Wednesday, March 22, 2017

On the Road to Ubiquity

Are you reading this on your PC?  How very 1980's of you.  Or are you looking at it on your tablet or smartphone?  Better, but still so ten years ago.  Are you an early adopter, viewing it in virtual reality (VR), perhaps set on your favorite beach as the text scrolls through the sky like the opening expository of Star Wars?  Now we're getting somewhere, but, even so, you still probably have to wear a clunky headset that's attached to a computer.

If you're aware of your device, that's the past.  Welcome to ubiquitous computing.
You may know it as "pervasive" computing, "invisible" technology, or as represented by the wearables craze -- not crude wearables like fitness trackers or Google Glass, but the ones that are already on the horizon that allow computing anywhere and everywhere.  Tech guru Walt Mossberg describes the goal as "information appliances" -- "dead-simple to use, without training or the need for a manual."  Or a even anything that resembles a device.

Some examples:
  • DuoSkin, developed by the MIT Media Lab, uses gold metal leaf devices that attach directly to the skin.  It can sense touch input, display output, and support wireless communication.
  • SkinMarks, developed by Saarland University (Germany), are "electronic tattoos" that are as flexible as skin.  They allow for touch input and display.
  • Smart clothing, such as the smart jacket developed by Levi and Google as part of Project Jacquard.  The jacket -- which will go on sale this fall (for $350) -- allows users to control selected features on their smartphone with gestures done at the jacket's cuff.  
  • Smart jewelry, such as the LEDA gemstone gems developed by MetaGem.  It can display various colors based on the kind of notification received, and MetaGem claims it can also do fitness tracking, SOS mode, remote selfie control, even be used for gesture-controlled games.

IDC estimates that the "wearables and hearables" market will grow from 2016's $102 million market to $237 million by 2021, with smart clothing accounting for almost 10% of that market (smart watches/bands still dominate in their estimates).  IDC warns that: "Tech companies will be forced to step up their game and offer a wider selection of sizes, materials, and designs in order to appeal to a broader audience."

Similarly, Tractica estimates that smart clothing shipments will grow from 140,000 in 2013 to 10.2 million in 2020, and Gartner projects that smart garments could reach 26 million by 2020. 

There's more.  With all these embedded devices, you'll still want something you can easily look at, and you probably won't want to be carrying around something with a screen.  No problem.  Sony, for example, has been working on projected screens that still have touchscreen capabilities, sensing hand motions well enough to, say, type or play the piano.  It can even morph into augmented reality.

You probably don't want to be lugging around a projector any more than you do a PC.  Sony's projectors are fairly small, and Serafim's iKeyBo has a keyboard projector that can "fit in your pocket."  It's only a matter of time before projectors get small enough to also become embedded into everyday items, like your new smart clothing.

Of course, input is only part of what we want screens to do; we also want them to display.  The future may be in holograms, which, as SingularityHub recently proclaimed, "aren't the stuff of science fiction anymore."  Various firms, such as Transparency Market Research and IndustryARC,  expect huge increases in the holographic display market, with the former company specifically citing demand for medical imaging as a major driver of that growth.  
Why would you want a print-out or a screen if you could look at a hologram, especially when it comes to the workings of our bodies?

This is the world we'll soon be in. Anything can be the input device, anything can do the processing and communication, and anything can be the display.  Devices become "invisible."  As tech columnist Greg Gascon describes
When using a piece of technology that has become invisible, the user thinks of using it in terms of end goals, rather than getting bogged down in the technology itself. The user doesn’t have to worry how it is going to work, they just make it happen.
Our current devices will look as old-fashioned and clunky as rotary dial landlines look to today's teenagers (that is, if they know what the latter are).

Especially in health care.  

Go to the doctor's office and they're listening to your chest with stethoscopes, taking your blood pressure with a cuff, measuring your temperature with a thermometer.  Sure, some of those may be digital now, but they're still all based on technology that is decades or even centuries old.  Go to the hospital and it's even worse: all the wires make it hard to move and the beeping of all the associated monitors make it hard to sleep.   

It doesn't have to be this way.  

Instead of all those monitors with all those wires, slap an e-tattoo on.  It could act as the sensor and the display, while updating your records wirelessly.  Instead of the intermittent, crisis-driven contact we now have with our physicians, our invisible monitors could keep track of us 24/7.  They'll alert us and our providers when something is off.

Instead of splitting attention between you and an EHR screen, you and the physician could view a holographic image of you that serves as your electronic record.  It can be updated with hand gestures and voice, help both you and your physician understand the issue(s) and your history, and help you understand what is happening with your health.

Of course, there will also be the nanobots working inside us.  Talk about ubiquitous, talk about invisible!

We're going to have to get past our fascination with the latest and greatest devices -- a new iPhone! a 4D television! -- and let their technology fade into the background.  As it should.

It's going to be very different, very exciting -- and sooner than many of us will be ready for. 

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