A Millennium of Ideas: Computing in 2010
While you're on the road, you look at your watch and realize it's time to check in with the boss. You reach into your briefcase to pull out a device that looks like a mobile phone. Instead of pushing buttons to place a call, you tell it, "Call Jake."
Responding to your voice, it locates the local mobile network and calls Jake's California office. Jake's not there, so his in-the-wall computer answers. You tell it the call is urgent, and the machine recognizes you and forwards the connection to Jake at your company's Boston office.
From there, your life-size image appears on the wall. You tell Jake you've met with clients who have decided to hire the firm, but you need to discuss the proposal with two company designers. Jake nods his head and says, "Oxygen, get Vivian and Zeb." The machine finds Vivian's home PC and locates Zeb, who is en route to work.
Moments later, you've got a secure "collaboration region." During the impromptu meeting, Zeb, Vivian, and Jake tell the network, "Get me the map that came with Zeb's long message about two months ago," and "Get all the Web info you can on this client." After the meeting ends, Jake points his device at the printer and says, "Send everyone a copy of the documents we reviewed."
This scenario is not the stuff of science fiction or Hollywood. It's a project the Massachusetts Institute of Technology plans to launch in the next five years--a personal network called Oxygen.
Built out of both hardware and software, Oxygen sits atop a global network. Its first element is Handy 21, which resembles a mobile phone. But each unit has a small screen, a camera, a Global Positioning System module, and an infrared detector. It also includes a global mobile phone, a two-way radio, and a network-connected device you'll program and reprogram. Its voice recognition software lets you tell it what you want.
If that's not enough, Handy 21 can change into a TV, beeper, a handheld computer, or a pointing device.
The next part, Enviro 21, works like Handy 21 but on a larger scale. Enviro 21 is designed to operate in many places: on your wall, in your wall, in your truck, or anywhere else. The devices communicate through an infrared link. But Oxygen isn't limited to those choices; potentially, it can connect to any imaginable device or appliance.
MIT isn't the only research facility with its eyes to the future.
"What we're expecting is the model where the PC on your desk evolves but doesn't go away," says Robert Morris, vice president of research and director at IBM's Almaden Research Center in Palo Alto, California. "Old models are going to be displaced, but they'll be added to and complemented. You'll see attentive environments instead of icon clicks."
Today you walk down the street, ear pressed to a mobile phone and, while juggling a handheld computer, intermittently talk and scribble. In the next decade, hardware and software will act more like digital assistants and less like extra baggage.
Analysts and researchers predict that in the year 2010 we'll still carry an arsenal of communication devices, but we'll shed our "dumb" devices for smart ones that talk to each other.
At IBM's lab, researchers are tackling the lofty goal of designing smarter devices. The project is called "BlueEyes," and its aim is to create devices with embedded technology that gathers your personal information. They'll track your pulse, breathing rate, and eye movements, and then react to those physical triggers by performing tasks for you.
Following the movements of your eyes, the "gaze-tracking" technology uses MAGIC (Manual Acquisition with Gaze-Initiated Cursor) to control your mouse. With MAGIC, the cursor follows your eyes as you look around the screen. When your eye stops on an object, you click the mouse to select it.
Why not free up your hands and let the eyes do all the work? Researchers tried that and found that the hand is quicker than the eye, or at least more accurate, says Morris, the research center director. Also, current versions of the gaze-tracking technology only come within an inch or so of its target.
One limitation of today's input devices is that we have to tell them what we want.
When you lay your hand on the Emotion Mouse, another IBM project, it will measure how you are feeling and react accordingly. But the mouse isn't really a mind reader. The unit uses sensors to measure your pulse, temperature, and galvanic skin response to identify and understand your mood.
Aside from pointing devices, researchers at Almaden are studying emotion technology for use in automobiles, video games, remote controls, and telephones. But it may be a decade before this type of technology is readily available, Morris cautions.
Picture yourself carrying a printer that's so tiny you could fit it in your briefcase or purse. You'd pull the wand-like device across a sheet of electronic paper to create an image. Build in a scanner and your wand turns into a printer, copier, fax, and scanner.
These small printers cannot work without the benefit of a key technology called Electronic Reusable Paper invented at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center.
"It definitely does have the potential to change the market," says Michael Nowak, senior principal at Xerox Venture Lab in Palo Alto. "Printers are getting nervous."
The technology behind Electronic Reusable Paper is gyricon, a thin layer of transparent plastic. Within it, millions of small beads, much like toner particles found in today's printers, are randomly scattered.
But unlike the toner particles, the beads in electronic paper rest in an oil-filled cavity. When the beads are charged, they rotate in response, displaying one colored side or the other. To print on electronic paper, a pattern of voltages applied to the surface produces images or text.
When you want to erase the old image and print a new one, you need only apply a new voltage pattern.
It might seem like science fiction or distant technology now, but so did mobile phones and handheld PCs ten years ago. Are we ready for self-recycling paper and devices that read our moods?
"In the same way technology causes problems, it can solve them," IBM's Morris says. "You can't go back."