Technology moves so fast these days that even the most sci-fi-sounding predictions have a way of becoming a part of everyday life within a year or so. Television on your cell phone? You've gotta be nuts. Sixty-four gigabytes of data on a key chain? Crazy, man. But that's just the way it is: The future is becoming the present more rapidly than ever before. With that in mind, here are five technologies currently in development that are poised to have big impacts. Soon they'll be jacking up productivity and creating a new world of opportunity. I'm not saying you'll want to bet your entire business on this stuff, but you'd be crazy to bet against any of them.
Robots have always been associated with our sci-fi future. Now they're sneaking up on the present. You can buy a file-delivering office-courier robot from Smart Robots in Dalton, Massachusetts, or a two-armed robobartender from Motoman in West Carrollton, Ohio. Japan-based People Staff even offers a talking robot receptionist that looks like Hello Kitty and can recognize faces and inform visitors when their hosts are ready to receive them.
And the industry is barely getting warmed up. Dozens of companies and research labs around the world are developing bots that are even more like humans. You surely wouldn't complain if robots started replacing humans in dangerous rescue missions or even combat; iRobot is already delivering some 25 robots per month to the U.S. military for tasks such as finding explosive devices, checking caves, and carrying payloads. Meanwhile, Honda's Asimo android not only walks on two legs but can run at nearly four miles per hour--and serve drinks on a tray. The South Korean government is committed to helping its companies produce home-assistant robots in the $1,000 range within 10 years, and to putting robot police on the streets within five years.
Imagine that the only way you can converse with everyone around you is by typing out your comments on a keypad. You'd probably feel pretty frustrated. Yet we're spending more and more of our time pecking away at keyboards. We do so much of it, in fact, that we no longer think about what a barrier it is to rapid, rich, spontaneous interaction.
The fact is, machines won't truly be integrated into our lives until we can talk to them. Don't be thrown off by the lousy voice-menu systems used by airlines and phone companies; that's a false start. Instead, look at what Google is up to. The company recently secured a patent for a voice-controlled search engine. One potential market: people in cars. During your 90-minute commute, you could be firing off commands to your laptop computer to book trips, research movies, schedule meetings, find out what competitors are up to, and so forth. Another key application will be language translation; you and a new supplier in China can each blab away in your native tongues--and hear the other's comments translated on the fly. In perhaps 10 years, computers will be able to understand much of what we say, and keyboards may start to seem as antiquated as typewriters.
Our PCs and cell phones are so helpful. But do they really know us? They will. Researchers have made huge strides in developing software that takes note of our behavior and surroundings and puts that information to use. One Princeton University group is already trying to commercialize its research in gesture recognition so that a camera-equipped computer can figure out what a person is doing--waving hello, looking for something, or pulling a suspicious object out of a bag, for example. As that capability is refined, your PC might get you what you need even before you think to ask for it--the location of the file you left on your desk but that was borrowed by a colleague, perhaps, or an ambulance when you slump over clutching your chest. The MIT Media Lab has studied how a computer can read a person's emotions and modify its behavior to be a more compatible partner.
Other groups are working to teach computers to make use of "environmental context," so that if you take a picture of someone with your cell phone camera, the phone might be able to combine its knowledge of what town you're in with your built-in contact list to guess who's in the picture and tag it accordingly, enabling you to pull it up even years later. Or your PC can fetch files relating to that approaching customer or colleague and prompt you with zingers like, "Oh hi, boss, just noticing that sales are up 14 percent so far this month over last year at this time," or "Gee, Mr. Freedman, you must have heard about the special we're having on the Monster Lawn 6000 tractor for Teeny Lawn 300 owners."
With 3-D displays, you'll be able to check out a supplier's product designs and goods virtually from all angles, and shopping will never be the same--imagine walking around a 3-D virtual mockup of a customized car you're thinking of ordering. Even travel budgets will change. After all, why waste so much time on planes if you can place a 3-D version of yourself right in the offices of your prospects or your regional employees at a moment's notice? Forget those dorky glasses--new types of 3-D displays use other tricks, like placing hundreds of tiny vertical ridges on a computer screen. Japanese electronics giant Sharp already sells 3-D laptops and cell phones in Japan that use the ridged screens. Another approach is to stack multiple screens together to provide depth. The real jump here will be to holographic displays, which use microscopic patterns to bend and filter light into images. Holographic video has been held back by requirements for ultrafine screen resolutions and staggering data rates--a crisp, moving, holographic image can burn through terabytes of data in a fraction of a second. But chips will soon be able to approach those rates, and one MIT group plans to bring out a crude PC-based holographic display in the next year or two. Zebra Imaging in Austin is working on more advanced holographic displays that are still about four years off.
So you think that 48-inch television mounted to your wall is impressive? How about an entire wall that's one big screen? Or a 14-inch computer display that can roll up tightly enough to fit into a coat pocket? Or a small display that's so inexpensive, you'll be able to place one on the box of every widget you make to (literally) call out to potential customers or pitch buyers on a cross-sell?
All of this will be within reach faster than you might think. Today's video displays are basically huge computer chips. At the moment, these enormous chips are about the only electronic component that isn't dirt cheap. But several new technologies promise to reduce the costs of displays while increasing their versatility. For starters, there's something called "organic LED" technology. OLED, as it's known, allows manufacturers to create bright displays that don't require the backlighting of today's screens; that means they'll consume less energy and be cheaper to make. Small OLED screens are already hitting the market, and lining up behind them are even cheaper displays that will be made by inkjetting circuitry onto large, flexible plastic sheets. What it means is that pretty soon, inanimate objects will be, well, animated.
David H. Freedman (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Boston-based writer and Inc. contributing editor, is the author of several books about business and technology.