Imagine if one day you could download your new smartphone.
Sounds ridiculous? Let me introduce you to the new technology of 3D printing [YOUTUBE VIDEO LINK]. A 3D printer is a bit like a Star Trek replicator. It’s a machine that builds an object one layer at a time from a digital 3D design. 3D printers are already commercially available and cost less than $2,000 to buy. They look a bit like microwave ovens and can manufacture objects from materials like plastic, resin, fabric and metals. There are no nuts and bolts holding the object together, and the resulting creation can be richly detailed with parts as small as a few thousandths of a millimetre. Already 3D printers have been used to manufacture items as diverse as toys, clothing, mobile phone cases, dental implants and works of art. Nokia recently released specs to enable anyone to print cases for its Lumia 820 smartphone.
It isn’t yet possible to create an entire electronic device like a mobile phone. But you could certainly create a phone casing and insert standard components like screen, processor and battery.
One of the beauties of 3D printing is that the digital design can easily be customised. You could literally create your own personal phone design, limited only by your imagination and creativity.
There are other emerging technologies that will shape the way we use our mobiles in the coming decade. Smartphone users may already have tried an augmented reality app such as Layar or Wikitude. These apps use the phone’s camera to display an image of your current surroundings with extra information superimposed. Point the camera at a nearby hotel and you’ll see the name of the hotel displayed on screen, together with a star rating and room rates. Similarly you can get information about tourist sites, find out the asking price of a house for sale, or discover more about a photo printed in a magazine. These apps typically use geolocation data from GPS and vision-based image recognition.
Now imagine if you had access to this layer of digital information about your surroundings all the time. That’s what Google’s Project Glass aims to deliver. Project Glass’s goal is to make augmented reality glasses that will display digital information about your surroundings using a head-mounted display. The glasses look like regular glasses but with a transparent LCD display covering part of the glass. They include a built-in camera and would connect to a smartphone with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
The wearer of the glasses would see digital information superimposed on their normal view of the world. This is called mixed reality. Imagine the possible uses of such a system – information about nearby places of interest, face recognition to tell you the name of people you meet, turn-by-turn directions, plus real-time updates on incoming messages, Facebook alerts and breaking news.
“Google glasses” have a proposed launch date of 2014, and there’s competition from Oakley, who have been working on a similar concept for the past few years.
Now, if a heads-up display replaced or enhanced your smartphone, wouldn’t it be great if you could interact with it by just talking? If you’ve experienced Apple’s Siri or Samsung’s S-Voice voice-activated personal assistants, you may have doubts whether this kind of thing could really work. But there’s another less-well known system that puts Siri and S-Voice at the bottom of the artificial intelligence class. It’s IBM’s Watson [YOUTUBE VIDEO LINK].
Watson is best known in the USA as the first computer to beat human opponents in the TV game show Jeopardy. Jeopardy is a word-based general knowledge quiz where contestants are given clues in the form of answers and they have to guess the question. It’s the kind of task where computers traditionally perform badly, yet Watson managed to beat the show’s two best human contestants to win a million dollars.
Watson is smart, and it’s getting smarter all the time. But it’s not very portable, needing ten racks of high-powered servers and a dedicated air-conditioning system to keep it from overheating. But IBM is said to be working on a pocket version of Watson, with the hard work being done on cloud-based servers and a simple app that could be downloaded to a smartphone or tablet. This could open up a whole new level of human-machine interaction. With a phone this smart, you might find you don’t need to call your human friends quite so often!
The Future Is Already Here
It’s always hard predicting the future, but these three technologies are already here today. It’s just a question of how and when they’ll make their mark.