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.