Creators of the 1960s television series Star Trek guessed that centuries of technological development would yield clamshell devices that look much like today’s mobile phones. But don’t be fooled: Star Trek communicators use subspace (faster than light) transmission to communicate at great distances with zero latency. In Star Trek: the Next Generation, handheld communicators are replaced with badge communicators featuring a built-in, universal language translator.
However, strip away subspace transmission and the universal translator, and you are left with a phone that even today’s entry-level users in developing countries would look down on.
What, if anything, did Star Trek’s creators miss? I predict that in two or three centuries communicators will include a computer-brain interface for the ultimate in multimedia communications... with selectable background, theater, and being there modes, of course.
Getting back to Earth… Today’s mobile phones range from ultra low cost units (free to subscribers and a throwaway after two years) supporting voice and text messaging to mid-range multimedia phones with built-in digital cameras and color displays to smart phones designed to interoperate with desktop PCs and the Web. Over the next five years, expect mobile phones at all price levels to become more intelligent, more multimedia, and more interconnected with other devices, networks, and services.
Video displays for mobile phones are evolving along multiple paths. The main challenges are achieving an acceptable viewing experience while minimizing power consumption and cost. Three development paths that look promising (and that I discuss in the book) are: displays that use ambient light, projection displays, and retinal projection displays.
Another challenge for small mobile devices is ease of use. Telephone keypads are fine for entering numbers, but cumbersome for entering text. Some handsets feature voice recognition capability, though it’s most reliable for specific functions such as dialing numbers and accessing address book entries. Indexing software will help users quickly find and use handset functions. For example, when the user enters the word “camera” a menu of camera tasks appears. The key to positive user experiences is minimizing the number of key clicks required per task.
Unfortunately, battery technology is evolving more slowly than electronics. Most recent improvements in battery life have been achieved through greater semiconductor integration and better power management. Though fuel cells promise up to a 20x improvement over lithium-ion batteries, they require complex “micro-plumbing” and are years away from general use.
What about the radio technology? Wireless entrepreneurs have long dreamed of using wireless to replace wires. However, the dream has been thwarted by a persistent performance gap. When wireless LANs were introduced in the early 1990s, most could not deliver one-tenth the throughput of inexpensive Ethernet LANs running 10 megabits/s over twisted pair cables. As wireless LANs slowly climbed to 10 megabits/s, wired LANs raced ahead to even faster speeds: Fast Ethernet (100 megabits/s), Gigabit Ethernet, and 10 Gigabit Ethernet.
In the mid-1990s, Dr. Greg Raleigh realized that with the proper signal processing algorithms and multiple antennas at both ends of a wireless link, multipath propagation (normally an impairment) could be harnessed to dramatically increase the speed and range of wireless LANs. Raleigh’s MIMO (pronounced my-moh) technology is the centerpiece of the new 802.11n wireless LAN standard, supporting speeds up to 600 megabits/s, and a key component of fourth generation (4G) mobile phone standards. MIMO technology will enable home entertainment networks and make mobile multimedia more affordable.
Two new short-range wireless technologies look promising: ultra wideband (UWB) and near field communications (NFC). Ultra wideband uses narrow pulses or very wide channels (>500 MHz) to send data at high speeds without interfering with other devices and services. Speeds in the gigabit/s range are possible.
While UWB can be used for specialized applications such as radar and medical diagnostics, it offers a Bluetooth-on-steroids capability for mobile handsets. UWB is being embraced for transferring multimedia content between handsets and PCs; using handsets to drive large video displays; personal area social networking between handsets; and handset-to-kiosk communications. WiMedia is an ultra wideband-based standard that has been selected by both the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) and the USB Implementers Forum as the foundational technology for their high-speed wireless solutions.
Do handsets really need a short-range wireless link running hundreds of megabits per second or faster? It’s all about quick content transfers. For example, assume a user wants to download several albums of music from a PC to a handset or PDA before heading out the door. It will take several minutes at Bluetooth speeds, but mere seconds at UWB data rates.
NFC supports wireless communications at very short distances (up to about ten inches), primarily for secure transactions. The NFC-equipped handset is waved past or tapped against a point of sale terminal, a vending machine, or a poster equipped with a tiny NFC chip. For example, NFC can be used to pay tolls or download URLs for further information.
Wireless may reach a technology plateau at some point down the road. But for now, I see only accelerated evolution ahead.