substituting for human workers in a number of roles.  So perhaps we should all start getting used to it, and asking ourselves which jobs we would rather they did! 

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Navigation by maps?

There are many devices out now which include Global Positioning by Satellite (GPS) technology, and a whole raft of innovative services are being produced which use the location information which it provides.   The European version of GPS, Galileo, should be operational in around five years time.  But satellite based location systems are not always the best approach.  

Inertial systems for tracking location can offer some advantages over the sky based systems.  They may work better in buildings or other shielded locations, and underground.  The accelerometer technology that inertial systems usually rely on can be relatively cheap and reliable for providing location information.  

We often assume that a map is part of the output from devices that help to track people or objects.  However quality maps used as inputs too can provide very accurate data.  Existing map data may be used to qualify the inertial or other positioning information, even in cases where the aim is never to display a map for the user!   And for in-building tracking applications, an accurate plan of where the walls are, the doors and windows etc is often available in the form of architect's drawings!   As Ultra-WideBand (UWB) radio technology becomes common, with the inherent radar-like properties it is capable of at short range, the ability to ascertain position inside buildings will be even more advanced.  

Monday 4 August 2008

Education in silos

As I remarked in a previous blog entry, the education system is ripe for change in the future.  One of the things that it seems to me we should additionally strive for is to take education out of the silo based system it has become over recent years.  It is really hard to find well-educated people with a true mix of skills now, and I can speak from experience of being part of the graduate recruitment process for a large company.  

At one level, people from the arts and sciences are rarely if ever brought together, and this stifles the breadth of creativity that emerges from innovation and solutions to problems.  At another level, within the telecommunications technology domain, it is quite difficult to find a graduate with a mixed higher education of hardware (electronic engineering/radio) and software (computer science). 

The system tends to put people into silos, and this inhibits some of the combined approaches to dealing with problems.  If someone graduated before a particular year, they are likely to look for hardware solutions; if they graduated after a few years later, they are likely to look for a software solution.  There are very few years to choose from to get a truly hybrid mix of thinking.  

When we put the education system right in the future, let's address the silo problem too at the same opportunity?

Saturday 2 August 2008

Future Global Dangers

I often blog about positive ways that I see technology influencing the future.  It is important to balance this with how it might also be misused or offer risk to society too.  It is more and more likely as time goes on, that there will be a significant danger posed to a very large number of people either deliberately (e.g. through terrorism) or accidentally (e.g. an experiment which goes horribly wrong).  Technology is offering more possibilities for each of these while also offering a larger scale of potential impact.  

Even aside from technology, and despite there having been recent decades of relative harmony and peace in much of the world, there is a significant likelihood that some very undesirable wars may occur in future decades, perhaps over the scarcity of water for example.  But technology has a role to play here, both in bringing terrible scenes of the scars of conflict into people's living rooms so that they don't forget how bad it can be, but also in addressing those global issues which may otherwise be the causes of war.  

Thursday 31 July 2008

Novel power saving in electronics

Much is written about the power consumption of today's consumer electronics.  New battery technology is one approach to reducing the consumption of portable devices.  Alternatives to batteries such as fuel cells are another approach.  But the third way that I normally answer this question for the future with is to use less power by being smart, particularly in software.  

An audio equipment company has now implemented this approach in a headphone amplifier.  First they have used a trick in the hardware to halve the supply voltage used resulting in half the power consumption.  They dynamically alter the supply voltage by tracking the signal output so that efficiency is improved.  The supply is generated by a two level charge pump.  The pump is programmed a few milliseconds ahead of the time that the signal arrives in order to avoid distortion and noise.  A carefully developed algorithm is responsible for programming the correct characteristics.  The algorithm had to be 'trained' by experimenting with a wide range of music genres.  

This approach shows an excellent example of how software can provide the intelligence for something that you might otherwise assume is fixed by the hardware, while addressing the never-ending power problem. 

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Miracle material or danger?

One of the definite big technologies of the future which will revolutionise the world in a whole raft of different applications is nanotechnology.  Within that, carbon nanotubes are probably the most discussed and researched material; indeed I have written several blog entries about these already.  They are indeed a revolutionary miracle material able to be applied in so many ways to overcome limitations of existing materials in today's world.  

In the past, another material was once hailed as a miracle with applications in so many ways, particularly in respect of durability against electrical, chemical and fire damage.  That material was asbestos.  It wasn't understood at the time however that the tiny fibres it consisted of could easily get airborne and once breathed in by humans, would cause devastating suffering including cancers of the lung and mesothelioma for example.  Over 100,000 people died as a result of this and since then the use of asbestos has now been prohibited or very carefully limited in most of the developed world.

Carbon nanotubes share much of the promise that asbestos did way back, but also share some of the dangers.   Already there are applications in paint substances to produce durable coatings for surfaces which are self-cleaning, and they are being woven into fabrics and used to create smart clothing.  The market is estimated to reach $2 billion by 2014.   The nanotubes' needle characteristics also resemble the asbestos fibres and so now research is being carried out to see if people exposed to large amounts of them might be susceptible to similar lung diseases such as cancer.  Let us hope that this revolutionary material does not become the asbestos story all over again.  

Monday 28 July 2008

Using what comes naturally?

So there are more signs that the world is taking steps along the direction highlighted by my device prediction of many years ago now that different types of gadgets would co-operate more together in the future and that people would use whatever means was most convenient to interact with their consumer electronics, once the technology inter-working allowed it.  One of the most popular downloads of applications from the iPhone AppStore since its launch is "remote", the free Apple control app that allows an iPhone or iPod touch user to control their computer streamed music over wifi in their home.  My wife is using it right now to change the music she is listening to as I type this.  It also works with the AppleTV set-top box, providing a very convenient way to interact with the television.  Entering a search term to find a YouTube video is much simpler using a pop-up onscreen keyboard on these devices, than either the simple hardware remote that Apple supply or indeed any other typical multi-button TV remote would be.  

You don't have to look far for more examples either.  The Wii games console wand has been adopted as another means to control other devices rather than the purpose for which it was designed.  Several people (Lee, Renevo, etc.) have publicised how they are using the remote to enable all sorts of capabilities.  And there are already tens of millions of these devices out there.  I have been using and demonstrating Salling Clicker for a few years now, as a way that many different devices from different manufacturers can work together.  

If we make interaction with machines more natural and easy for people, and if people see a benefit from taking the time to bother with the technology, it is clear that the future is one of co-operating devices with increasingly seamless user interface paradigms.  This may in turn lead to new software applications which encourage people to take part in activities using connected devices that they otherwise might not have done (e.g. voting, betting etc.).  Such activities may never in their own right result in a custom device being manufactured that will be mass-market.  If existing devices such as phones, TVs, and games consoles can combine to provide a desirable experience, then these types of activities may be sampled by more people sooner.  

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Future social exclusion?

More and more services have become available online in the past few years.  Increasingly we are seeing some services that can only be used online.  In the future this will be more common.  In a few decades, it will be very unusual for many services to be offered in any way except online.  By then, the newer generations will have grown up with the online phenomena and so the mainstream of society will not only be 'connected' but also very comfortable with the online experience.  In fact many will feel less comfortable doing things any other way.  

However there will always be those for whom the new technology is a struggle, or indeed something they have some personal fear or dislike of, to the extent that they abstain or otherwise exclude themselves from the services that others just use and take for granted.  This is not unlike the situation that sometimes happens today.  It is a minority, and sometimes they are in a disadvantaged position through little or no fault of their own, but nethertheless they are in that position.  In those cases today, in western society, we usually expect the government to step in with some sort of 'safety net' provision.  In future decades, when key services will be out of reach of the 'unconnected', an equivalent safety net (excuse the pun) will be required.  It may be as well for governments to begin thinking about this scenario now, rather than waiting until it actually happens.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

Harnessing "hidden" processing

So the big processor chip manufacturers will show us impressive roadmaps for more cycles for less consumed power into the future.  And this together with multiple cores will significantly enhance the experience users get from future devices.  But for those gadgets with high definition displays, there is another strategy which will also add to the processing power equation.

The graphics chip (GPU) in such devices is extremely powerful in terms of processing specific types of data, painting billions of pixels per second on to computer screens.  But there is spare capacity in this task and so providing the data fed to it is suitable and techniques for sharing the processing within the program code are adopted, the GPU could become the accelerator for these devices.  Indeed Apple has announced its "Open-CL" initiative aimed at supporting this type of programming through future versions of its OSX operating system.  Given that GPUs can be ten times more power efficient than general purpose CPU chips, the impact on device performance could be highly significant.