Get set for a totally wireless world

DN Staff

November 4, 1996

24 Min Read
Get set for a totally wireless world

Implantable phones, T-shirts that double as pagers or radios, Star Trek's "holo-deck," virtual-reality games that take you "live"--instead of merely play--using all five senses. These are just some of the products we can look forward to within 50 years, according to experts interviewed by Design News.

Their views of the future differed, but one thing these technologists agreed on is that new consumer electronics products will have to be priced right, deliver real value, and be simple to use. Read on to see what future generations might find as familiar as our VCRs and CD players.

Watches do more. One of the most common battery-powered devices is the wristwatch. Today, most just tell the time and maybe the date. "Now, only 2 to 3% of watches do more than tell the time. We see that market growing by combining technologies, such as adding communications capabilities and having watches convey more information," says Louis M. Galie, vice president of research and development for Timex.

Several years ago, Timex had worked with Motorola to build the first pager-watch. "It was the world's smallest pager," says Galie, "but unfortunately it was also the world's largest wristwatch." The watch never caught on.

Today, Timex has had a success with its Data Link watches. The new model 150 lets users optically download both data and programs from a PC via a CRT. Developed by Timex and Microsoft, WristAppsTM software includes customizable programs for taking medications, exchanging money, scoring golf, and keeping track of jogging progress. Bill Gates was so impressed with Data Link that he included software for the watch in Windows 95.

Next for watches, Galie sees 2-way optical communication with a computer, 1- and 2-way paging, and cellular-phone capability.

"In 50 years, the watch could be a command and control center to run everything in your house--it's always there on your wrist. Some people even sleep with their watches on," he notes. "We're taking advantage of the wrist but still keeping in mind that a watch is a piece of jewelry."

In fact, AT&T Bell Laboratories has created a reasonably sized wireless wristphone, demonstrating that the technology for wearable communications devices is close at hand, but perhaps not commercial yet.

In the same vein, both home and car radios will be providing more information. Products are in the works that will let listeners: see a station's call letters, tune by program format (such as country or oldies), automatically hear traffic bulletins and emergency alerts, check paging messages, and switch to alternate frequencies for continuous reception of network programming on long car trips. These radios were on display at the January Consumer Electronics Show.

Fashion statements. Continuing the trend toward miniaturization, products that are small enough for users to wear or carry--such as pagers, cellular phones, and personal music systems--will continue to get smaller.

"Kids will have T-shirts that have real-time logos on them that they can update every time they go to a concert," says Brian Wilkie, corporate vice president and general manager of Motorola's Advanced Microcontroller Division. "I can see it being really trendy for kids to have their pager messages come up on their sleeves instead of the actual pager." He predicts that a microcontroller would be printed onto the fabric. "You could make an electronic fashion statement."

One company is already at work on colored conductive ink that would make possible interactive toys that sing, books that actually "tell" a story, and T-shirts that play music with the touch of a finger. The ink is being developed by a joint venture between Englehard Corp. and Ferber Technologies called Englehard/Colortronics, East Newark, NJ. The technology lets manufacturers conduct electrical current across a range of rigid substrates, such as fabric, paper, and plastics, without using wires.

Previously, non-wire conductive systems have lacked vivid color and the ability to maintain electrical continuity when flexed or washed. The Englehard/Colortronics technology features nontoxic colored conductive materials that the companies say are easy to apply, washable, flexible, and provide for customized electrical properties. The first commercial application of colored conductive ink will be on novelty T-shirts, expected out later this year.

Also forecasting products--like radios for runners--being integrated into clothing is Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA).

We won't be wearing all our consumer electronics in the future. One of the hottest-selling products this year, says Shapiro, is PCS (personal communications services). It's a telephone service, but users also get messages, voice mail, and text.

"It's just a little portable device, and it's so much cheaper than cellular," Shapiro enthuses. The service started in the Washington, DC, area and will be in every market across the country in a year or two. Shapiro predicts that the technology should eventually replace land-based telephone.

Paul Grimme, general manager for Motorola Segments Division in the Microcontroller Technologies Group, agrees that wireless communications is the way of the future.

In the next 5 to 10 years, he sees a continuing extension of personal-communications coverage of our planet's population. In North America, approximately 20% of the population has cellular phones; in China, the figure is less than 1%. "Such a surprisingly small amount of the world's population can communicate via cellular phones or pagers that in markets like China and South America, Africa, and the Middle East, you'll see a large penetration," says Grimme.

Driving that penetration will be the extension of new networks, such as Motorola's Iridium project--a system of satellite coverage that will give users global capability to make a phone call. Satellite launches start in 1997, and portions of the network will begin to function in 1998.

Looking further ahead, Motorola's Wilkie predicts simultaneous language translation. "You'll phone a friend in Japan and it'll sound like they're speaking English to you and you're speaking Japanese to them in real time."

You'll also see new standards that allow us to communicate more than just voice during phone calls, predicts Grimme. The Flex paging standardadds high-speed data to the paging transmission. In the cellular area, several new standards and protocols aim to increase the bandwidth of what you can communicate when you make a call.

The second thing you'll see, says Grimme, is a difference in the way we use these products. For example, people may not wear pagers as much as they'll have pagers embedded in products. Motorola has already introduced RSVP--a cellular phone battery with a built-in pager.

Constant communication. "I think we'll find that we are always in touch," says Gene Frantz, business development manager for digital signal processors (DSP) at Texas Instruments. "I use the example of a cellular phone in my ear--the ability to always be able to be contacted no matter where I am or what I'm doing."

Frantz isn't exactly thrilled at that prospect. "Whatever the hardware is, the more significant part is being available when I want to be available, and not being available when I don't want to be available," he says. "I need to have the intelligence in that system so that somewhere between work and home the phone will quit taking my work calls and start taking my home calls. Or if the call's important enough, I want it to be smart enough to know that."

Continues Frantz: "You might find that this phone has not only a communications link with the outside world but that it also has a direct link with me or my brain to continually decipher who I do and do not want to talk to."

For such a scenario, there would have to be more information in the communication, smarter devices, and better communications links with users. Frantz uses the analogy of the perfect receptionist that knows when you need to be bothered, when you don't, who can bother you, and who can't.

Research into direct communication between an electronic device and the brain is already going on. Cochlear implants directly and electronically connect to the nerve endings. From there, researchers could get to the point where we will begin to learn how to communicate directly between an electronic package and the mind.

Implants. Frantz sees this smart phone as residing in the ear or implanted there. He's not the only technologist who foresees implantable electronics. CEMA's Shapiro predicts that PDAs (personal digital assistants) may be implanted in 50 years. He says they'll become smaller, more essential, and carry more information.

Motorola's Wilkie predicts that people will have smart cards--or implantable memory chips--that hold all their personal data. The smart card will stay with you for life, he says, and evolve with you.

How would the implant communicate with you? "The least obtrusive interface is probably audio," says Wilkie, "so the smart card or chip would whisper in your ear." He also believes that the chip would be interconnected to the home environment. For example, if you'd overindulged the night before, it could increase the incline of your treadmill without your knowing to help rid your body of the extra calories.

Science fact? These ideas aren't as farfetched as they may seem. This summer scientists from British Telecom's Laboratory announced a memory chip for the human brain. BT scientists said the chip would attach directly to the optical nerve and store incoming sensory impulses that could then be downloaded and played on a computer or implanted in someone else's memory. Its name: Soul Catcher 2025, which also refers to the year the scientists think the idea will become a reality.

A lifetime's experience could be stored in about 10 terabytes, according to Peter Cochrane, head of advanced applications and technologies for BT. "I tend to think of computers now as my third lobe," says Cochrane, who says that integrating actual circuitry into the human bodyis the next logical step.

Convergence. Perhaps the next really logical step is convergence: consumer electronics merging with computing devices and communications equipment.

As these markets converge, you'll begin adding paging capability to a cellular phone or a pager and cell phone into a notebook. At some point it will be hard to determine where a computer starts and ends. You might begin to find cell phones that include pocket-organizer functions in them. Grimme sees this happening in the next 5 to 10 years.

"In terms of multifunction products, the only one that has sold well in history is the Swiss Army knife," declares CEMA's Shapiro. "However, products with one theme and different features sell well--especially those that allow simplicity for consumers."

Already, National Semiconductor offers a chip set, the AM266, that lets OEMs create a phone that integrates a digital answering machine, Internet link, graphics, and a FAX machine. It's being designed into products now. The common theme: home communications.

Shapiro also sees life getting easier for travelers: "A lot of people walk around with laptops and use them on planes. What could happen is that you take a CD-ROM or a disk with you--and that's it. You'll go into hotels or airplanes and the actual hardware will already be there--you won't have to carry it. The equivalent today is that you have to carry the chair every time you want to sit down. Well, there'll be chairs all over the place."

Many pundits are predicting the convergence of TV and computers, but Motorola's Wilkie isn't convinced. "In my family," he says, "we can't agree on what channels to watch, never mind whether we're going to pipe books or virtual reality to the TV. I think there'll be entertainment rooms and separate personal study rooms that are more individually oriented."

In terms of accessing information through your TV the way you access computer data, CEMA's Shapiro says the jury is still out. Such products have been introduced, but sales have not gone through the roof.

What is going through the roof is home theater equipment sales, which Shapiro says are doubling every year. The movie theater experience is being more realistically replicated in the home--minus the crowds and greasy popcorn. Sales should continue to grow rapidly, just as the TV started out in black and white and evolved. Now most people have color TVs in several rooms in the house.

Consumer electronics has seen the twin trends of miniaturization and maximization. Portable devices are becoming smaller, but TV screens are starting to take up entire walls. Most experts see flat-screen TVs within five years; Shapiro predicts screens that envelop all your walls, your ceiling, and floors--so you become en-meshed in the experience--within 50 years.

Two high-end video technologies manufacturers are working on today are HDTV (high-definition TV) and DVD (digital video/versatile disk) players.

The idea for HDTV has been around for almost 10 years. A group called the "Digital HDTV Grand Alliance," whose members include Zenith, AT&T/Lucent Technologies, and MIT, developed a U.S. standard for over-the-air HDTV and developed a prototype system in 1995. Key components are progressive scan transmission and square pixels--two attributes that are crucial for promoting interoperability with computers and telecommunications.

The FCC is expected to adopt the standard late this year or early in 1997. The first HDTV sets should be available to the public during 1998--dovetailing with the beginning of HDTV broadcasts.

"With HDTV," says Shapiro, "you're trying to improve on two things: the visual appeal--the number of lines is doubling and the screen's getting wider--and the audio appeal has become CD-quality sound which is now the standard digital audio quality." He doubts that you can further improve the audio because users can only perceive so much of a difference beyond CD quality.

Zenith demonstrated HDTV live at this year's Democratic National Convention using a broadcast camera developed by Polaroid. The convention was broadcast live to HDTV sets at different locations in the hall.

The other digital video format--DVD--has experienced some delays, but players should be out next year. Industry analysts agree that DVD will soon be the medium of choice for movies, music, multimedia, and games.

"DVD players should match the VCR in establishing a huge and dynamic industry," says Joseph Clayton, executive VP of Thomson Consumer Electronics and of CEMA. CEMA's numbers put factory sales of DVD players in the U.S. for the first three years at 4 to 5 million units. Major players include electronics giants Toshiba, Sony, Philips, Pioneer, and Thomson Consumer Electronics.

Why all this excitement? After all, DVDs look just like CDs, and such new technologies as minidiscs, digital compact cassettes, and digital audio tape haven't exactly had consumers lining up to shell out their hard-earned cash. CD-ROMs hold 0.67 gigabytes--enough space to store encyclopedias. DVD disks can pack up to 17 gigabytes--more than 25 times the capacity of a CD-ROM or CD. Thus, DVDs can store enough data to play back movies with the highest quality video and audio you're likely to see this side of a studio master. This capacity is already testing the mettle of software writers, who can now create multimedia titles and interactive games an order of magnitude richer than with CD-ROMs.

DVD players are also backward-compatible with CDs, so consumers won't be losing their music investment.

Audio gets small. "Good sound should be heard and not seen--the technology should not be intrusive," says Richard Paynting, director, new products, Bose Corp.

One company working on making music unobtrusive is Siemens Components. About the size of a matchbook, its MultiMediaCard will initially offer 16 or 64 megabits of solid-state read-only memory (ROM), memory that could be used to store music. The card is 40% the size of a credit card or smart card due to the use of "record-on-silicon" technology, which lets the company store more than one bit in each memory cell.

Because the contacts are on the edge of the card, users could stack music MultiMediaCards into one playing unit, which could address the cards selectively, working like a miniature CD player. Production of the 16- and 64-megabit versions is planned for the end of 1997; a 256-megabit version should be available in 1999. The company expects the Multi-MediaCard to cost half as much as conventional ROM.

Moving to digital. Most forms of data are moving to digital because digital signals can be compressed and decompressed, and can be reproduced much more faithfully than analog signals. However, our world is analog: Voice, music, pictures, images, textures, odors, and tastes are all analog signals.

"Every interesting signal in nature is analog; every advance in integrated-circuit technology tends to be digital. Therefore, I have to have DSP."--the words, not surprisingly, of TI's Frantz, business development manager for DSP.

He says the great breakthrough that's about to occur in DSP is that it will cease tobe a product and begin to be a base technology that all products use. "The DSP makes data out of the senses; the host processor makes sense out of the data. Digital signal processing will enable products that can see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. The DSP will make products sensual; the host processor will only make them sexy," concludes Frantz.

That's a tall order for any technology. As a step along the way, next year Texas Instruments' new TImeline Technology will be packing 125 million transistors on a 19-mm2 piece of silicon using a 0.18-micron CMOS process technology. The electrical connections are as small as 0.18 microns--600 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. This capability will enable thumbnail-sized computer chips with the processing power of 20 of today's PCs.

The technology will let TI put memory, microprocessors, and special functions on a single chip, reducing the number of chips required for consumer electronics by as much as 90%. Today, most electronic systems are made from many chips wired together on PC boards. When data passes from one chip to another, it slows down and creates heat and noise--the type of noise you hear on an AM radio in a car. But 125 million transistors on one chip means fewer chips, making systems faster and quieter while reducing the need for power. It will enable video phones and wrist computers to be within the consumer's price range.

"Today's most complex chips range from 5 to 7 million transistors. This dramatic in-crease in transistor count will create systems and applications that we haven't even started to imagine," says Rich Templeton, TI Semiconductor Group senior vice president and worldwide manager of its application-specific products business. Initial quantities of the 0.18-micron chips will be available in the first half of 1997, with full-scale production slated for the end of that year. TI expects that OEMs can halve the time to market by using its comprehensive library of DSPs, systems cores, memories types, and mixed-signal and application-specific modules.

The technology also enables gigabit-per-second speeds for such applications as videoconferencing and virtual reality. Such speeds would be necessary to transmit all the information required to replicate smell, taste, and touch. The speeds aren't possible with today's infrastructure, but would be possible with fiber-optic cable. Many experts expect fiber to reach the home in 10 years or so, and that in 50 years, we'll be using a next-generation medium that provides a higher-bandwidth, higher-capacity bidirectional delivery system.

The greatest of ease. Wireless technology is becoming increasingly popular and powerful, and could become the most common way to send and receive data. "It's cheaper to send a signal through the air than to send it through cable," notes Shapiro. "It flies through the air with the greatest of ease."

Putting wires or fiber to the home is an antiquated way of getting a signal. It's enormously labor intensive and requires maintenance, especially as you get beyond the city to rural areas--it's virtually uneconomical compared with the emerging digital technologies.

Last year, the DSS (Direct Satellite Service) dish became the hottest-selling consumer electronics product in history with more than 1 million units sold. It's a digital technology that uses satellites in the sky to send out television signals and is quickly replacing the use of wires or cable or fiber.

"It's also replacing the VCR," says Shapiro. "My family hasn't been to the video store in two years since we got DSS because we get all our movies that way. That means we're not making the two-way trip or paying late fees. We've also canceled cable, which is an antiquated service."

More and more services that involve huge investments in using the electromagnetic spectrum will emerge, and spectrum usage will become more efficient, predicts Shapiro. Digital use of the spectrum and compression technologies, which are now in their infancy, are moving forward quickly.

Fooling the mind. Virtual reality, with its bulky head gear and awkward gloves, is at an infant stage and has a long way to go before becoming a successful commercial reality. But Shapiro predicts there will be products that create a simulated experience that users feel really involved in.

A company in El Segundo, CA, is on that track. Aura Systems' Interactor virtual-reality cushion--developed as an outgrowth of the firm's work with the U.S. military--lets users feel sounds from CD-ROMs, TV, videos, music, and video games. Users plug the cushion into an audio output and lean against it. An electromagnetic actuator within the cushion's center converts bass sound waves into body-pulsing vibrations synchronized with the soundtrack. Controls letthe user fine tune the output from a feather touch to intense resonation.

Frantz says that Star Trek's "holodeck" might be a viable capability in the next 50 years. We could be able to send a person's 3-D image clear acrossthe world.

The problems to overcome: creating enough performance to transform a person's image into a usable form, transmitting all that data over a medium, and then recreating the image at the other end. Frantz thinks engineers will be able to figure it out by 2046.

Taste, touch, and smell aren't really part of the virtual-reality experience yet. "We always think of sight and sound when we think of VR," says Frantz, "the other senses will be more difficult. It may be easier to transmit a signal to allow me to get a sense of the perfume you're wearing than to allow me to stick out my hand and shake yours."

Today, the idea is beginning to take shape. You can already have a virtual dinner with someone. You both go to restaurants in different cities with videoconferencing capability, and you eat and talk with each other in real time--even though you're in separate locations. But you can't smell each other's menu selections--yet.

Many games now try to involve as much as possible of your senses, and that will probably continue. Several experts say that games will get to the point where users are actually living the game rather than experiencing it from outside. Such games will have moved beyond today's VR helmets and gloves. If transporting a person's 3-D image is possible, then the ability to create a game that recreates a situation around a person should be possible too.

Reaching epsilon. "Every time we increase device per-formance," says TI's Frantz, "we have to decrease power dissipation." Taken to the extreme, someday infinite performance should be possible with zero power dissipation. The question Frantz has is: How close do you have to be to declare success? "We don't need infinite performance or zero power dissipation to declare success. I just need to be close. The engineering term 'epsilon' means I'm close enough to be considered there, but I'm not really there."

Frantz believes the industry will get close to epsilon. "In 50 years, will there be another 50 years? Yes. Will we run out of advances over the next 50 years? No. We'll get closer and closer and we'll get smarter and more capable."


- Standards agreement

- Data/signal compression algorithms

- Semiconductor horsepower

- Massive, cheap storage

- Simplifying human interfaces

- Small, lightweight, high-power recharge-

able batteries

- Inexpensive, high-resolution displays

- Infrastructure/
delivery of data


"Mr. Bell, after careful consideration of your invention, while it is a very interesting novelty, we have come to the conclusion that it has no commercial possibilities."

--J. P. Morgan on behalf of Western Union, 1877

"Everything that can be invented has been invented."

--Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899

"After all, we could get on very happily if aviation, wireless, television, and the like advanced no further than at present."

--Edward Arthur Burroughs, Bishop of Ripon, 1927 sermon to the BritishAssociation for the Advancement of Science

"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?"

--David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s

"But it good for?"

--Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM commenting on the microchip in 1968


- Wireless wristphones

- Fabrics with embedded chips

- Implantable memory devices

- Smaller music form factors

- Games you live--rather than just play

- Videoconferencing involving all five senses

"We will get used to being able to talk to anybody in the world any time we want and to accessing any kind of information we want right there whenever we want to do it. Products that allow us to do these things and are so easy to use that we don't even think about it--but hide the incredible complexity of electronics inside them--will succeed."

--Paul Grimme, general manager for Motorola Segments Division in the Microcontroller Technologies Group


"The role of design engineers will be to simplify products tremendously. Simple products sell. It's not the number of features. In terms of designing a product, you don't design around the features, the design will be integrated into the features the consumers want and will be increasingly simpler."

--Gary Shapiro, president, ConsumerElectronics Manufacturers Association

"The design engineer's role will be the same as it is today--trying to figure out how to do something that's never been done before. I don't think design cycles will get much shorter, because as they get shorter for what we used to do, what we need to do will become more complex."

--Gene Frantz, business developmentmanager for DSP, Texas Instruments


- Digital signal processors

- A/D and D/A converters

- Microcontrollers

- Batteries

- Displays

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