We’ve all seen magazine covers anticipating Terminator-like vision through a pair of contact lenses, hydraulic body suits that augment the body with superhuman strength, and swarms of nanorobots that can construct anything in the blink of an eye. But this is 2009. While he hate to be pessimists, we’re more interested in things we’ll be seeing within the next decade than those we’ll still reading about in the pages of Popular Science on our deathbeds. With that in mind, here are a few of the most exciting new technologies on the brink of becoming reality that could very well change the world as we know it very shortly. While many exist today in immature form, these are the innovations we think will shape the world as we know it over the coming years.
The term “Web 2.0” already gets thrown around a lot in reference to applications like Google Docs and Facebook, but in the future, we’ll gaze back at these sites as the early pioneers. Look at what progress has already been made: Less than ten years ago, Quake III was on the very cutting edge of graphics, requiring cutting edge gaming hardware to even run. Now, you can play it for free in a browser window on nearly any machine courtesy of Quake Live. Adobe web apps like Photoshop Express and Premiere Express have done the same thing on the productivity side of the map. How long before we run computers with barely any storage and perform every task we need online? If early netbooks are indication, it’s just around the corner.
As we come to depend less and less on locally installed software and more and more on the Web, technologies that allow us to connect anywhere, from a park bench on a sunny day to a subway tunnel on the way to work, will become even more critical. Of those currently available today, WiMAX offers the most potential for saturating cities – and even rural areas, eventually – with Internet access that’s almost as fast as the wired equivalent. Think of it as a mix between Wi-Fi and Internet access from your cell carrier – like 3G on steroids. Though it may still seem far off, we suspect someday you’ll be able to drive or fly coast to coast without ever having to close your IM windows – and you’ll be able to stream high-def movies in the corner of the screen while you’re at it.
Accurate Voice Recognition
Tech aficionados have learned to love the QWERTY array that greets them every time they sit down to use computers, but for the tech-uninitiated and those with disabilities, the fearsome keyboard can be a major barrier to participating in the digital world. Various new software packages and technologies have promised to break down this wall for years, but as demonstrations of even the latest voice recognition show, it hasn’t inched very far forward in 10 years. Truly accurate voice recognition would revolutionize the way we use computers – allowing us to recline and interact with them truly effortlessly, rather than with specialized devices like mice and keyboards. And with the exponential increases in traditional processors and even different types of computing beginning to emerge, this type of interaction may be right over the horizon.
Much like voice recognition, an automated translator has been on the brink of possibility for years, but never quite made it all the way there. Witness Google Translate or the classic Babel Fish – both admirable efforts that produce a string of semi-intelligible nonsense when actually put to use. But given how formulaic the fundamentals of different language are, and advances in artificial intelligence that can help resolve the ambiguities in translation, a truly functional version cannot be far off. In conjunction with accurate voice recognition and text-to-speech tech, a super translator of this sort could effectively put your community college language course of business – allowing you to speak into a computer in English and digitally “speak” an exact translation in Japanese without knowing a single word in the language.
Yahoo! Babel Fish
Sorry record companies, digital distribution is coming, and it will trample every physical media that exists today when it arrives in full force. We’ve already seen the significant inroads (witness: iTunes and Amazon) digital distribution has made in force of significant opposite from content owners, so it’s only a matter of time before that resistance finally breaks and “downloading” becomes the method du jour for obtaining new content. And music and movies won’t be alone. Newspapers and magazines are getting primed for the furnace as digital book readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s eReader gain prominence and offer a likeable alternative to physical paper. Don’t be surprised if CD shops and bookstores become the latter day equivalent of chimney sweeps in the next decade.
Amazon Kindle 2
The Truly Connected Home
One of the last major barriers to true digital dominance may be the 30 feet between your Internet connection and the TV set. Though YouTube and its ilk have turned video into a commodity and now deliver clips of virtually anything to your computer screen, only the geekiest among us now own devices that can transmit that content to that gigantic screen where it really belongs. But that is rapidly changing as set-top media streamers and even Internet-connected Blu-ray players begin delivering the same content without the need to cobble together a custom computer out of parts and hide it in your entertainment center. Even cable companies are getting in on the game. Audio is following suit too, with media streamers from Logitech, Linksys and Sonos making it easier than ever to tap the Web from your living room. The Internet no longer just lives on PCs anymore: it will fill your TV set, scream from your speakers, and restock the pages of your eReader every morning.
Linksys Wireless Home Audio System
Like a car at a stop light, the “engine” in your computer doesn’t accomplish much when it’s sitting around at idle. But those unused CPU cycles can be harnessed and put to good use via the Internet. Look at SETI@Home, the first high-profile distributed computing project, which uses computers all over the world to crunch numbers needed in the search for extraterrestrial life. E.T. hasn’t shown up yet, but the concept is solid, and is now being applied to all sorts of other projects, from studying the spread of malaria to simulating particles in the large hadron collider. With the computational muscle of millions of unused computers finally being realized, it’s only a matter of time until a team feeds in the right data set and turns up something amazing.
Smart Power Grids
We hate to call the system that lights up our offices, powers our computers and heats up our Panini’s at lunch “antiquated,” but not much has changed about the way power is transmitted in the last, oh, century or so. That’s about to change in the near future, though: using power meters connected to the Internet technology, consumers and utilities will soon be able to keep a closer eye on and control power usage in real time. That could mean your air conditioning cycles off for ten minutes during periods of peak usage to eliminate brownouts, you get a graph of power usage showing exactly how much each appliance uses when you turn it on, or a host of other possibilites. The end result: more reliable power for you, less strain on the power company, a lower bill at the end of the month, and if all goes well, less carbon dioxide thrown into the atmosphere.
Google PowerMeter Graph
Touch screens significantly reshaped the mobile phone atmosphere during this decade, but as heavy users of touch-screen devices will tell you, a plate of immovable glass leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to user interaction. Hard QWERTY keyboard are, after all, still a luxury feature considered far superior to the touch-screen equivalent. That tide could change with the emergence of haptic technology, which digitally mimics the sense of touch to create clicks and other feedback where no physical key exists. Early examples include technologies as simple as the original PlayStation Dual Shock controllers, but more sophisticated implementations include phones that vibrate to confirm a click and even “localized haptics,” which uses an array of individual linear actuators under a screen to actually make it feel as though the screen depresses in a location when you press a button there.
PlayStation Dual Shock controller
The Universal Device
Amazing as they are, today’s smartphones only scrape the surface of what will be possible very shortly using a computer that fits in your pocket. Imagine real-time video conversations over the phone whenever you want, watching HDTV on the wall that’s thrown out by the micro projector within, taking a picture of a car on the street and then reading all the specs about it instantly, using it to turn up the heat in your house before you come home, or paying the bill at the grocery store by clicking “pay” on the screen. Not much, aside from physical limits on what you can fit into a case the size of a deck of cards, prevents these abilities from becoming reality today. The novel fashion accessories of today will become like a universal remote control for life tomorrow. Just don’t lose yours.
Apple iPhone 3G