Friday 27 February 2009

A great gesture...

As an iPhone user, I am well acquainted with using multi-touch gestures on the screen of the device I carry on my belt.  Having recently taken delivery of the latest MacBook Pro, to replace the ageing PowerBook G4 I had, I am now getting used to the same convenient gestures on its trackpad.  I quickly got used to not moving over to the right of windows to grab scroll bars but instead to two finger drag.  The pinch gesture for zooming in and out the whole screen or individual elements in certain applications is just so intuitive.  And the multi-finger swipe to move back and forward through pages in my web browser instead of having to move up to the buttons on the toolbar area is also becoming second nature.  The rotate gesture is the the one I use least at the moment ... but it will come.  Gestures in free space rather than on surfaces will be even more convenient in the future.  I can't wait!

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Care for a robot, anyone?

As I have mentioned many times in this blog, the demographic forecasts of the future tell us that we won't have enough people to look after all the people who need looking after in the decades to come.  This suggests that more machine support will be employed, and I suspect specifically robotic machines.  Clearly there are potential advantages for health professionals including addressing the increasing risk that they injure themselves when physically moving heavy patients, as obesity levels rise.  But would you ever relate to a robot as you would to a human nurse for example?  How much supervision of robots looking after people would be needed?  What is the potential cost of malfunction?  If your human nurse gets a bug, it may spread a disease (possibly life threatening) around a ward.  If your robot nurse has a bug it may kill you too.  

Robots I have met, are increasingly able to empathise with the humans around them.  They can detect emotional states of people and be programmed to act accordingly.  Some of the tactile movements now possible with robots can make them a very sensitive and gentle assistant compared to the images most people carry of large industrial automobile welding robots.  What type of robot would be best in a caring application?  Would you prefer a machine that looks like a human or that doesn't caring for you?   And it's not just about healthcare, maybe you would be comfortable with a robot that looks after your children when you are not around?  It would have a better idea of what they are doing on the Internet than you, and would be able to answer any questions they have from an educational viewpoint.   As the technology becomes available in future, we will all need to make more decisions about what we can accept.  

Saturday 21 February 2009

Mobile healthcare ...

We will need machines to look after people more in future.  I have covered many times the idea of robots helping to look after people when the demographics mean that there aren't enough humans to do it.  But in the developing world, the machinery is less likely to be robotic.  Mobile phone credit already provides a trusted currency in parts of Africa in particular.  There are many more mobile phones than hospital beds in those developing areas, and these may provide the initial technology to offer healthcare in the pocket.  Such devices can be used to remind patients to take medication and get vaccinations.  They can also be used to notify people when epidemics are taking place and help model the spread of infections.  Mobile phones already do many things which people never intended the first such machines to do; healthcare may be one more of these things.  

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Phone charger commotion

There seems to be a fuss in the media today about a load of cell phone manufacturers agreeing a standard for mobile phone chargers so that they will share a common power supply and physical plug by 2012!   And they have the gall to make a 'green' issue of this, saying that the standby current will be reduced.  Why not simply integrate an inductive charging chip inside all these phones so that there is no need to plug the device in.  Simply place it on a pad or surface and let it charge like electric toothbrushes have for years.  Chargers will look very old fashioned in decades to come. 

Redmond Recession Review

So as the world suffers significant economic downturn, the market for Windows PCs now seems to be in freefall.  Punters are turning away from desktops and full laptops to the compromised Netbook form of PC.   The problem for the Microsoft Corporation from Redmond is that a quarter of netbooks run Linux, and the other three quarters run Windows XP.  The current and next version of Windows (Vista and Windows 7) are too hungry to run on the compromised hardware platform which is not ideal for the operating system producer.  

Apple on the other hand, are not part of the scramble for the tiny or no-margin netbook market share, offering instead a set of full function notebook and desktop computers with a differentiated operating system OSX, for those willing to pay.  Judging by the numbers, this market is still buoyant.  For those who want a powerful small platform for email and surfing they offer the iPhone or iPod Touch.  The numbers of these being sold are also still very encouraging.  

As the world of personal computers and operating systems moves irreversibly towards 64 bit in the near future, the problems for the Redmond corporation continue.  A tiny percentage of PC users have chosen the 64 bit version of Windows XP or Vista, even in the high end games segment which would benefit most from it.  OSX is already built as one version for 32 and 64 bit applications, making the task for developers much easier.   The PC market will have an interesting future.

Friday 13 February 2009

Location Based Service growth

One from the audience of my most recent session at the BT Tower posted a comment in this blog asking about my views on the future of LBS, RFID and DVB.  I am assuming that LBS meant location based services and so I will use this posting to address this one. 

This graph from Skyhook Wireless shows the growth of just iPhone location applications.  A similar pattern will I suspect apply to the Android platform too in due course.  The future for location based services is very bright, especially in the context of handheld devices.  At the moment, a minority of people regularly use such applications, but those that do understand the benefits and power which they bring.    In just a few years, I expect many more people to be using these types of apps, and soon a majority - which will change how we communicate, since many of the "i'm on the train" type calls and messages will be redundant.  

My colleague and fellow futurologist, Robin Mannings, has published a book on Ubiquitous Positioning, which covers both LBS and one of the other acronyms (RFID) that 'Pete' asked for my views on in his blog comment.  I will cover RFID on other occasions.  Pete may find that book of interest too. 

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Deeper immersion in the virtual

Today I had the pleasure of presenting some futures ideas to an audience at the BT Tower in London.  Despite the recent UK snowy weather, today there were some fantastic clear views of the city from the revolving restaurant where we dined, and the sun even made an appearance!  One popular topic of conversation was the potential of virtual worlds in future, coupled with advances in hardware such as wearable displays which will permit a deeper level of immersion in such worlds.  

Major organisations and blue-chip companies are already experimenting with virtual world environments for training, product testing and focus groups amongst other things.  And this is when the level of immersion is rather limited and basically using mainly 2D visual and audible interaction.  The addition of tactile sensing via haptics, and 3D visuals may help this further.  

Once again, many extra decisions will have to be made by individuals who have access to this environment, about how they are prepared to use the extra capabilities it offers.  This will include an element of what they believe is socially acceptable as well as desirable by the individual.  I suspect the behaviours will evolve to be very different, in an analogous way to how the use of mobile devices in meetings and other social environments already has evolved since the technology became widespread. 

Thursday 5 February 2009

Give them a bit of Latitude...

So Google's marketing department must be pleased with the coverage it is getting since announcing Latitude, its new people (or rather phone) tracking service, even if the news reporters are concentrating on privacy issues. Any publicity is good publicity as they say.  Another company, Loopt, has been offering this sort of service already for some time. 

It's actually quite a good idea to have something else in the news which gets people used to the idea of being tracked and what privacy might mean in the future.  Increasingly we are going to have all sorts of sensors around the environment, or carried about our person, or in the buildings we frequent, which capture a variety of information, some of which will allow our position to be tracked.  A great deal of other information about people will be available through such networks of sensors.  The idea of privacy will be better expressed by specifying what information you want to share and who with, and what information you don't.  This is another example of the extra decision making that individuals will need to make in the future. Of course giving people control of these decisions is one thing ... whether they trust the infrastructure and more importantly the organisations that operate it is something else.  But there is technology to assist with that too! 

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Icy Highway Madness

This week has seen some of the worst snow in the UK for 18 years.  Many roads were in a treacherous condition.  I had a necessary journey to make early one morning to an airport and home again before the main snow arrived.  It was absolutely incredible how fast the odd driver was prepared to try and go on very patchy icy surfaces.  I have written here before about the future of automated cars which will take much of the responsibility for driving away from human beings.  On snowy and icy days like this week, such automation cannot come quick enough.  

One of my cars has computer control of the throttle as well as steering (for automatic reversing).  The traction and stability systems are able to judge much better than many drivers the exact optimum acceleration to apply to climb hills on a slippery surface, to make progress without wheelspin.  We already have auto speed limiters on larger vehicles like lorries.  It shouldn't be so difficult for the same sort of system to be applied to other vehicles when the road conditions demand it.  In general I have reservations about giving up the pleasure of driving to technology, because I actually enjoy driving.  However it may just be worth the sacrifice if the mad individuals who drive at wreckless speeds in poor road conditions are prevented from doing so by automated vehicles, reducing accidents, delays and injuries to themselves and others. 

Tuesday 3 February 2009

The battle of the video sockets!

One of the annoying things when a consumer tries to connect different bits of kit around the home together is that the video in and out connectors vary so much across devices.  High end TVs now typically carry an array of SCART, HDMI, Component, Composite, and VGA connectors amongst others.  PCs may have VGA, DVI or the newer DisplayPort standard connectors.  In this post I am going to compare the latest and greatest from each of these device types as we look to the future, HDMI and DisplayPort.  

VESA (Video Electronics Standards Association) actually introduced DisplayPort in 2006, ratifying v1.1a of the standard a year later.  Silicon support for it in graphics cards and north bridge processor chipsets is growing and device manufacturers will start to exploit this in the coming year(s) with products which use it.  Unlike HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) which is charged at $5-10K p.a. and a levy of around 4 cents per device, DisplayPort is royalty-free and so attractive to product manufacturers.  Whereas HDMI is only used externally to connect different devices together, DisplayPort is also targeted at internal use between board and display inside devices.  Hence it also replaces the need for LVDS (Low Voltage Differential Signalling) circuitry which is currently used inside both PCs and CE (Consumer Electronics) products for this internal video connection.  

From a technical perspective, DisplayPort is lower power and requires fewer, thinner wires in the cabling, which will be important in the race to produce even slimmer displays.  The low power advantage will also be important to silicon vendors as process geometry goes below 45nm.  DisplayPort uses a packet based architecture, allowing audio, video and control signals to be handled in a consistent single packet stream. HDMI uses separate streams (or channels) for each of audio, video and control.  

HDMI's current advantage is that there are millions of CE products already out in the marketplace with HDMI sockets on them, especially HD TVs.  I believe that over time, this advantage will be eroded.  DisplayPort will first make its mark internally in PCs and then externally on laptops and other PCs and related products.  Apple has already reduced the footprint of its video out sockets on its latest notebook computers by designing and freely licensing a 'mini-displayport' connector, which conforms to the VESA DisplayPort standard.  In the future, probably beyond 5 years, will we see DisplayPort begin to make a significant presence in CE products including televisions.  Hopefully future attempts to cable video between CE products in the home will be simpler!