What’s Next in Big Tech [Part II]

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 two of a three part series on the future of consumer technology. Part one discussed advanced functionality in consumer technology applications for glass. Part three discusses the future of informatics and enhanced/augmented reality devices.

Consider the following video (part of the Nokia research series at http://research.nokia.com):

Nanotechnology

The idea of machines smaller than a human hair (about 60,000 nanometers) seems like enough of a stretch, yet Gianfranco Cerofolini describes the design and application (and economics) of nanoscale devices with a thickness of only a few nanometers in his book, Nanoscale Devices (Springer). The economical manufacture of devices on the molecular level opens up a wide range of applications- and yes, would also enable the technology described in Nokia’s concept video.

Self-Cleaning

While the term ‘hydrophobic’ (not to be confused with hydrophobia) refers to water-repellent properties in a material. Of particular interest in tech is also materials with oleophobic properties (oil-repellent; to prevent the piss-off that is screen fingerprints and smudges). Oil-repellent coatings are not only desirable for touchscreen interfaces, but are also becoming more necessary with their prevalence (finger smudges can reduce the sensitivity and accuracy of an untreated touchscreen input). Fingerprint-free phones may not be that far off, as Apple applied for a process patent this past February which may make the coating on the iPhone and iPod Touch permanent (the oleophobic coating on the 3GS wore off with time). Should this feature prove to be a seriously advantageous unique selling point (and anyone used to cleaning their smartphone’s screen six times a day will think it is), Apple could make a pile of money by licensing the technology to competitors. Or, they could refuse in order to preserve a competitive advantage of the iPhone in an industry where their market share is facing threats from the open-source Android platform (which is the more likely eventuality). But; the patent proves that effective oleophobic coatings for digital devices are possible, and to quote a slightly nasty colloquialism: there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Stretching

On the surface, this seems like perhaps the most realistic point showcased in the video. Stretchable electronic devices should be easy to make, simply by substituting a chassis or frame (substrate) which stretches, instead of the rigid plastic, glass, or metal ones most commonly used… right? Not exactly. This is possible, but it creates severe mechanical stress at the juncture where the electronic components would connect to each other (called interconnect points). The stress is so severe that integrated circuit boards built on a stretchable substrate tend to only survive being flexed a handful of times. I’d be a little irritated it my Nokia Morph could only transform into a wristwatch five or six times before it stopped working- wouldn’t you?

Substantial progress is being made in this area of materials research, however. Some of the most advanced work is being carried out at the STELLA project, headquartered in Germany (STELLA focuses on stretchable electronics for medical applications). The most promising developments seem to suggest that materials designed using biomimicry concepts have the most reasonable chance of bypassing the current technical barriers and will enable the production of stretchable electronics in the near future.

The big-picture business question is, would a device such as this sell (at a substantial initial premium to traditional smartphones, naturally). To the technophiles, absolutely. To fashion junkies? I suspect so. To the customer of the discount-service provider (Virgin, Fido)? Not at first. The opportunity cost for such a device would likely be too high for this market segment to bear early-on. However, if we assume that device convergence continues to be a driving trend in the consumer technology space over the next decade (and why would it not?), then it’s a reasonable assumption that this technology would eventually find its way into the discount segment. It took roughly two years before modern smartphones made their way into the discount space; this technology would likely expand at a similar rate (though with a lower-quality offering initially).

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