Thursday, September 22, 2011

8 Current Technologies That Will Shape Our Future

Rick Chin is the director of product innovation at SolidWorks, where he develops new products and researches how technology will make us smarter, simplify daily tasks and seamlessly fit into our everyday lives.
In 20 years our technology will reach a level of personalization that will enhance every moment of our lives. We’ll be more physically comfortable with the furniture we sit on and the products we hold; only the most relevant and personalized information from friends and family will reach us; and our movement in the digital world will be near telepathic.
I foresee several of today’s technologies as relevant to this particular vision of the future. They will evolve to not only be more powerful, but also more integrated with one other.

1. Smartphones

Smartphones, like today’s iPhone, are as much a computer as they are a communication device. Besides having a great multi-touch interface and fast CPU, they contain sensors like cameras, gyros, accelerometers, GPS and compasses. They allow us to calculate and communicate anytime, anywhere.
In the future, they’ll evolve into personal mobile computers (PMC). Assuming that Moore’s law holds true, mobile CPUs with near super-computing speeds will be entirely possible. The number, accuracy and performance of sensors will grow, the combination of which will give the user a very powerful sense of her surroundings.
Your PMC will move to your wrist and take the place of your watch. (Microsoft had this vision with SPOT, but the technology came too early and was too limited.) The device’s display will not need to be your primary user interface (UI), so the PMC can be a small, diverse fashion statement like today’s watches. The primary UI will become personal peripherals, like information glasses and headsets. You’ll be able to interact naturally in a visual and audible way.
Your PMC and personal peripherals will become your interface to every other computer, device and machine you interact with. The only UI you will ever need to know is that of your PMC.
Not only will your personal peripherals allow you to explicitly interact with the digital (and physical) worlds, but they’ll also provide subtle cues to your subconscious. While looking through your information glasses, a restaurant might emit a subtle, warm blue tint because it was reviewed positively by patrons. It will feel like a good place to eat. Are your spidey senses tingling?

2. 3G and 4G Wireless Broadband

“How many bars do I have?” We’re frequently checking smartphone signal strength when wirelessly browsing the Internet and retrieving our email. Today’s 3G and 4G networks provide acceptable but intermittent connections and okay speed. This must change.
The deployment of today’s cell towers is a slow, deliberate and costly affair. In the future, deployment will be faster and more organic. Wireless providers will likely credit homeowners’ monthly bills for having devices like AT&T’s 3G MicroCell at home. With enough of these devices in place, even remote neighborhoods and towns will enjoy solid wireless access to the cloud.
So in the future, personal mobile computers (PMCs) won’t even have signal strength indicators; wireless access to the cloud will be pervasive and ultra-fast at all times.

3. Cloud Computing

There is certainly a lot of hype around cloud computing, but few technology providers have done a good job explaining or providing services that are relevant to the average person.
The two most notable exceptions are Google and Apple. Google Docs is arguably the first cloud-based app that gained mainstream traction. Apple’s iCloud looks like it has the potential to cross the chasm and move the early majority into the cloud.
With tomorrow’s cloud computing, all of our personal information and the applications will be available to us at any time. Whether you’re editing a text document while riding a train, or adjusting a sales proposal at a client’s office, you’ll never be without the information needed to complete a task.

4. Eye-Tracking / Voice Commands

Today’s eye-tracking technology from companies like Tobii is used heavily in usability research. Where are people looking on a webpage, and how do their eyes move around it? Voice recognition products like Dragon from Nuance are used extensively when transcribing voice to text.
In the future, this technology will be combined with augmented reality (AR) to create a near-invisible and natural user interface for your PMC. We’ll call these information glasses. The object you’re viewing and the words you speak will be transmitted to your PMC, which will interpret your intent, find and compute and then transmit the results back to you visually and/or verbally. Look at a restaurant and say, “Do they have good salads there?” A moment later, you will hear the highest-rated salads, communicated via your information glasses either by visual display or audible voice, depending on what you are doing at that moment, like driving.

5. Augmented Reality

Today’s augmented reality (AR) will add floating text, symbols and 3D virtual images to a camera’s video feed to make it more informative or entertaining. Numerous iPhone apps like Layar provide local information. Tissot watches and Olympus cameras have webpages that let you experience virtual products. And Lego has a great point of sale display that lets kids virtually play with the toy inside the box they’re holding. You can even use AR glasses to experience this technology in a slightly more immersive, first-person point of view.
In the future, AR glasses will project images onto the lenses using components that are barely noticeable. Your PMC will display information on your glasses much like a heads-up display (HUD), for instance, with symbols projected along the periphery. Look at a symbol and say something, and your PMC will act on the broadcasted message. Your PMC will also do a great job of minimizing the information displayed, limiting it to just what you need to know now.

6. Social Networking

Social networking as it exists today on Facebook and Twitter requires users to do extra work to extract value. We must diligently manage our community of friends and followers, and weed through all the tweets and posts for those that pique our interest. In the future, the management of our network will be dynamic and automated; the system will make and break connections to ensure maximum value. As updates are posted, for example, only those relevant to you at the present moment will make it through the filter to your PMC.
Social networking may also become more integrated with other components of our digital lives, like our calendars, address books and GPS. When going to a scheduled meeting with someone, you may be presented with recent and relevant posts that person made on Facebook to help prepare for small talk.
Image courtesy of Flickr, escapedtowisconsin

7. CAD, 3D Printing & Custom Products

Computer-aided design (CAD) products are popular among engineers, designers and students for creating 3D product designs. But the software is often too advanced for the average consumer to design his or her own products.
In the future, however, CAD will allow the average consumer to design his own custom products that are both manufacturable and affordable. Consumers will be able to use simple software to combine predefined, configured product features. They’ll be able to personalize further by adding their own color palate, pictures, shapes and even personalized sizing.
3D Printing (3DP), like that from Dimension, is another amazing technology that will take a 3D CAD model and “print” layers of material, one on top of the previous, to produce a real physical model. It can create almost any shape, even those that can’t be made by traditional manufacturing. The downside today is that the process is slow, costly, and often doesn’t produce parts strong enough for real world use. The technology in this industry is always advancing, and in the future, it will be able to produce robust parts quickly and cheaply.
3D Printing in an industrial setting is often referred to as “additive manufacturing.” As products are ordered online, versatile manufacturing stations controlled by robots will quickly and affordably crank out custom-manufactured products. The robots will be controlled by process software that will be integrated with future CAD.
Online custom products are slowly gaining popularity. You can go to NIKEiD and design your own customized Nike shoes. The downside is that they are pricey and will take several weeks to get to you. Other websites such as ShapeWays and Ponoko are useful for many DIYers. The mass market appeal of sites like these will grow in the future (when combined with the simpler CAD described above) with fast, flexible and inexpensive manufacturing.

8. Autonomous Cars

Today’s cars are packed with a variety of driver assistance aids. You can get most any car today with GPS, but luxury car makers such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Volvo provide a whole lot more. Options now include active cruise control, lane departure warning/intervention, traffic info and blind spot warning. These cars can even brake on their own to avoid hitting an obstacle or pedestrian in front of the vehicle.
A few years ago, DARPA ran its Grand Challenge, in which teams competed to race fully autonomous cars that drove themselves. They were tested in off-road, highway and urban settings. Some of these competitors later went to work for Google’s autonomous vehicle efforts.
In the future, we will have autonomous cars, where driver control will be optional. Even though the thought might seem scary, the cars will be safer than any car you’d pilot yourself. They will constantly evaluate their current environment with multiple sensors -- and they’ll never get distracted by text messages.
Will they be complex to operate? Not at all. Your PMC will act as a user interface to any device, including your autonomous car. It will know your schedule and address book, so when you get into your car one hour before an appointment, the car’s GPS will instantly display the destination address and arrival time. All you have to do is say, “Let’s go!”