Entrepreneurs in this fast-paced business world need to stay on the cutting edge of technology if they want their companies to survive and be successful. The next big thing that comes along, like the Internet or Instant Messaging or Voice-over-Internet-Protocol, may revolutionize the way you do business -- not to mention provide inspiration for new start-ups.

Here are a few emerging technologies that entrepreneurs and business leaders need to pay attention to:

ROBOTS

These are not Hollywood's version of robots. There's no brainy Hal from 2001:A Space Odyssey. And no sprightly Star Wars sidekicks like R2-D2. But the new robots being deployed in defense, space research and to help in the home could impact business.

During the Iraq war, armed robots on wheels rolled into dangerous areas ahead of troops, convincing some Iraqi soldiers to surrender. When NASA decided to set out for Mars, it sent a robot, not an astronaut. And, now, American families are using the Roomba, a $200 robotic vacuum cleaner from iRobot, of Burlington, Mass., to clean their carpets. Already, two million Roombas have sold. In addition for being useful in a small business as a way to avoid hiring a cleaning crew, these robots could spur the imaginations of many an entrepreneur. (A robot to walk the dog or wash windows, maybe?)

"The 1980s were shaped by the microprocessor. The 90s were shaped by lasers and communications, which gave us the World Wide Web," says Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster and director of the Institute of the Future, in Palo Alto, Calif. "I'm now pretty confident that robotics is the next killer application."

The technology is evolving at a fast clip. Two years ago, of the 15 finalists in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Grand Challenge, a field test to accelerate R&D of robotic vehicles to help save American lives on the battlefield, none finished. In the latest competition, in 2005, five teams completed the course and one team won a $2 million prize.

MMORPGS

Everyone who calls themselves an entrepreneur should already have an alter-ego in the form of an avatar in the alternative digital universe on Second Life. Boasting 650,000 members, Second Life is one of a growing number of massively-multiplayer online roll-playing game (MMORPGs), in which citizens interact, buy land, build houses and start creative new businesses. Members are spending $350,000 a day -- in real dollars not play money -- at this site.

"This is cyberspace as a destination, not just as a conduit for information or a place to read your news," Saffo says. "People hang out and socialize. They do business. This stuff is moving so fast that if you don't get involved now it may just pass you by."

MMORPGs had nearly 13 million paying subscribers and up to 100 million other visitors to free sites in 2005, according to the TowerGroup, a Needham, Mass. research and consulting firm. Revenue -- that's in real dollars not in play money -- from MMORPGs is forecast to reach $2.5 billion in 2006 and, by the end of the decade, 40 million players are expected to be online forking over $9 billion a year, the TowerGroup says.

More importantly for business, Saffo says, are the connections you make online.

PERSONAL MEDIA

A recent Forrester Research study found that the use of personal technology in the office is booming. iPods, mobile phones, Bluetooth headsets, thumb-drives, etc. This is in contrast to 10 years ago, when technology -- such as the Internet and e-mail -- tended to travel from the office to home use. The use of personal tech in the office begs the question: what will the impact of personal media -- instant messaging, blogging, YouTube.com, podcasting, RSS, etc.-- have on business?

Michael Greeson, founder and principal analyst at The Diffusion Group, a research firm, believes that the use of next-generation of digital media adapters will promote content sharing in a work environment. These devices can send PC or Internet content to traditional consumer electronic devices such as a TV. "These devices are also called 'media extenders' or 'media bridges," says Greeson. "I believe they could be disruptive if properly packaged and marketed."

LOCATION-BASED ADVERTISING

All cell phones in the U.S. are required to meet certain criteria for pinpointing the location of a caller for emergency services, particularly 911 calls. But it's only a matter of time before this technology is more widely used to allow cell phone networks to sell customized advertising and other information based on where a person is. For example, you may opt-in to receive advertisements from restaurants if you're visiting a new town. And when location-based advertising takes off, it may undermine one of the most important considerations when starting a business -- location, location, location. "Cyber visibility may be more important than geographic visibility," says Saffo. "The arrival of position awareness in cell phone and devices may be as great as the arrival of freeways. Before freeways, everyone drove through down town."

Published on: Sep 1, 2006