Monday, August 09, 2010

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

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.


  1. Anonymous5:52 pm BST

    I'm hoping subvocalization becomes another possible input method. Convenience of voice input without annoying those around you or broadcasting confidential information...

  2. What - no flying cars? ridiculous!

    Besides, great ideas - they will unfold as predicted by you. :)

  3. Anonymous6:59 pm BST

    Motoko Kusanagi anyone?

  4. mind control - it's a powerful idea. Back in realityland though, yes, lots of things you say are probably correct - I wonder what the implementations and usage will be, though.

    Facebook via the mind? mine boggles at the thought. MindBook? Thoughttime tweets? - I'll stick with my virtual (or not) keyboard) for some time yet. I'll convert one day - but secretly I'll type out my thoughts first

  5. Great post. But you forgot to mention the date at which it becomes self-aware. ;-)

  6. I've called this period as StarTrek age since 2k ;) Mobile Devices are becoming to be much more powerful from day to day. This is the reason why I love them :) I'm glad for Android ...

  7. Anonymous8:49 pm BST

    So in your predictions when do we see device convergence or do we ever?
    When will our mobile device converge with our desktop, laptop, TV and game console?

  8. Great ideas. The one items that I cant see improving that much is connectivity like you say in the industrialized world. I think rural areas will continue to have bad coverage. Just look at rural parts in the US, Australia or Canada. As soon as you leave the urban centers coverage can be REALLY bad.

  9. The interface is already virtual with SixthSense. See Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry of the MIT Media Lab demonstrate "SixthSense" at a TED presentation:

  10. Anybody who thinks this post is interesting ought to check out for some awesome (and relevant) SciFi.

    I think that if we can manage computation via virus we ought to do better than just contacts for input. If you can imagine field-of-vision being analogous to desktop resolution, why not go multimonitor? I bet we'll have the visual cortex mapped in 20 years...

    Awesome post. Very thought provoking.

  11. @devewm: Subvocalization 'eh? Never heard of it - sounds interesting!
    @nightshadelabs: I think your mobile will start interacting with other devices within a year. Within 5 it will be your dedicated connection to the cloud. It contain all your "settings", so connecting it to any game console will apply your settings and saved games.
    @mosabua: Indeed, but this will change. The opportunities in India, China, and Africa will drive innovation that provides coverage over vast rural areas with poor infrastructure. Sooner, rather than later.
    @M@: I think people will resist implant and gene-morphing for a while. There's plenty of people who still balk at organ transplant. Modifying the body is incredibly powerful, but I think it'll be harder for people to accept.

  12. Anonymous11:57 am BST

    "Modifying the body is incredibly powerful, but I think it'll be harder for people to accept."

    That's why the "You are the computer." thing won't happen in 20 years. Maybe in 100 years or more... if we won't disappear as a race until then.

  13. 5G doesn't really exist as such - it's called LTE (advanced)

  14. Anonymous5:55 pm BST

    "The Sony Ericsson X10 Mini is a ridiculous 83x50x16mm".

    It's only 5% bigger than iPhone 4 then?

  15. Anonymous12:09 am BST

    Regarding people apparently talking to themselves, a few SF stories I've read feature glyphs, haloes, etc. that appear around people to indicate some inner state that's not otherwise apparent. When everyone has an enhanced visual field, this kind of non-verbal, non-textual, non-gestural communication will take off.

  16. Nice write up:) I think the timeframe will be shorter for some early adopters and that the phone will go extict as we know it within 5-10 years for the first few. Till that time it will more and more be a connection hub for communication of all sorts.

    In the end we'll go to a less magical version of telepathy (rather a technological/biological verse).

    Just in case you like to let your imagination go wild on the possibilities of Synthetic biology, have a look at this introduction by Andrew Hessel

  17. Anonymous9:30 am BST

    love that wrox cover looks bad ass..yea terminator skynet...that really is the end game!

  18. "20 years Connectivity is uninterrupted and ubiquitous. Losing connectivity is like losing power or running water."

    I think perhaps it may be more like losing your vision or hearing. You'll be completely lost without it, less-able if not dis-abled.

  19. 20 years for contact lenses? Au Contraire! I suggest a quick gander at this very thourough article on the topic:

  20. Anonymous4:16 pm BST

    Great post!

    My 2c
    - direct retina projection via very low intensity laser prototypes exist already I think the first one was build 2005 IMHO 20 years is very conservative.

    + adjustable transparency from 0% full augmented reality to 100% private IMAX-experience.

    ...and there are some senses left behind:
    + tactile devices gloves simulating surface's properties
    + odor simulating devices

    10-20-30 years?

  21. e Volution11:10 am BST

    ^^ I agree on the tactile surfaces; I think the public will be blown away by feeling something that is not actually there, a virtual button that feels like a button...

    No doubt you have read lot's of Kurzweil's work, I am optimistic also.

    The best prediction: Along with all these ideas put forward will almost certainly be accompanied by game changing technologies and inventions we aren't yet capable of thinking off...

  22. tactile devices gloves simulating surface's properties

  23. Modifying the body is incredibly powerful, but I think it'll be harder for people to accept."