Future Tech

Computers that know who you are? What about ones that read your mind? In the technology of the future, virtually anything's possible. Anything.
Magazine Contributor
12 min read

This story appears in the May 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Over the past 20 years, a series of remarkable innovations in , telecommunications and other high-tech fields have had a great impact on the way we live, work and play. has given us tools to organize our lives and run our businesses more efficiently. It single-handedly enabled round-the-clock banking, face-to-face meetings with people on the other side of the planet, stores without doors, and research without the obligatory trip to the library. Technology has also brought with it unprecedented prosperity. Twenty years ago, many felt the economic supremacy of the United States was on the wane; today, technology is the driving force behind a healthy, robust that is the envy of the . And the best is yet to come.

Assuming that the Y2K bug and its attendant headaches don't return us to the early Industrial Age, the next 10 years promise to be an exciting full of astounding discoveries, miraculous devices and continued economic expansion. While no one knows what the world of 2009 will look like, the technologies that will mold that world are taking shape right now in laboratories, high-tech research centers, and basements across the country.

Thank You, Mr. Chips

In 1965, Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore was preparing to give a speech about the growth in microprocessor performance when he made an interesting observation: Each new chip was roughly twice as fast as its predecessor--meaning power would rise exponentially over a relatively brief period of . While the pace of advancement has slowed in recent years to a doubling once every 18 months, as compared to the doubling rate in 1965 of once every year, the next five to 10 years will see microprocessor speeds increase by huge increments, says Bob Ferrar, marketing operations manager for Intel's embedded microcomputer division. "In a few years, we'll certainly see chips in the gigahertz [1000 MHz] range at affordable prices," Ferrar predicts.

While the typical small-business computer user may wonder why he or she would need a PC that runs twice as fast as the new 500 MHz Pentium III chip, Ferrar believes gigahertz chips will truly enhance the user's computing experience. "They will really change what you can do within computing," says Ferrar. "They'll allow things like real-time voice and video capability. Voice recognition will also see major improvement." Improved voice recognition will make possible extremely small devices that eschew display screens, mice and keyboards in favor of an interface that relies solely on voice recognition and synthesis (meaning the computer can talk back) for interaction with the user.

Within a few years of their release, Ferrar predicts, gigahertz chips will trickle down into non-PC applications. Here they'll take the form of "embedded" chip in hand-held Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), cellular phones and other consumer electronic devices, giving these products more horsepower as well as a vastly improved ability to handle graphics and audio applications.

The Ubiquitous PC

Given the plunge in PC prices in recent months, by 2009, PCs will be nearly as affordable and popular as TV sets are today. The major stumbling block to this level of saturation is, of course, usability. What good is owning a powerful computer that's too complicated to use? Roy Want, a researcher with Xerox, is making it his mission to improve the relationship between man and machine. Want is experimenting with Invisible Interfaces, intuitive mechanisms that go way beyond the mice and keyboards that currently control PCs. "We're moving from very rigid, stationary machines to ones that are much more mobile and numerous," says Want. "There will be many computers distributed throughout your work environment, and as a result, you are more likely to have interaction on a physical basis with your computer as well as with the traditional keyboard and mouse. We have interfaces where you can tilt and press the housing of your computer, and it gives you the natural effects [of motion]." In one experiment, Want used a Palm Pilot combined with a tilt sensor to make a Rolodex-type product that scrolls through long lists when users tilt the machine--meaning users don't need the mouse or the arrow key. Other devices incorporating this unique interface are on the drawing board.

Computers of the will also be much more aware of users' needs, says Want. Today, when you boot up your PC, it presents you with the same interface it presents your employees, spouse, kids or anyone else who uses your computer. "Tagging" technologies, in the form of a special badge worn by the user, will change all that. Your PC will send out radio signals that interrogate the badge, which will in turn tell the computer who you are, what you want to see on your desktop, what programs you want to work with, and what type of security clearance you have for manipulating the core system. Your PC will also know when you've stepped away from the screen and will fend off prying eyes until you return.

But your computer still won't be able to read your mind--at least not yet. In a recent experiment at Atlanta's Emory University, a tiny device designed to amplify brain signals and send them to special computers through a small antenna was implanted within the skull of a stroke victim who was both paralyzed and mute. The procedure gave the patient the ability to communicate by moving a cursor across a computer screen using just his thoughts. Want believes that although this type of brain surgery may be a bit too radical for most users, the understanding required to tap into neural signals is improving all the , and with advances in brain-signal processing and nonintrusive measuring devices, a direct brain-to-computer interface (sans surgery) may be possible within the next 10 years.

Also in the works are new ways of viewing information on your computer. Palo Alto, California's Inxight (pronounced "insight") Software Inc. is offering a next-generation graphical user interface that uses hierarchical, brightly colored "tree" views to help users spot patterns and navigate Web sites or large file systems. These "wide widgets," as they're called, rely on the user's intuitive visual skills, says Ramana Rao, one of the company's founders. Instead of having to scroll through a list of thousands of files, scanning to find those of a particular type, the widget marks files that meet your search criteria with easily identifiable colors that stand out much like a brightly colored bird stands out against the green leaves of a tree. The widget is currently being used on The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition and may end up being incorporated into a future operating system.

Full Speed Ahead

The capability of the Internet to facilitate communication and deliver rich, exciting and informative multimedia experiences may seem limitless. But slow dial-up connections and thin phone lines with limited bandwidth are taking all the fun out of the Internet Revolution, frustrating users and Internet application developers alike. ISDN, cable and T1 lines are all capable of breaking the bandwidth bottleneck, but the great expense and limited availability of these services are leaving many users out in the cold.

Enter Digital Subscriber Lines (DSLs), the express lane of the Internet. DSLs use digital signal encoding to vastly increase the amount of bandwidth available over plain old telephone service lines, all for a price that's not much higher than the typical dial-up service--and because it uses existing phone lines, there are no installation fees. Faster Web-site loading times may be something to look forward to, but widespread DSL usage promises to change the very nature of the Internet itself, says Bill Rodey of the ADSL (Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Lines) Forum, an industry association. "If content were water, at this point, there's far more water than there is pipe to carry it," says Rodey. "If you build a bigger pipe, the water will fill it. [In other words,] once you get DSL, you're going to see people developing applications that can use more bandwidth and start to fill the pipe."

The affordability of DSL will bring true multimedia experiences to the home and office, says Rodey, including fully interactive video advertising, real- videoconferencing, video e-mail and even shared virtual reality. Telephone companies have been slow in offering DSLs to consumers, but this is about to change. DSL service is available in several major markets, and its popularity with consumers has encouraraged major industry players such as Compaq, Dell, Intel, Microsoft and Cisco to include DSL modems in product lines.

Enhancing the Internet experience for users will also create more fertile ground for small online retailers and advertisers. Highly interactive ads, such as the banners designed by Redwood City, California-based @Home Network's Enliven Business Unit for Lexus Automobiles, which present consumers with a short, humorous lifestyle questionnaire and then suggest a car model based on the responses, may actually become more powerful than traditional media, contends Jim Nail of Forrester Research.

"Once the matures, advertisers are going to find that the Net is more effective than TV, radio or print," says Nail. "If you can get a consumer involved with the experience, it's infinitely more powerful than a regular TV ad. You can't just tell people you have a great product. You have to show them. The Internet is the `show me' media."

Internet advertising will be more responsive to the needs of advertisers large and small, says Nail. Feedback is faster and more complete than with traditional media, allowing advertisers to scatter their ads on Web sites regardless of demographics. The possibilities of this new medium are not lost on advertisers: According to Forrester Research, in 1998, North American advertisers spent $1.3 billion online. By 2003, that amount is predicted to reach $10 billion. Still, the Internet has a long way to go to catch up with TV: Advertisers spent well over $40 billion on TV ads last year.

Advertising may help defray the costs of operating a content-oriented Web site, but the growth of content-based sites like Microsoft's Slate e-zine has been severely stunted by the painful fact that consumers just aren't willing to pay the cost or make the long-term commitment of a subscription. In the future, however, consumers will ante up for content on a pay-per-use basis, using full-service transaction services from companies like Seattle's Qpass Inc., which will allow Web sites to charge variable prices for the single use of an article, online forum, database or any other Internet service that is deemed to have value.

The Rise of E-tailing

After some initial uncertainty on the part of consumers, e-commerce will finally live up to its hype as a viable alternative to traditional retail outlets. According to Boston Consulting Group, last year's e-commerce revenues were up an amazing 230 percent from 1997, and during the 1998 Christmas season, consumers flocked to e-commerce sites in record numbers.

But despite the relative ease of setting up an e-commerce site, businesses are still adjusting to the brave new of selling on the Net, says Bob Frankenberg, CEO of Encanto Networks Inc., a Santa Clara, California, provider of e-commerce solutions. "The Internet is a totally new medium," says Frankenberg. "So learning how to generate awareness and interest for those participating is a bit like learning how to do advertising for the first . It isn't necessarily true that if you build it, they will come."

Small e-commerce businesses will also benefit from the sheer growth of the Internet itself. IDC Research predicts that the number of e-commerce customers will increase from 18 million in 1997 to more than 128 million by 2002. In other words, a bigger pie will dish up more slices for anyone who comes to the table.

Judging by the tremendous advances of the decade past, the opening years of the 21st century will be marked by a never-ending stream of technological marvels, as well as the continued growth of high-tech sectors and the Internet. But far more interesting and exciting than the itself is the application of that technology--how it will be used by businesses and consumers to improve profitability and the quality of life. And that is something no one can predict.

Seeing The Future

Technologies that will change the . . . or not.

  • Who are you? Identity theft is a serious problem for consumers and businesses alike. ID cards can be forged, passwords hacked and credit cards stolen. But the one thing that is uniquely yours is . . . you. Your fingerprint, voice, even your facial features will serve as a secure, virtually foolproof way of verifying your identity. In use for many years for high-level security in government agencies, biometric security devices will eventually become commonplace--whether you like it or not. (For more information on biometric security, see "Tech Smarts," April 1999.)
  • The cashless society: Retailers may love money, but they hate cash, which is difficult to store and transport in large amounts--and has a tendency to disappear. The growing acceptance of alternative payment technologies such as check cards, online banking, PC-based smart-card readers and electronic toll tags on your car may one day spell the demise of cash and coins as legal tender in the marketplace. An unexpected benefit: Studies have shown that customers tend to spend more on purchases when they use a credit or debit card.
  • Have it your way: With so many e-commerce sites offering similar goods and services, comparing prices for a computer or an airline ticket may take hours of surfing. Virtual agents, or "shop 'bots" are software programs that can scour the Net on your behalf for the best deal and come back with the results, including price and shipping , within minutes. Agents will also be able to alert you when a stock price changes or book restaurant and hotel reservations--as long as those places have a Web presence.

Contact Sources

ADSL Forum, brodey@westell.com, http://www.adsl.com

Encanto Networks, (888) ENCANTO, http://www.encanto.com

Inxight Software, info@inxight.com, http://www.inxight.com

Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, extremeui@parc.xerox.com, http://www.parc.xerox.com


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