Monday, October 16, 2006

Phone 2020

Kenn Cukier challenged me to think about the future of the mobile phone 10-15 years (gulp) from now.

Phones then will be as diverse as timepieces today. At the one end of the range there will be “statement” phones that fill the same niche as luxury watches. They will be beautifully designed and fiendishly expensive. At the other end, just about every device with a battery will be wirelessly connected, just as every electronic device today will tell you the time.

Watches have changed our sense of time. In the (very) old days, community bells marked a few key moments in a day. The railways and telegraph created a world of scheduled communal events. Today, personal organizers chivvy us from one meeting to the next, and professionals on billable hours slice their day into fifteen minute slivers.

Concentric conversations

Phones are changing our sense of being in touch. Like watches, it’s a cumulative process; every successive communications technology has connected us more efficiently to people who are not next to us. By the time of the 2020 Phone we’ll have a very more richly textured sense of being connected to individuals and groups, and to the world. We’ll have a richly textured sense of our social world. We’ll be engaged in layers of conversation: foreground chats with one or more people, the background hum and buzz of the social groups we’re tracking using an evolved form of the in-game voice chat that’s common with on-line multi-player games, to changes in the phones shape and color giving us ambient clues to what’s going on in our world.

Google and Wikipedia changed my sense of what’s knowable about the world: I feel a little loss when I’m not connected, because I can’t instantly find the answer to a question the world poses to me. Blogs and social networking sites are changing our sense of the knowability of the social world; by 2020, we’ll have this with us all the time, and we’ll have a deeper knowing of our environment – physical, intellectual, and social.

Overlapping rings of always-on conversations chance the notion of a “phone call.” The 2020 Phone will be a means to plug into multiple concurrent conversations, and bring individual threads into focus when we need them.

Form factors

Phones will look and feel different, though they’ll still be hand-sized:

New materials will allow them to fold up small but expand when we need them, like the 2secondtent.

Phones will fragment into a constellation of wireless objects. Headsets are already disconnected. Visual output will be routed to whatever screen’s available – perhaps the video screens coming soon to a restaurant table near you.

Earbuds will become almost invisible; they’ll be wireless themselves, of course, and will have noise cancellation built in. They’ll layer our sonic social world over the world just outside our ear.
If people still wear glasses, they’ll contain phones and use the lenses as display devices.

Phones will glow, vibrate, change their texture, shape and color as ways to signal to the user, and for the user to signal to other – the phone as a chameleon crossed with a coal mine canary. Ambient offers a variety of products, and a chipset other manufacturers can incorporate into their products. The Nabaztag rabbit changes color and moves its ears depending on what’s happening remotely. In the end, we get to “phoneskin signaling.”

Some clothing will provide inputs for brain UI: hats; sweatbands; dew rags, perhaps. Today’s versions are not fashion statements, but we’ll get there… It also takes 5-10 minutes to write a sentence; but with a decade’s development, we’ll be able to compose Crackberry messages without being so obvious about it.

Phones as sensors

Perhaps the biggest change in phones is that they will become networked sensors. Phones already sense their geographical location. Going beyond this:
  • Microsoft researchers have turned phones into barcode scanners that connect to atabases of personal items; RFID integration is an obvious next step
  • IntelliOne has developed a system that detects traffic jams by monitoring the signals from cellphones in cars
  • The PigeonBlog project has fitted birds with GPS sensors, air pollution sensors and a basic cellphone to measure air quality in California. If birds can do it, why not humans?
  • Michael Reilly describes how cheap sensors are turning pollution monitoring into an activity anyone can take part in. In general, phones will be used to measure any situation and integrate the results from thousands of other devices; not just pollution and traffic, but micro-climate, crowding, noise level, and smells. The whole will be greater than the parts because of collective data gathering; cf. digg and its ilk.
  • Personal medical sensors will connect to medical advisors via the phone.

Commercial uses

The applications described so far are consumer-centered. However, commercial uses will be just as pervasive, though less visible. Any connected device will be able to go wireless. Shopping trolleys will keep a running total of the goods deposited in them, and prepare a bill for when you leave the store. Many products will call-home functionality built in, funded by the manufacturers; they’ll want to know how their product is used, and when it needs to be serviced or replaced. (Yes, this could be a privacy issue when it’s a consumer product, but only the privacy advocates will care. Ordinary people only worry about privacy when it touches their wallets, as in identity theft.)

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