10 enthralling visions for the future of computing
Check out what's coming: Virtual and augmented reality, gesture and facial recognition, holograms and more.
By Ian Paul
PCWorldOct 9, 2015 3:30 am PDT
For years, our personal computers were made up of monitors, keyboards, and a big beige box. Then laptops came along and changed everything—until a small, flat plate of glass encased in metal, dubbed the iPhone, showed up and changed everything again, followed shortly thereafter by an even larger plate of glass called the iPad that changed things even more.
As exciting as the iPad was, the original came to us five years ago. Today, we once again face major shifts in for computing. What will that future look like, both in the near term and the slightly further-off future?
Peering into that which hasn’t happened yet is a perilous business, but here are some new visions for computing that technology companies are rolling out soon—as well as a few radical, yet compelling dreams that are still years away from becoming tangible.
The near term
We’ve already got basic virtual reality headsets in the form of Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR. But these two models are limited because they rely on a smartphone to double as the VR display, and the software they run are mere mobile apps that offer a fraction of what’s possible with a full PC’s power.
Virtual reality promises to change the way we play games, do business, train soldiers, and perceive the very world around us. For all that promise to live up to the hype, however, these kits need to be affordable. Right now all we can say is that Oculus might be priced affordably, the Vive’s room-scale experience probably won’t be, and we have no idea about the PlayStation VR.
A close cousin of virtual reality, augmented reality is something we’ve been playing with on smartphones for years. The easiest way to think of the difference is that virtual reality immerses you in a 100-percent digital experience, while augmented reality creates a digital overlay on top of the physical world.
Microsoft’s HoloLens captures the most attention in the augmented reality realm these days. The device may soon allow you to fight off Minecraft Zombies and Creepers coming at you from behind your couch. It will allow medical students to view a 3D model of the heart right in the middle of the classroom, help non-electricians successfully wire a broken lightswitch, and much more.
Microsoft isn’t the only company working on augmented reality. Another notable player is Magic Leap, a secretive start-up that is full of promises and short on specifics, while a team of former Valve engineers are working on CastAR.
Unfortunately, there’s no word on when we might see these augmented reality headsets in the real world.
Intel’s wireless future
PCs are great for gaming, getting working done, gaming, surfing the Internet, and gaming, but man they need a lot of wires. Intel hopes to reduce our dependency on little black tubes snaking around and under our desks with new wireless technologies—a wire-free future for the PC.
Intel’s been pushing WiGig, a standard for wireless gigabit data links currently supported by Dell and HP. WiGig can connect monitors, hard drives, and other peripherals to your PC sans cables.
Intel is also working on a method for wirelessly charging your laptop with a pad delivering up to 20 watts of power. We hope to see laptops charging wirelessly in 2016.
A pet project of Intel’s for a few years now, Perceptual computing is the idea of interacting with your PC using natural senses rather than traditional interface methods. Instead of a keyboard, you might use hand gestures. Instead of clicking a pause button on a video, it might stop based on eye-tracking.
To move conceptual computing from trade show demos to real-life applications, however, PC users need the right equipment. That’s just starting to happen now with Windows 10 laptops and PCs loaded with RealSense cameras, which (among other things) team with Windows Hello biometric security to unlock your PC with your face—no password required.
Smartphone as PC
Blame it on Motorola’s (failed) Atrix, but the idea of your smartphone’s doubling as a PC when docked just won’t go away. But so far, all we’ve seen are smartphones that can slip into a customized desktop version of Android or a Chrome OS-like browser-based system when docked.
Nevertheless, the reality of a full desktop powered by a smartphone is now closer than ever, thanks to Microsoft’s work on a Windows 10 Mobile feature called Continuum. Continuum allows Windows 10 phones to display a Windows desktop-like experience when connected to an external monitor. You can also connect an external keyboard and mouse, or use the phone’s display itself to control the “PC.”
Nevertheless, Microsoft is trying again with the upcoming Surface Hub. This 84-inch, 4K business-focused touchscreen looks like an amazing device to play around with. It runs Windows 10 and can be used for pretty much anything you use a PC for today, including video conferencing and presentations. Microsoft’s aim here is not just to make a big PC, but to digitize the whiteboard and take advantage of all the possibilities such a concept entails.
I’m a sucker for those Microsoft concept videos that show where the company thinks the future of computing is going. Not so much because I think what they show will ever become a reality, but because it indicates how the company is thinking about the products it’s working on now.
In 2011, Microsoft conceived of a modular card system that would replace your smartphone by 2019. The latest video, called Productivity Future Vision, still has the smartphone cards, and adds some other deeply enthralling concepts.
One of them is a tablet made of a mousepad-like material that you can bend and fold. It basically looks like a thick color e-ink touchscreen with no bezel.
The idea of a flexible display has actually been around for a while now. LG was talking up a bendable plastic for displays as early as 2010, and Samsung had a similar technology around the same time that made it into an actual product in 2013 called the Samsung Galaxy Round, though that phone’s slight curve was far from being a truly flexible display.
And who can forget the impressive Plastic Logic e-reader demos that popped up at conferences and tradeshows around 2008-2009? Plastic Logic even gave its e-reader a name, Que, but the product ultimately failed to make it to market.
Microsoft Band Futuro edition
Another product from Microsoft’s latest concept video reveals a slick potential far-future evolution for the company’s Band fitness tracker. In the future, Microsoft Band isn’t just a rubbery step-tracker, but a full wraparound display that turns into a stylish piece of jewelry when not in use.
This theoretical wearable can also display email, calendar invites, and maps; accept gesture input; double as a digital key card; and unfold to work as—you guessed it—Microsoft’s infamous smartphone card.
Who needs USB cords, email, or apps like AirDroid? In Microsoft’s future (which clearly takes some cues from Intel’s vision of a wire-free PC), sending data from your tablet to a wall-sized computer display will be as simple as a flick, Minority Report-style.
You may not be able to do an actual fling gesture today, but sending certain kinds of data between devices seamlessly and wirelessly already exists. You can send content from a tablet or laptop to your Xbox with just one tap via the Xbox SmartGlass app, for example, and Google’s Chromecast as well as the upcoming Chromecast Audio perform similar tricks.
Life in 3D
Don’t worry, children of the 1980s: The future may still rock holograms and 3D displays.
A California-based start-up called Ostendo is working on a product called the Quantum Photonic Imager that promises to be as futuristic as it sounds. The technology, according to a 2014 report by The Wall Street Journal, is capable of taking six chips laid together to produce a glasses-free 3D image of green dice spinning in the air.
That’s a long way from real-life Dejarik (the holographic board game in the original Star Wars movie) but it’s a start. Ostendo had originally hoped to roll out its 3D chip in the second half of 2015, according to the WSJ, but that goal was a little too ambitious.
First, Ostendo plans to release a pint-sized projector for large 2D videos in 2016. Its ultimate aim for market-ready holographic 3D applications is a little further down the road.
That, of course, could be said for pretty much every ambitious computing vision detailed in this article. Nevertheless, the future is coming and it looks awfully exciting—even if holograms and virtual worlds aren’t quite reality yet.