The future of mobile: Invisible, connected devices with infinite screens

[From The Radioactive Yak, a technology blog by Reto Meier, an Android Developer Advocate for Google in London and author of Professional Android 2 Application Development; an evaluation of some of these predictions can be found here]

[Image: From “Introducing the “iThink” by Paul Mic on his The Monkey Buddha blog]

The Future of Mobile: Invisible, connected devices with infinite screens

Monday, August 09, 2010
by Reto Meier

The history of smartphones looks something like this: At the end of 2008 the very first Android handset was available on T-Mobile in the US. The iPhone has existed for 3 years. The very first Blackberry featuring push email came out in 2002.

From WAP and push email to iPhone in 5 years. From one iPhone to 60 different Android handsets in under 3 years. At that rate it’s challenging to create a credible mobile roadmap that extends as far as 6 months – and the rate of change is increasing.

At the current rate, nearly anything is possible in 20 years

Lately a lot of people have asked me what I think is the future of mobile. Some people just want to know what device they should buy at Christmas, but others are looking for a 20 year outlook. 20 years!  The first GSM network had barely launched 20 years ago! Predication at that scale is destined for failure and embarrassment. But I won’t let that stop me.

Bigger screens are better

Mobile devices are morphing. Tablets have been talked about for years, and the iPad and Kindle provide the kind of experience people have been waiting for. Browsing pictures, watching videos, and reading books work really well on a screen that size.

Still, I find the iPad heavy and bulky. The ultimate device would be the size and weight of my mobile but include a screen that could be unfolded or rolled out to provide a better display for watching movies and playing games.

Actually, the ultimate device would be entirely virtual. I’d put on my glasses (or contact lenses) and look at any surface to see an augmented version of reality. Anything from interactive holographs, to augmented reality, or a cinema screen that stretches across the horizon. Everyone could see their own version of reality on a screen the size of their visual field.

1 year  High res screens, tablet devices, and HD output from mobiles.
5 years  Flexible displays and built in HD projectors.
10 years  Transparent LCD patches that can be applied to regular glasses.
20 years  Contact lenses that project a visual feed directly onto your retina.

Full keyboards are better. No keyboards is best

Keyboard designs (like the that on the SE Mini Pro) continue to improve, as do on-screen keyboards with technologies like Swype.

The Nintendo Wii and Microsoft’s Kinect suggest that gestures might largely take the place of keyboards and touch screens for some interactions. Better multi-touch and increasingly accurate voice input will make physical keyboards almost entirely redundant.

For those who want to write something longer than an email, gesture recognition (capable of tracking fingers), combined with eye-focus tracking will provide virtual full-size keyboards.

If we’re thinking long-term, we can look forward to research like this letting us control our devices using our minds.

1 year  Wireless keyboards, voice input, and gestures.
5 years  Larger multitouch screens, better gesture input, and flawless voice recognition.
10 years  Full virtual keyboards and voice input eliminate physical keyboards entirely.
20 years  Mind control.

Smaller devices that last longer

The Sony Ericsson X10 Mini is a ridiculous 83x50x16mm and weighs less than 100g. When screens stop being a primary consideration for device size, the devices will shrink dramatically.

That leaves the problem of  the battery. Mobile processors will become more efficient, and fuel cells may help battery life in the short term, but ultimately we’ll be powering mobile device using biology and ambient energy. Biokinetic and ambient energy will likely be the start, but the future suggests a move away from silicon and towards biological processors. The computer you inject is more likely to resemble a specialized virus than a tiny silicon chip.

1 year  Lighter, thinner devices that last longer.
5 years  Tiny devices powered by fuel cells.
10 years  Devices small enough to embed into watches and jewellery that never need charging.
20 years  You are the computer.

Connectivity will become ubiquitous

Cloud computing is already a reality. As even more of our data and processing is done in the cloud, continual and uninterrupted Internet connectivity will become increasingly critical.

The incredible growth of smartphones in countries with a mobile data infrastructure to support them is nothing short of phenomenal. It’s easy to forget that the real powerhouses of mobile phone use are developing countries – countries that don’t have a reliable infrastructure for traditional “wired” Internet access. Citizens there are likely to access the Internet exclusively via their mobile phones.

Over the next decade we’ll see carriers (and new challengers) aggressively rolling out faster, more reliable networks and technologies that cover larger areas across the globe.

At the same time, you’ll be using your mobile to control your TV, monitor your fridge, and start your car.

1 year  3G/4G and WiFi covers most of industrial world. Every mobile device comes with an unlimited (or high-cap) data plan. Mobiles start interacting with other consumer electronics and cars.
5 years  4G/5G and WiFi extend to cover the entire developing world.
10 years  Whitespaces or similar technology means everyone everywhere is connected at all times.
20 years  Connectivity is uninterrupted and ubiquitous. Losing connectivity is like losing power or running water.

What about calls!

Apparently some people use mobile phones to make and receive calls(!) As devices get smaller, keyboards become virtual, and screens move closer to your eyes, you’ll need a separate piece of kit to sit near your mouth and ears. Bluetooth headsets will get smaller and more discrete, people apparently talking to themselves in public will become no less creepy or annoying.

Infinity screens, invisible devices, always connected

In 2030 you’ll think of smart-phones as quaint anachronisms that died out about 10 years ago, now that all computing is mobile. You’ll be constantly connected to the Internet by a virus that lives in your bloodstream. Contact lenses will provide a truly infinite screen, and you’ll interact with your augmented environment through a combination of mental commands, physical gestures, and voice input.

We’ll take all this for granted and complain that we still don’t have jetpacks or flying cars.

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