Future Gear: Spielberg's ComputerMany technologies from the movie Minority Report are tantalizingly close to becoming real. They just need more attention from developers.
Sean Captain, PCWorld.com
Forget PC Expo or Comdex. To see the future of technology, just go to the movies. Despite the dot-com crash and the recession, many exciting technologies are on the near horizon. But we need Hollywood, not Silicon Valley, to remind us of that.
The latest visions of the future are in Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of Philip K. Dick's story, "The Minority Report." If you haven't seen this film yet, go ASAP. You may or may not care for the story line and acting, but you have to see the gadgets.
Some elements of Minority Report are pure fantasy. Mutant psychic children who predict the future? I can't foresee that, but I have already seen some of the other technologies. And many of them are very close to becoming real.
Holding the Future in Your Hand
One of the first scenes in Minority Report is of John Anderton, head of Washington, D.C.'s "Precrime" unit, madly sifting through digital images and other data in order to pinpoint the location of a recently predicted murder. With lives on the line, Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) doesn't have time to waste with a keyboard and mouse. Instead, he dons a pair of black gloves with small lights attached to the fingers. An unseen sensor tracks his hands as they move through the air, allowing him to direct gigabytes of data as a conductor directs an orchestra.
This device won't emerge in fifty years, or even five: You'll see it this autumn when Essential Reality begins selling the P5 Glove. We looked at an advanced prototype in April's Future Gear. While Essential Reality's gadget is clunkier than the haute couture accessory Tom Cruise wears in the movie, it functions in about the same way. Instead of buttons emitting visible light, the P5 has infrared LEDs that a base station can track in three dimensions of movement. The P5 will initially be marketed as a game controller, but it and other alternative input devices have the potential to be more than just toys. They may inspire software developers to consider new ways of interacting with all types of applications.
Vision of the Future
The gloves allow Anderton to sling data around rapidly, but he also needs someplace to display it: A regular CRT or LCD screen isn't big enough. Instead, he spreads the images over a massive curved, clear screen.
With simple projection technology, such things are "very, very possible," says Joel Pollack, VP of marketing at Sharp Microelectronics. While viewing images on a clear screen may sound counterintuitive, it actually has many advantages. Such a screen can reflect and scatter the light over 180 degrees, making the image easily viewable to anyone in the room. And while a clear projection screen doesn't match the rich colors of LCD screens, it allows people to see through the images and take in additional information. Anderton's screen may employ a technology sometimes used in airplane heads-up displays, in which an image of the runway or terrain is projected onto the glass canopy, allowing a pilot to "see" the surroundings in zero-visibility weather conditions. The canopy is coated with a holographic material, which is normally clear but becomes reflective when struck by light of a particular wavelength projected from a precise angle.
Projection is a relatively inexpensive technology for creating displays larger than 40 diagonal inches. At larger sizes, projection is cheaper and simpler to produce than liquid crystal or plasma displays. Unfortunately, although video projector technology has flourished, the development of really good projection screens has languished in recent years. "People haven't put as much work into projection-screen technology as they should," says Pollack.
Like Cruise himself, intriguing video technologies appear in almost every scene of the movie. While sitting in his kitchen, Anderton is addressed by a food carton that displays its own commercials. Later, when he is on the run, Anderton is hounded by wall-size video billboards that call him by name (after identifying him via retinal scan), and by dynamically updating magazines and newspapers that depict his mug shot to fellow riders on the subway.
The wall-size screens may use projection technology, or they may be made of organic light-emitting diodes. Similar to the liquid crystals in an LCD, OLED material can be divided into pixels and energized with electricity to display an image. But a layer of OLEDs can be much thinner (a thousand times thinner than a human hair), and it can be mounted on a flexible material--allowing designers to fit screens onto rounded surfaces or perhaps even to make screens that you can roll up and stow in your pocket. Because they are fluorescent and don't require a backlight, OLED screens also use far less power than LCDs; that's the primary appeal for now, says Sidney Rosenblatt of Universal Display Corporation. Passive-matrix OLED screens are appearing in some handheld devices in Asia, and companies such as Kodak are ramping up their production of small active-matrix displays.
Even more power-thrifty is electronic paper. An electric charge moves magnetic colored capsules within the "paper" either toward or away from the surface in order to form an image. The capsules retain their positions until another charge is applied. So a magazine or cereal box with a tiny battery and dynamically changing content could soon be a reality. We may not relish pop-up ads on our cereal boxes, but electronic magazines would be an appealing way to combine the comforts of traditional reading with digital publishing (while also saving plenty of trees that go into making today's "write-once" paper). And losing an electronic magazine shouldn't be as costly as misplacing a laptop or PDA.
In the movie's most compelling vision of display technology, Anderton watches 3D home videos that float about his apartment. Unlike 2D projection, true 3D video is much harder to achieve, and it may be plain impossible, according to Sharp's Pollack. If it does work at all, he suspects it will require using lasers that can briefly turn a medium in the room--be it the air or a chemical mist in the air--from clear to opaque.
In the meantime, however, anyone can create the illusion of a 3D image using two curved mirrors. If you place an object (or project an image) onto the bottom mirror, suspend the other mirror above it, and cut a hole in the top mirror, the light passing through the hole will be focused in a way that makes the object appear to hover in space above the contraption. It's not a true 3D image that appears different from every angle, but it fools the eye and mind into perceiving it as three-dimensional. Such a projection, known as an aerial image, has been used as a parlor trick for over a hundred years, but it hasn't received much attention in this century.
A Storage Standby
If true 3D display technology ever is developed, it will eat up a lot of data storage. According to Mark Kryder, vice president for research at hard-drive maker Seagate, a movie-length 3D video could require a petabyte (1 million gigabytes) of storage. Yet in Minority Report, Anderton effortlessly totes video on tiny glass discs. Geeks will recognize this as an allusion to holographic storage, which uses lasers to record data in the three dimensions of a clear crystalline medium.
Kryder and other storage experts are skeptical about holographic technology. "It has been pursued for over 40 years already," says Kryder, "and the problem remains--no one has a suitable medium." The only rewritable material that could replace a hard drive is single-crystal lithium niobate, and writing to it requires an argon-ion laser that's about 4 feet long and weighs 10 pounds. But the real reason Kryder has doubts about holographic storage is because regular old hard-drive technology may make it unnecessary. Using new materials and magnetizing methods, he believes that a one-terabyte (1000GB) notebook hard drive could be a reality in five to six years.
But big storage will only be useful when we develop better ways to fill it up. Today, we lack a workable means to manage copyrights for music and movies--making digital content both difficult and, in many cases, illegal to obtain. And with broadband Internet access still unavailable or unaffordable for most households, few people can receive whatever content is offered. The barriers to expanding digital entertainment--including debates over copyrights and telecom regulations--are largely of a political and legal, not technological, nature.
Imagining the Future
While engineering challenges are often substantial, many technologies have failed to take off simply because we haven't found good ways to utilize them. There's no point using a 3D cyberglove to move a mouse on a 2D desktop. Nor is there any sense in using a terabyte hard drive only to archive a few e-mails. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but our perception of need often depends on our ability to imagine new ways of working and communicating. Often the best ideas for the future come not from science, but from science fiction.
Sean Captain is an associate editor for PC World. Please send comments and suggestions to email@example.com.