What's Next for Consumer Gadgets?

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS -- Our digital future may offer do-it-all devices that are nonetheless simple to use; batteries that can be recharged on the fly, perhaps wirelessly; and tech gadgets that resemble nothing available today, say some of the experts who will be developing it.

They didn't reach consensus on what will be the next IPod, but electronic gadgets were the topic of discussion at the Designing Bits & Pieces symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology here Monday. The event was cosponsored by the MIT Media Lab and the Consumer Electronics Association.

The event also marked the launch of the CELab, a new consumer electronics research center at the MIT Media Center.

Chief among the challenges: building ever-smaller devices that still have long battery life, and crafting simple gadgets that have sufficient features.

Consumer electronics goes beyond TVs and MP3 players, said Michael Bove, CELab director. "If you're selling cars, you'll soon be in the consumer electronics business as well," he said.

The goal is simple, easy-to-use devices that know a great deal about each other, Bove said.

Nicholas Negroponte, who chairs the MIT Media Lab, seconded this call for simplicity.

"Computers have gotten harder to use. Instead of making them easier to use, we're piling on more stuff. We're building bigger, fatter machines," he said. He calls this condition "featuritis"--adding features simply for the sake of adding more features, and urged simplicity in devices with distinctive purposes.

Do-It-All Cell Phone

Interestingly, that idea of a "simpler" device was also heralded by Geoffery Frost, Motorola's chief brand officer, who illustrated his point with a New Yorker cartoon. In it, a man asks a store clerk if he sells any phones that make phone calls. Frost then showed the audience a phone that does a whole lot more: the Motorola E398.

The phone includes an MP3 player with stereo surround sound speakers, an integrated camera, and removable flash memory--and it makes phone calls. Announced in March, the phone is expected to ship this summer.

"The device formerly known as the cell phone is the device you should never leave home without," Frost said. "It's the number one icon of self-expression. It's the number one device people take with them when they leave home, not their car keys or their wallets. Although soon, it will also be your car keys and your wallet."

Frost also described Motorola's research into alternative entertainment devices, describing gadgets that could be a "video IPod" and a "micro-TiVo." He showed pictures of some prototype Motorola devices that are not expected to launch. For example, the MediaMonster is a small clamshell-style device running Windows Mobile OS. It includes a megapixel camera and QWERTY keyboard. He also showed a picture of the MessagingMonster, a combo voice and data device similar to RIM's popular BlackBerry and Handspring's Treos.

Nurturing Batteries

How will we power these devices of the future? "Users don't want to think about power. They want a device they can use whenever they want, for as long as they want," said Dave DeMuro, manager of advanced development in Motorola's energy systems group, on this topic.

Despite recent talk about advances in fuel cells as a potential power source for portable devices, DeMuro suggests "batteries are here to stay for the foreseeable future."

After his presentation, DeMuro discussed some potential problems with bringing fuel cells to market and some developers' claims that they will offer direct methanol fuel cells for notebooks and handhelds as early as next year. "I haven't seen any prototypes. Usually, by this time, I would have seen a working model," he said.

A key challenge for fuel cells is the fact that methanol is a flammable liquid not allowed on airplanes. "The government reacts very slowly. Even if they looked at this issue now, the regulations wouldn't change until about 2007," DeMuro said. "And I don't see a laptop company releasing a product that you can't bring on an airplane."

More powerful batteries are feasible, but vendors--and users--wouldn't like the increased size necessary to provide that additional power, he said.

However, batteries are easily scalable, he added. If you double a battery's size, you can double the power it provides. Because the emphasis is on ever smaller devices, that squeezes the space allotted for the battery. In turn, that limits the battery life, he said.

DeMuro expects to see new form factors in batteries and in recharging technology. Curved batteries, device-to-device recharging, and wireless recharging are some of the technologies he expects to emerge.

He also thinks device manufacturers may move away from embedded batteries, such as those in the IPod. "If I had to guess, I'd say [device manufacturers] would move toward removable batteries," he says. "If the product outlasts the batteries, users will want to replace the batteries."

Coming Next?

Software radio is another technology to watch for in consumer electronics devices of the future. Such products are at least five years off, said Vanu Bose, president and CEO of Vanu, but he offered a preview of what the technology offers.

Software-based radio is a departure from today, when all radio technology--which encompasses any sort of wireless communications device--is hardware-based, Bose said. Hardware defines the function of a device, from an FM radio to a CDMA or a GSM cell phone.

But what if you take away everything that's different about the hardware, and build those differences into a software application instead? Bose offered a vision of the result: an IPaq handheld with icons on its screen for Word, Excel, FM radio, CDMA calling, and GSM calling. You'd simply select an icon to tell the device which radio band to use. The result is a cell phone you could use on any cellular network in the world.

Monday's event ended with an open house at MIT's Media Lab, an educational and research facility where staffers, students, and faculty focus on "the study, invention, and creative use of digital technologies." Students displayed and discussed their projects.

Among the works in progress: software to identify meeting attendees who are either over- or underparticipating, a survey studying the behavior of participants in online auctions, and technology designed to help people improve their memories.

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