Science fiction is, believe it or not, a pretty damn reliable barometer for the future sometimes. One could even argue that some technological innovations take shape because the inventor/key player saw or read about it in something science fiction-y.
For anyone who watched the original Star Trek (c. 1960s), two technological marvels of the show were the communicator (which allowed wireless real-time voice communication between two people, and was handheld) and the replicator (a wall-mounted device which would make almost anything appear from thin air with the touch of a few buttons).
Today, we have the smartphone (which exceeds the usefulness of the communicator) and the 3D Printer, or Rapid Prototyper (which is very limited in what it can manufacture, but is light years ahead of traditional prototyping and small-scale rapid manufacturing).
This is part one of a three part series on the future of consumer technology. Part two discusses technology showcased in a Nokia device concept. Part three discusses the future of informatics and enhanced/augmented reality devices.
Let’s talk about what’s next. Check out this video:
Photovoltaic [Smart] Glass
Corning bollocks’d up here- the industry term for this technology is ‘smart glass’ or ‘electrochromic glass’. Photovoltaic glass refers to a film coating applied to architectural glass in order to capture ambient sunlight for the purpose of generating electricity. The concept for smart glass was first tossed around meaningfully about a decade ago. Anyone who’s ever owned eyeglasses with Transitions™ lenses (the ones that automatically dim in sunlight) is familiar with this concept. The key difference is that in smart glass, the dimming is controlled by an electric current (usually initiated by a switch or button in consumer applications). Commercial integration has been somewhat limited, but the upcoming Boeing 787 will feature windows using smart glass instead of window shades.
Architectural Display Glass / Architectural Surface Glass / Wall Format Display Glass
Designing and manufacturing glass panels suitable for the applications seen in the video is only the first (and easiest) step. Before what was showcased can become a reality, a universal operating system (Microsoft Surface is a viable possibility) and technical standards will have to be created and adopted across industry. Additionally, a technology to actually render an image on the display would need to be developed (using the glass as a protective surface for a composite OLED display would seem the most promising, but there are certain technical hurdles to overcome before that technology can be used in displays of the size imagined in the video).
Automotive Display Glass
Ford/Microsoft brought this one into the mainstream with its Sync™ system nearly five years ago. The UX has consistently improved generation-over-generation since, and many major manufacturers (mostly in the high-end luxury space) have also begun installing their own systems as a standard component. The next evolution in this technology will be user-customizable interfaces and deeper integration with other mobile devices (phones, tablets, etc) and smart home systems (your car pulls into the garage at 7pm, and its onboard information system communicates the number and identity of the passengers, enabling the smart home system to execute certain pre-defined convenience settings- coffee or tea, perhaps). Again, an open-source system or set of industry standards would accelerate the adoption of this technology. Sync™ is a proprietary system, and it doesn’t play well with other in-vehicle information systems.
Large Pane Display Glass
The same basic challenges that exist for the technology showcased in architectural display glass exist here. Technical standards, universal operating system, display technology. Additionally, this technology would require a massive database of aggregated information and a connectivity technology to access it (the former is becoming easily accessible as companies and governments shift information to the cloud and make them publicly accessible via an API offering, while the latter would simply require installation of a WiFi radio or the inclusion of ethernet cabling in the physical infrastructure). To make the nifty little advertising feature showcased on the mobile phone a reality, a closed (or open source) mobile-based platform for market research/brand loyalty involving geolocation would be required. How likely is that to happen in the near future? Well, my firm is currently developing one that’s not too far from going beta, and some fairly sizeable retailers have expressed interest. But sssshhhh, we’re still talking to investors 😉
Flexible Display Glass
I’m a little sceptical that this is actually glass, as we think of it. One of the physical characteristics of glass is that it’s rigid. It’s more likely that this would be a flexible polymer of some sort, but with the hardness and low porousness that characterizes glass. The apex of this technology would be in developing underlying electronics that could survive being rolled up multiple times (a key hurdle, currently). It might seem a little far off, but HP is getting pretty close to making a very similar technology commercially viable. Though HP sees this technology ultimately making traditional displays thinner and lighter, it could also be applied to architectural projects to make built-in curved or shaped displays (think motion-picture or ‘moving’ wallpaper in the lobby of your office building, or a stock ticker that runs across the wall itself).
The ‘life-enabling’ technologies (marketers and tech analysts tend to paint all new consumer technologies as essential devices which make life easier/better) portrayed in the Corning video won’t be commercially viable for some time (5-10 years), and won’t be mainstream mass-market technologies for even longer. However, in the recent past these technology concepts would have seemed outlandish and much more fictional than factual. Personally, I can imagine my kitchen countertops serving double duty as an infomatics system for communication and convenience in the somewhat near future. Can’t you?
After all, we went from this:
…in under a decade.