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Tech Tools of Tomorrow

From gesture-based computing to 3D printing, we examine just a few cutting-edge technologies that could be ubiquitous in five years
Tim Gideon

It seems everyone has a touch-screen mobile device these days, with Wi-Fi hotspots and 4G cellular signals making it fairly easy to stay constantly connected to the online world. Just five years ago, this wasn’t quite the case, and 10 years ago, the entire concept would have seemed far-fetched. So, in the era of the constantly connected device, what are the next cutting-edge technologies that will change our lives irreversibly in five years’ time? We make some educated guesses.

 

3-D Printing

Lest the name confuse anyone—we’re not talking about extremely impressive holograms. 3-D printing is the process of designing a 3-D object using software and then using a specialized “printer” to build the design into a real object, be it a coffee mug, light fixture or even a working watch. Some of you will correctly point out that 3-D printing is not really new at all, as the science, architecture and medical communities have been using it for nearly two decades to build complex models, artificial limbs and so on. The newest iteration enables designers, artists and small-business owners to use the process to build their designs.

Companies such as MakerBot, which manufactures 3-D printers, turn the seemingly impossible into reality. Imagine being able to print a necklace chain, all the links already connected, or a highly detailed 3-D geometric pattern. The term “printing” can be misleading; think of it as a highly evolved sand castle-building process, where instead of building walls and a basic structure, then adding on towers and carving out windows and details—your design is built vertically in thin, perfect layers. And instead of sand, you can build with materials like glass and stainless steel. When you print a watch, you don’t assemble it afterward—it prints as a whole, functioning piece (battery not included).

A 3-D printer, however, is expensive (they start around $1,750), and a different machine is required for each type of material you wish to print in, which is where companies like Dutch-based Shapeways come in handy. Shapeways, which also has offices in New York, will not only print 3-D designs you upload to its website, but will also sell your designs—be they utensils or jewelry—through its online market, which resembles a sort of Etsy for the 3-D printing community. Unlike most manufacturing, Shapeways will print your designs on-demand in one of more than 26 different materials (“Strong and Flexible” is the most popular, but more traditional mediums such as ceramic, glass and nylon are available). A designer can conceivably upload a plan for a necklace on Monday and receive online payments for it the next day. Designers can choose a range within which they wish to mark up a price, and a la carte, on-demand ordering keeps costs down by eliminating bulk manufacturing processes.

“For many small businesses, the beauty of Shapeways is that they don’t have to deal with any of the traditional costs associated with production. There is no inventory, no machinery, no material stock, no minimum order,” explains Carine Carmy, Shapeways marketing manager. “And we take care of everything once their customers place an order, from fulfillment to shipping to customer service.”

So is the future of 3-D printing limited to small business and designers selling their wares on a modest scale, or will mass manufacturing and big business come into play?

“Depending on the material and type of product, 3-D printing can be actually more cost-effective than mass production until you reach the scale of tens of thousands,” Carmy explains. In other words, don’t expect Ikea to use Shapeways, but a small furniture company? Why not? (And there’s no reason why Ikea might not use its own 3-D printers.)

Even those who aren’t designers or fluent in 3-D design can now use an app from Shapeways to create a design, and like all Shapeways print jobs, it gets checked for feasibility before anything is made. Shapeways is expanding its U.S. presence with a new distribution center in Long Island City, N.Y.—and if present demand for 3-D printing is any indication, the company should have no trouble keeping it busy.

 

Mobile Payment Revolution

Remember when the thought of living without a landline and only a cellphone seemed ridiculous? In many households, and particularly for most younger cellphone users, landlines are passé, relegated to offices and hotel rooms. So what’s the next staple of American life that’s headed for obscurity? Most likely it will be your credit cards, possibly your entire wallet or even paper money, as Near-Field Communication (commonly known as NFC) becomes more prevalent.

You’ve probably already seen NFC at work, especially if you live in a city; in New York taxis, you can wave your credit card in front of a card reader rather than swiping it. This is a tidy resolution to the annoying problem of magnetic strips that often take several swipes and finesse to be read, but technologies such as Google Wallet and new NFC applications like Visa’s payWave have something bolder in mind: using your phone to pay for everything.

Perhaps you’ve shopped in a small store where your payment was processed on an iPad or iPhone and a receipt was sent to your email account. Receiving payments on mobile devices has become quite popular for small businesses trying to keep costs down. The mobile payment revolution is coming to the customer end, as well. Imagine waving your iPhone at the register in the grocery store or at an icon printed on the receipt at a restaurant. This technology is already in use in small waves, and credit card companies are realizing that it’s probably the future of their business.

So once you eliminate credit cards, what else—aside from paper money—are you carrying around in your wallet? Your gym ID, which quite possibly uses a swipe-less form of NFC already? Your driver’s license? Health insurance card? Photos of your kids? (Perhaps, but those are probably on your phone now.) NFC will not stop at credit cards, and it’s quite possible that it could replace the very idea of a card, period, leaving identification up to a combination of NFC and cloud-based information.

 

Gesture-Based Computing

As Microsoft’s mind-boggling Kinect gaming system has already shown, we can do a lot with gestures—and not just in the realm of video games. Kinect’s 3-D camera, depth sensor and microphone array allow it to track the user’s movements and respond to vocal commands, and the technology is moving from the game console to the business realm. Bodymetrics and Razorfish, for instance, recently used Kinect for Windows to develop a gesture-driven dressing room where customers could try on clothes virtually at a Los Angeles Bloomingdale’s, and the Spanish company Tedesys is developing an app for surgeons that enables them to use Kinect’s sensor during operations.

Motion detection isn’t the only hands-free use of Kinect technology. More than 50 percent of Kinect owners use Bing voice search as the primary way to find content, a Microsoft spokesperson from the Kinect team explains. With Xbox 360 and Kinect, you can use your voice to control almost every aspect of the Xbox system. Through voice search, you can easily search across entertainment content on Xbox and instantly see what games, movies, TV shows, apps and music are available for you to enjoy. Apple is pushing its iPhone-based voice-help system, Siri, to customers as well, and if the results thus far have been as much useful as comical (there’s a YouTube video dedicated to Siri’s trouble with certain accents), Siri and Kinect’s voice-based searches are clearly paving the way for hands-free computing in the near future.

Beyond Kinect, the Microsoft Applied Sciences Group, a research division of Microsoft, is currently at work on a project called Gesture Interaction. A demo video shows the Microsoft concept at work in a variety of ways: A user paints a simple picture on a glass screen surface without touching it, changing colors and thickness of strokes, and the appearance of the creation is as simultaneous as it would be on an iPad.

Another application shows a large city map displayed across a glass surface the size of a coffee table. In the demo, a white business envelope is placed on the surface, and immediately the map is not only projected onto the envelope as if it were transparent, but the screen uses the envelope as a magnifying tool. Moving the paper around the surface like a pointer on a Ouija board, the user is able to see magnified, detailed images of countries and cities as it scoots around the globe. The map image can be rotated or cropped in various ways using hand gestures above the surface. 

 

A Computer in Your Glasses

Aside from a video released earlier this year, Google has been rather tightlipped about its Project Glass. The concept is based on technology similar to heads-up displays in cars that project the speedometer, gas consumption and other relevant information in the driver’s field of vision. Google’s idea is to do the same for regular spectacles. But instead of your current speed, the glasses display just about anything you would normally need a phone or computer for—from incoming calls and video chats to directions to a restaurant.

The concept is also interactive in a manner similar to Apple’s Siri—although, based on the video Google released, there’s no robot voice that talks back to you. Instead, it’s a more predictive and seamless style of interaction—you look up at the clouds, and the weather report displays almost immediately. You ask for the location of the produce section in a massive grocery store, and it draws you a GPS-style map. Want to take a photo of what you’re looking at? Yep, it’s a camera, too, and of course you can send the image in a message to a friend.

“Google wanted to build technology that helps people do the things they love to do, like keeping up with friends and exploring the world around them without getting pulled out of the moment to do things like reaching for their phone,” a spokesman says. “We think technology should work for you—to be there when you need it and get out of your way when you don’t.”

According to The New York Times, Project Glass has even developed a prototype for contact lenses, but right now, things are still in the spectacle stages. So what would someone wearing Google glasses look like? Apparently, a lot like the cyborg-esque image at left, provided by Google. But it’s possible the final product could simply snap onto an existing pair of glasses or be embedded in a functional pair.

Project Glass poses questions and possibilities: Will phones in the future simply become earpieces with microphones attached to glasses with Google displays built in? Before you dismiss this concept as far-fetched, remember that not long ago, the idea of an iPhone with a graceful, interactive multi-touch screen that also doubled as a mobile personal computer seemed far-fetched. The smartphone has been around only five years, and now it’s hard to imagine a world without one in every person’s hand. Five years from now, don’t be surprised if you and your friends are wearing strange-looking eyeglass accessories and controlling what you see with gesture-based computing.

Post date: 
Jun 17, 2012

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