Apple's iPhone and iPad were revolutionary mobile products that changed how people communicate and access information, entertainment and services. Since then, similar slab-style smartphones and tablets have become ubiquitous. This doesn't mean mobile devices have become boring, but it does beg the question: What new kinds of gadgets will we see next -- and what might they mean for your business?
Some new smartphones, like the one Amazon is said to be working on, might have 3-D screens. But there's more. Some devices are wearable and can be carried hands-free as glasses or even woven into the fabric of your clothing. Others are ambient, meaning they're embedded in objects around you and interact with you and your devices via various types of radio connections or the internet.
Here are four innovative, new types of devices that have potential implications for business:
1. Google Glass
This is the first consumer "heads up" display -- a small monitor that you wear like eyeglasses. Google Glass has a camera, microphone, memory, GPS and Wi-Fi built in. Right now, it's costly (the initial version cost $1,500), and availability is sharply limited. But Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently said that in about a year, Google Glass will be more widely available, although probably still pricey.
In the meantime, expect competing devices, such as the prototype Telepathy One, to emerge.Hands-free access to work-related information such as calendar reminders, inventory data, wiring diagrams or customer records could increase productivity. Also, as the ideas generated through the #IfIHadGlass contest illustrate, you can use such devices to create vivid first-person videos that share not just stories and information, but compelling experiences. This could become hot, compelling marketing.
Another wearable device, the FitBit, is one of the most popular personal data collectors. Think of it as a pedometer on steroids with wireless communication. It comes in versions that slip into a pocket or can be worn on the wrist.
Monitoring movement, sleep and calories burned, it uses wireless communication to send data to your smartphone or computer so you can track your progress toward fitness goals. Similar data collector devices can help track heart rate, blood sugar and other common health or fitness indicators. Prices range from as little as $20 to several hundred dollars. In some cases, health insurers may reimburse consumers for part of the cost, or they may be health saving account (HSA)-qualified expenses.
Fitness and wellness are big business. Personal trainers and other health professionals might be able to review clients' fitness data, whether from FitBit or other devices, to provide guidance on exercise programs and help clients see the relationship between their activity levels and how they feel. In other industries, portable or wearable data collectors could help architects and real estate professionals measure buildings and enable event organizers to track their staff's whereabouts on site.
Sensors and storage/communications for personal data collection can even be woven into fabric, such as AiQ smart clothing.
3. The internet of things
It has become easy and relatively inexpensive to add sensors and wireless communication to almost anything -- a refrigerator, a pair of shoes, a bicycle or a set of car keys. If you also give each item a unique identifying address, then they can interact with each other and with smartphones and computers. Or they can even put themselves on the internet.
Objects on the emerging "internet of things" can share and receive data, issue and accept commands, and more. Such devices can help make the world around you easier to navigate. Sensors and communication in vehicles might make traffic flow smoother or shipping times shorter and more reliable. Small businesses might be able to more effectively automate inventory management, just as larger companies have been doing for years.
Cisco predicts that by 2015, 25 billion common devices will be connected to the internet -- and double that number by 2020. As it grows, the Internet of things will likely spawn entirely new types of businesses and services to help people and organizations get their devices to interact with each other in useful ways.
4. Flexible or foldable displays.
What if your tablet, smartphone or computer monitor could fold up into a small packet that you could stuff into your wallet? Or what if it was as thin as a piece of paper and could roll up like a scroll to slip more easily into your purse? This kind of technology was shown in the recent science fiction film Looper.
Research is under way to create such flexible or folding displays, which could be standalone devices or displays connected wirelessly to the Internet or other devices. Eventually flexible displays should be commercially available, but as consumer products, they're further off than Google Glass.
The main advantage, of course, would be portability, which could benefit business users and consumers alike. Such devices might also be less likely to break when dropped.
What's more, flexible display technology could be used for innovative advertising such as video fliers or window displays. It could be attached to or incorporated into clothing and perhaps even applied to the skin to create "programmable tattoos." No doubt, designers will find ample new business opportunities as this technology develops.