Friday 27 June 2008

Plasma, LCD, and ... ?

As a gadget-guy, I'm often asked about which type of screen people should buy for their new HD widescreen TV.  One of the main decisions to make is the basic type of screen, currently usually plasma or liquid crystal displays (LCD).  The best choice depends on many factors and I don't plan to go through all of them in this blog article. One factor however is power consumption.  Although LCD screens may boast lower consumption, their backlight requirements mean that their power consumption figure is usually fairly constant.  Plasma screens by contrast consume power related to the brightness of the picture being displayed - a picture with lots of dark pixels will consume much less power than the same picture on an LCD.  

Soon there may well be another option to consider.  Mitsubishi have announced plans to launch a range of TVs based on laser displays in the third quarter of 2008.  They state that such technology will bring a new level of performance to high definition displays due to its ability to display twice as many colours as the best LCD can manage at a frequency of 120Hz.   Laser screens will be available in large sizes as with current plasmas, and importantly will consume less power than both plasma and LCDs. 

Thursday 26 June 2008

The disruptive wave of change

We know that the only inevitable thing about change is that it will continue, and that technological change is speeding up and continues to do so.  People are affected by this change in different ways and to different degrees.  It is often harder for those who have grown up with something constant to find in later life that it isn't true anymore.  So it is assumed (sometimes incorrectly) that older people find change (and technological change in particular) more difficult to cope with.  Often it is actually only that characteristics of the new technology dont lend themselves to the failing senses (e.g. seeing small screens on mobile phones in poor light when one's eyesight is deteriorating).  

In fact it is often most difficult for those that have been on the bow of the wave of change to come to terms with either that or subsequent similar changes that follow, perhaps through distrust.  And it doesn't just apply to technology.  Those who were most disrupted by decimalisation of the UK currency in the seventies, people of my parent's age, found that more difficult than my own experience of it.  For my parents it affected everything they bought and paid for.  For me it affected my pocket money!  And for many of those people like my parents who had direct experience of the change, it has coloured their view of any future currency changes (such as the Euro). 

So as we go forward with new technology, there will always be a wave of those who are hit somehow by it in a way that makes them wary of following disruptions.  But for the masses, who came before them or after them, embracing the change will bring great opportunities. 

Tuesday 24 June 2008

Car futures

So the world oil price continues to rise ... the cost of petrol (gas for my transatlantic readers!) continues to rise and governments like the UK continue to tax these substances heavily.  They also plan to tax the purchase of cars that consume the most fuel and give the highest emissions.  Of course the green lobby think this is pressure on people to use cars is insufficient and wonder why people don't simply want to give up their car for public transport.  Well its quite simple really.  People generally like their cars!  

Car owners tend to look after their cars.  They personalise them, customise them and enjoy the individual freedom that transport dedicated to them gives them.  They like the door to door and anytime of any day nature of the car.  And many of the nicest cars on the road are not actually owned by individuals at all; rather by leasing companies who provide the car on behalf of employers as a part of their reward package.  So why is it that some people imagine that these car users want to leave their cars (which are inherently also a symbol of their success) on the driveway at home to get on a bus?  This assumes that a bus is actually available as an alternative.

Of course technology is gradually meaning that manufacturers can offer lower consumption cars; my favourite hybrids are from Lexus but they are of course many others.  Honda have just announced details of experiments they have done with a hydrogen powered car, for example. And elements of the green lobby will still rant on about the whole lifecycle cost of such cars to the environment, but fail to see that changing the automotive industry to newer greener mechanisms than the combustion engine is like turning a super-tanker.  It will happen through small steps and gradually.  And people will gradually get used to these new-fangled types of car and begin buying them in large numbers (as with Toyota's Prius).  

But eventually, the answer is not to take people out of their cars which they love, but to make the car and road systems more efficient.  Journey times could be faster, congestion and accident rates much lower (if not extremely rare at all) on major trunk routes by allowing technology to control the cars.  The inter-car gaps could be smaller and more traffic carried.  People will be unable to manually join a motorway or freeway; only the computerised automated systems within vehicles will be able to manage this.  

The answer in the longer term I believe is to apply technology to give people what they want but in a greener, more environmentally and safe way, rather than tax and charge them to change the social behaviour of what others would like them to want.  So I hope this latter approach is just one of the stepping stones while we await the technological change that is necessary.

Monday 23 June 2008

Positioning aside from GPS

The question of where a device and so perhaps where the person who owns or uses it is, is going to be more crucial in the future as we get used to and rely on location-based or location-related services.  The natural assumption many people make is the use of GPS systems - and this is unsurprising, given the recent explosion of consumer electronics devices such as TomTom navigation gadgets etc.  But GPS is imperfect and unsuitable in many applications and a number of other technologies are also going to be increasingly important in terms of assisting with 'the positioning problem'. 

Devices such as accelerometers, electronic gyros and digital compasses can also be very important in piecing together the positioning puzzle.  The cost of these small components is relatively small and so they are increasingly being incorporated into consumer electronics gadgets of various sorts.  A digital camera with a picture stabilising feature will use a gyro component for example.  Performing some number crunching on acceleration data can derive velocity of course.  Combined with mapping information and an initial starting point, tracking movement quite accurately is possible, particularly within buildings and underground (for which maps and floorplans are usually readily available).  

In the future, it will be the combination and aggregation of various positioning data, together with the analysis of such data, which will open up many more applications for location-related services.  

Friday 20 June 2008

3D or not 3D? That is the question...

A great deal of research has gone on over many decades about producing three dimensional computer generated images.  Some were pretty impractical, involving the user having to wear coloured glasses to look through.  Other more recent 3D televisions I have seen have really been quite impressive, if you sit or stand in exactly the right place relative to the screen.  And of course the problem with TV in 3D is the production of material filmed in 3D (e.g. with multiple cameras).  Broadcasters are currently occupied with creating content in high definition (HD) and that is only available in the UK sluggishly, as the number of HD televisions increases in homes. 

But 3D in other applications apart from TV may have a faster time to market.  Indian tech giant Infosys has recently announced the development of portable holographic machines and reckons that 2010 will see a significant number of devices that can beam 3D images into our lives.  Imagine a mobile phone of the future that not only allows your mother-in-law to video call you, but also beams her to you in full 3D!   Scary huh? 

Other more interesting applications would include medicine, accident scene reporting and education.  The combination of such 3D projection with virtual worlds and avatars could provide a much more realistic and immersive environment which expands the exploitation of virtual spaces.  The advantage of holographic approaches is that it can enable 3D imaging with no loss of resolution, unlike stereoscopic methods.  I guess some folk won't mind losing some resolution with the 3D mother-in-law though!  

Thursday 19 June 2008

It's the Software, stupid!

When the iPod hit the streets, it wasn't the first music player, but it was rather more attractively designed than most others - it was a piece of consumer electronics that was desirable and sexy.  Many people concentrated on the hardware, the hard disk inside, the click wheel on the front and the aesthetic design.   Certainly the latter is important, but so is the invisible software within the device.  This is something that Apple's competitors often seem to miss the point about.  The same is true of their computers, which while also nicer to look at than the traditional beige plastic box of the PC, are actually distinguished by their software - the Mac OS which makes for their legendary ease of use.  

And the same is now true of Apple's adventure into the phone market.  Most of the other established manufacturers have now copied the hardware in some form or other, with touch screens, designs without many buttons, slimmer designs, accelerometer sensors inside, and more.  But none of these apparent clones can really copy iPhone easily.  This is because the software is what defines the device and its usability.  In addition with iPhone, Apple have added to the software advantage by providing the same tools that they use to write iPhone applications to other application developers and also provided an eco-system to market, distribute, install and update these apps to people. 

So next time you see a potential clone of an Apple product, just think ... 'it's the software, stupid!'.

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Real benefits for more people?

My best transatlantic friend pointed out this article from ABC news to me today.  It is about the negative effects of widespread GPS technology on humans as they get out of the habit of finding their own way.  In the future, very many more people will have easy access to not only GPS but also many other technologies which will render some existing human skills and activities redundant.  While some hail the iPhone at the moment, in the future there will be far more capable devices in many more people's pockets, providing exactly what information they need, wherever they need it, and whenever they need it.   Humans will need to do less of some things they previously did.  

The phenomenon described in the ABC article about GPS is not limited to people having no sense of direction in future.  It already began with the advent of much simpler technology.  How many people have got out of the habit of remembering phone numbers since phones began storing them for us?   Another example is the inability of some people to follow recipes and cook fresh food - they live entirely on pre-prepared meals that simply pass from freezer to microwave oven.   This trend has again been enabled by technology which is now in the form of fairly ubiquitous white goods.  

So what next?  What other activities will go out of fashion?  What other skills will be lost?   Which social customs will die out?   And is it all negative?   Actually there are other new skills that many people will learn to do with the new technologies, a number of which will be taken for granted until they too die out through the advent of newer developments.  For example, most people now are familiar with the use of a computer mouse to control applications on a personal computer.  This invented human skill will have a limited life once technology allows people to interact more naturally with machines.   And so the cycle will continue...  although I hope that technology never causes humans to forget how to value the friendship of others.   Otherwise I may never have seen the ABC article and never have written this entry!

Friday 13 June 2008

Consumerisation of IT - iPhone?

I have written about the consumerisation of IT in enterprises before but after the WWDC event in San Francisco this week, where Apple described its new iPhone, I thought it was worth considering how much of a catalyst this type of device could be.

While many people, especially in the general media, will have focused on yet another shiny and polished hardware launch this week by Apple, it is the version 2.0 firmware which will power the device that perhaps is most relevant in the context of a catalyst for consumerisation.  The gadget maker has listened to corporates and other enterprises, through a carefully managed beta trial programme, and added a whole host of enterprise-essential features to what began its life a year ago as a high-end consumer product.  It has quietly worked with the carriers who offer iPhone in many different geographies to ensure that they will have service contracts which appeal to business users going forward.  

So imagine what is happening now in a majority of the top blue-chip businesses around the world (let alone all those other corporates further down the food chain)?  The top people want the latest phone, they want the best mobile browsing experience, they demand a device which is so simple to use that they will use a majority of its features, and they want one device which enables them to converge their private life with their working life.  And what do businesses want?  They want the devices their people use to securely access corporate information and applications, to integrate its simple user interface with the mail and messaging systems that they already invest in, and to be able to securely control the rollout of access to corporate systems to only their employees.  IT departments are typically very scared of employees mixing work and non-work, customising mobile devices and the headache which has typically existed in the general management of such gadgets issued to their people.  The 2.0 firmware addresses much of this concern and could provide a permanent aspirin for the IT headache.

It seems like a perfect match.  But as I said in my previous article, the corporate IT department will never be able to keep up with the innovation cycle of products such as iPhone, with their accelerated churn rates and the updated feature releases, with the cost base that implies.  From that perspective it seems like a show-stopper.  Corporate IT departments will never love the devices they issue, but 90% of users love their iPhones.  The solution may well be a cultural shift to support this piece of the jigsaw which also mediates the inevitably higher relative pricing compared to more standard corporately issued kit.  Consumerisation of the enterprise mobile desktop will be given a substantial 'shot in the arm' when the new iPhone is released in mid-July.  

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Energy scavenging sensors

As the widespread deployment of wireless sensor nodes continues towards the eventual ubiquitous sensing fabric of the future, there will be an increasing demand for battery-less methods of powering them.  For some technologies, such as traditional passive radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, there is no need to provide power on-board at all.  However for other technological solutions, using wireless networks such as Zigbee or WiFi, there will be a need for power without recourse to a battery.  

For situations where sensors are located on machinery, there is a more obvious solution.  Microgenerators such as Perpetuum's PMG17 are able to convert mechanical vibration into usable electrical energy.  If this is combined with a suitable storage technology such as a supercapacitor, it is possible to deliver the peak power required for indefinite regular status reports over wireless networks.  For machinery where vibration is a part of normal operation, such power harvesting is an ideal solution.

Monday 9 June 2008

Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is bringing an engineering approach to biology.  In the same way as one uses electronic components such as transistors to engineer electronic circuits such as a radio, in synthetic biology, scientists are using DNA components to engineer new biological systems and devices.  

There are seemingly two separate goals currently being sought within the field of synthetic biology at the moment.  The most headline grabbing is that which seeks to define and build completely new forms of life.  The other less glamorous seeks to modify existing biological life forms to effectively put viruses and bacteria to work as biological machines to solve particular problems.  The advances in understanding DNA over recent years opens the door to both of these. Huge benefits could accrue from successful applications of such biological machinery.  One example could be a liquid that changes colour when sprayed onto a surface if there is some particular bacteria present. 

The dangers of this technology are many.  Any errors in synthetic biological research could release a virus into the world (either deliberately or accidentally) which can multiply itself before we know how to cope with the escape.  There is also the possibility of biological terrorism from this type of material falling into the wrong hands.  Finally synthetic biology raises interesting questions about what life is and what should humans do and how far the creation of living organisms should go!   

Sunday 8 June 2008

Apple WWDC 2008

The Worldwide Developer Conference organised by Apple begins tomorrow and Steve Jobs will again take the stage at the keynote to announce a number of surprises as well as some expected news.   The latter is likely to be the announcement of the second version of the iPhone using 3G Cellular network technology.  The former may well be that a third version of the device is announced as well!   Certainly Apple will find ways in the coming months to push home their lead in innovative internet device form factors which exploit both their superb touch screen interface and also the powerful OSX system platform that lies within iPhone.  

However I will be watching the performance of the keynote from a presentational point of view as well as for the content.  The work that goes into careful structuring and delivery of the announcements when Steve Jobs takes to the stage is awesome and it shows if you analyse the performances.  I have been at such Apple keynotes in person and I never tire of learning from this side of Apple's productions too.  

Thursday 5 June 2008

Robot pets and healthcare

Demographics tell us that in the future there will be an ageing population.  There won't be enough young fit people to look after sick and elderly people in future.  We will need machines to play a bigger part in healthcare.  We already do this with little concern in hospitals, where machines commonly keep people alive and provide for critical functions in cases where the body is unable to do so.  Of course in hospitals we expect those machines to be operated by skilled consultants and practitioners.  Increasingly we will see technology tasked with health monitoring and care in people's homes.  

The machines in homes can be made more personal than those in hospital.  An elderly person may be looked after by a robotic pet, while believing that they are in fact looking after the pet.  Such a robot may monitor physiological characteristics of the person, or analyse daily routines, or how often medication is taken.  They may alert the person or signal others outside the home if such monitoring detects an abnormal or unusual pattern of behaviour.   I don't mind if my mother-in-law is looked after by a robot; my wife has a slightly different view!  The technology is arriving before people are comfortable with its uses.  As attitudes change, more will be done by robotic healthcare solutions.  

Wednesday 4 June 2008

Personal fabrication

Researchers at Bath University have demonstrated a self replicating 3D printer capable of fabricating various plastic objects. In the future we will see more of these in domestic settings where individuals will be able to produce articles as needed after designing them on the PC.  This particular invention works by effectively spraying molten layers of plastic which then solidify.   

A number of different approaches will be tried and found for this sort of personal fabrication in the future.  Together with 3D displays using holographic techniques and easier to use design software, people will become much more used to working in three dimensions using personal computers and other devices.  

Monday 2 June 2008

Innovation at the core of Apple

As the week of the Apple WWDC event approaches, at which the 2nd generation iPhone is expected to be announced, I want to highlight perhaps the less obvious innovative aspects of that company.  Apple is well respected, even by many of it's critics, for the innovation of it's products.  This is true of not just the iPod and the iPhone but also its range of Mac computers.  But the innovation of the company stretches way beyond the technical design and features of its hardware and software.  

In many internal ways, Apple thinks different. The direct hands-on influence of the CEO is one such organisational aspect.  But from a business perspective, the way the company does many tasks is significant.  Take the management of it's product portfolio - unlike many companies who will launch more and more products which add to the size of the portfolio, Apple has a track record of being clinical with withdrawing old products when introducing new ones.  The discontinuing of the iPod Mini at the time that it was the best selling music player and just before the key holiday buying season and its replacement by the iPod Nano caught all its competitors off guard and re-defined the standards that the marketplace was trying to attain.  

Another example is the way Apple approaches its retail operation.  This is innovative in so many ways ... from the store design and layout (most retailers would baulk at the idea of so much open unused potential merchandising space, particularly in such high value retail locations) ... to sales staff incentives and roles ... to the free services and experiences it offers its store visitors.  

So as Steve Jobs makes various announcements next week, I will also be looking for some of the other innovations in terms of clever but subtle strategic approaches which make it very hard for other companies to copy Apple's success. 

Sunday 1 June 2008

A wet future?

The global population is rising and the amount of usable water is declining.  Countries such as the UK, Belgium, Poland and South Africa are already classed as 'water-stressed' (less than 1700 cubic metres per year per capita). Parts of the Middle East and North Africa are further classed as 'water-scarce' (less than 1000 cubic metres).  Countries such as India and parts of Africa are expected to have severe water supply issues in the next decade.  Such areas are also those in which population is expected to grow at the fastest rates.   There is likely to be desperation and conflict over water in the future. 

There are a few different strategies for addressing the water supply problem.   Given that approximately 80% of the Earth's surface is covered by water, it is rather a case of water being in the wrong places and in many cases containing too much salt!   De-salination is possible but needs to be cheaper to perform.  Some new technologies may be able to achieve this.  Nano-technology is one such approach - with new membranes that allow the water to be purified, amongst other ideas.  

Water also has the highest thermal capacity of any commonly available substance.  Humans could learn lessons from nature in this regard where water is an important storage mechanism for energy storage.   Recovering heat from water and recycling waste water are also ways that humans in scarce areas will be able to address the problem.  On the International Space Station, they recycle about 97% of water which infers that space exploration may also offer some innovation for Earth's water shortages.  Mining water from comets in space may be an option in future space travel - though it's harder to envisage this happening very soon!   In the far future, it may be that humans begin getting used to living on or under water more, and embrace a more aquatic lifestyle.