Smartphones of the Future: How They Will Look, What They Will Do

Features of the Future: NFC, Augmented Reality, and...Artificial Intelligence?

Near field communication, or NFC, allows you to make simplified transactions, data exchanges, and connections by touching your phone to an object or another phone. We're just beginning to see NFC chips in smartphone hardware as well as NFC features built into software (at least here in the United States), but you can expect the technology to explode over the next few years. Android 2.3, aka Gingerbread--which most current phones are running--supports NFC, but only a few phones, most notably the Nexus S, have NFC chips built in. Additionally, NFC is primarily used for making mobile payments, something that a lot of consumers might not be comfortable with.

Google has big plans to make NFC even more useful in its next major Android update, known as Ice Cream Sandwich. One of Google's goals with the Ice Cream Sandwich update is to enable what it calls "0-click interaction," which will let you set up peer-to-peer connections via NFC simply by putting two phones back to back. You'll be able to exchange contact information or share Web pages, YouTube videos, and pretty much any other sort of content--without installing a separate app.

At Google I/O 2011, Google's developer conference, the company showed off some cool demos of all the things that Android app developers can do with NFC. One of the demo apps, Sticky Notes, allows users to leave each other notes by touching their phones together. Another demo app, Google Talk Portal, takes you to a random video chat with another device when you touch your phone to an NFC sticker. Perhaps the coolest use for NFC is in gaming: NFC will make initiating head-to-head games incredibly easy--and you won't have to rely on the cellular network.

Layar augmented reality browser
Augmented reality is another feature we've seen on a few apps here and there, but IDC's Llamas predicts that AR will become a standard, everyday feature in the phones of tomorrow as opposed to being limited to one-off apps such as Google Goggles or the Layar browser. We've already encountered a bit of this approach in the form of Bing's visual search, which is built right into the Windows Phone 7 platform. If you're traveling or just exploring your own neighborhood, for instance, you can point your phone at your surroundings, and the app will display an overlay of historic landmarks nearby.

If you've ever visited Disneyland or any other amusement park, you've probably had a heck of a time locating the restrooms. In the next few years, your phone might be able to not only locate the nearest restrooms but also tell you how long the line is for Splash Mountain. That is, of course, a hypothetical scenario, but Llamas predicts that GPS will go beyond simply giving you driving directions. With faster data networks, GPS will be able to deliver more-accurate, real-time results regarding traffic, weather, events, and so on. The next generation of GPS might be able to pick up your location within a building, as opposed to merely what street you're on.

The industry has heard some buzz about implementing artificial intelligence into smartphones, too. Cool? Yes. Scary? Just a bit. In the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory’s Spoken Language Systems Group at MIT, researchers have developed a mobile system that can automatically comb through user reviews on sites such as Citysearch or Yelp, extract useful information about a particular establishment, and make that information searchable. For example, if you wanted to find out whether a restaurant made good martinis, the algorithm would perform a grammatical analysis of adjective-noun pairs, such as "excellent martinis" or "disgusting martinis."

Lin Zhong, a professor at Rice University's Computer Science program, predicts that cell phones and applications of the future will collect, analyze, and provide relevant data for users--without users' even knowing.

"As we carry [smartphones] along, they collect data, analyze situations, and provide information in situ, as a human companion would do," Zhong writes in Rice University's Computing@Rice blog.

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