[Mobile Video Phones] [Linking
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Phones] [In-car PCs]
[Computer in Everyday Objects] [Wearable Devices] [Embedded Devices] [Other Developments]
If any one object typifies the futuristic communication devices seen in movies, then the mobile video phones is likely to be it. Soon it will be a reality. Orange is to launch a mobile video phone in 2000 offering colour videophone, video conferencing, video email, and touch screen handwriting. It will use Windows CE and run at 28.8-64 kpbs. The 3rd generation UMTS mobile networks, due on stream in 2001/2, will be ideal for video phones but as an interim measure the 2nd generation GSM network is to be enhanced to provide higher data rates. Given the small screen of a mobile then this should be adequate. It will be interesting to see if the phone can be used with internet phone calls from PCs equipped with video cameras, as many new PCs now are.
Siemens has developed a prototype UMTS colour video phone called the SX45 (complete with the obligitory X letter!).
As infra-red links become common then new applications are evolving. Mobile workers can now take pictures with a digital camera and then immediately send them by mobile phone. Kodak has linked a GPS satellite positioning system to a digital camera so that pictures can be annotated with the exact co-ordinated as well as date and time. Police, military and industrial auditors will find this useful. Eventually all these functions could be combined into a single device.
Also in the future, infra-red links are likely to be supersucceded by the Bluetooth short range radio transmission system.
In an attempt to encourage more people to go online, BT is to introduce public internet booths from March 2000. In all it will install 2,500 in railway stations, motorway service areas, shopping malls and similar places with heavy foot traffic. The phones have a 10" (25 cm) touch sensitive screen and will allow access to email and web browsing. There will be a virtual keyboard on the screen. Only BT's phone cards or credit cards can be used for payment. For those without an internet account BT will offer a free email account. With WAP enabled phones now coming on stream and with 40% of the population having mobiles, it will be interesting to see which device is more popular. The author has already seen one device at Waterloo station but it wasn't working.
The owners of the UK's largest photo booths has also announced that they will upgrade their booths to provide internet access.
Cars are already fitted with numerous microprocessors for engine management and diagnosis as well as entertainment systems. Many new cars are now fitted with satellite navigation systems and traffic warning systems. In the US in 1998, Microsoft launched AutoPC, a Windows CE device that slides into the dashboard. It provides email, mobile phone, entertainment and navigation facilities plus infra-red links to the user's PC or palmtop. Ford was planning to use a similar system made by Visteon. The UK Tracker system uses a sensor built into the car which can be used by the police to track the car after it has been stolen. Many new cars are fitted with the device.
As part of its R&D programme, BT has developed the SmartQuill pen, a device that reads an individuals handwriting and then digitally stores it. Their SmartDesk has been re-engineered into a smart chair with all the various systems like video phones and PC screens built-in and within easy reach. Then there is the speaking head! Acting as an avatar (a digitally generated person), which resembles your likeness, it is able to represent you in a video conference session. Presumably this avoids the need for a high speed digital line to transmit pictures. Instead your voice is spoken by the avatar. It is not know if it will pick-up tonal qualities, like anger and pleasure, and visually replicate these. Even more futuristic is the work in embedding microprocessors beneath the human skin. Perhaps one day these ideas will surface as useful mobile computing devices.
Wearable PCs have had a long gestation period, a dream often ahead of the practical reality. In late 1998 IBM was working on wearable PCs and Xybernaut and Via had already launched models that were being used by runners at the New York Stock Exchange. Our own BT has also been working in this area, much to the delight of TV news programmes looking for a comical item. Since these early efforts, the mobile revolution has spurred the rapid development of miniaturisation and long battery life.
Today, France Telecom is working on a prototype mobile phone built into a jacket which it aims to trial in the summer of 2000. How the phone will stand up to dry cleaning is not clear - will it have to be removed?. And if it were to become reality then will users need to equip all their jackets with it, or could the phone be moved to any jackets the customer buys, or must the jackets and phone be bought as a package? France Telecom is undertaking the research with a company called i-wear which specialises in this area. This idea may seen gimmicky but for some professionals it may be very useful attire. People who need to keep their hands free, such as firefighters, mountain rescuers, couriers, and paramedics, may find a voice activated wearable phone useful, even lifesaving. For more ordinary folk it would also solve the dilemma whether to carry ones phone or put it in the pocket and ruin the jacket.
Embedded communicating devices are likely to be a high growth area, initially in the office and then in the home once the concept of home networking takes off. Major house builders are formulating their strategy for the future wired home and already up-market homes with integrated wiring systems are being built. Pace, the UK manufacture of digital TV set top boxes is developing a set top box that also acts a home network server. In the office, with the need for flexibility and hot desking, use of wireless communications are likely to grow.
Many office and household appliances, such as photocopiers, washing machines, and microwave cookers, have built-in microprocessors. It is one small step to give these devices communicating facilities. One manufacturer of washing machines has recently launched a model that can be connected to the internet so that the user can control it at a distance. Quite what value this has, is not clear to the author. What would be useful is for home appliances to continuously monitor their status and send alarm signals to either the owner or the manufacturer. The manufacturer could then run remote diagnostics and if need be shut the appliance down. If the appliance knew that it was covered by the household insurance then it could notify the insurer who would send out an engineer (first checking with your electronic diary). This would be far better than coming home to a flooded kitchen with perhaps thousands of pounds worth of damage.
Motorola's researchers have developed a miniature fuel cell running on liquid methanol and lasting 10 times longer than existing rechargeable batteries. They should be available in 3 to 5 years.
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