The future is now

The drive home is taking longer than usual. Your car is complaining that its tires need more air, and, after a brief discussion with the road, decides on an alternate route with less potholes. You get home, and your door slides open, recognizing your face from millions of possible likenesses. You have a brief discussion with your fridge – you tell it what you feel like eating; it tells you what you can realistically expect, based on its contents and your recommended caloric intake. Sound farfetched? It shouldn’t really. Most of these technologies are already possible.

Often, however, simply the fact that something is possible doesn’t automatically mean that people will want it. For instance, how many times over the last couple of years have we been dazzled with the promise of Internet fridges that will order our groceries, advise us on recipes and warn us when our milk is sour? The technology exists, and products capable of most of these things are already on the market in limited quantities. And yet, how many of us actually know someone who owns such an appliance? Why hasn’t this type of thing taken the world by storm?

The fact is, though people appreciate the “coolness factor” of such things, coolness alone won’t make enough of an impact to justify the cost of mass-marketing these inventions, said Doug Heintzman, manager of strategies and standards for IBM Corp.’s pervasive computing division, in Somers, N.Y. What’s missing right now, he said, is a viable business model.

Radio frequency (RF) tags, “teeny weenie transponders” may soon help to change all that, he said. Right now, for instance, products are inventoried using UPC symbols. But the same information can be incorporated into these tags instead, which could be put on every product for sale. RF tags are tiny, cheap to produce, and can carry much more data than UPC symbols.

Retail inventory may be a viable business model that would cost-justify incorporating RF tags onto food labels, for example, because this would save time and money over traditional methods of manual scanning. And, once those tags are on all products, the possibilities of the type of data which can be stored on them is virtually endless, Heintzman said.

“Almost everything in your house will have an RF tag,” he predicted of the near future. So suddenly, it wouldn’t be so difficult for your fridge to figure out what’s inside of it. All it would need is some sort of RF tag reader. And suddenly, the idea of your fridge checking out it’s contents and consulting with your stove for possible cooking times doesn’t seem nearly so farfetched.

Sense and viability

“We are already surrounded by sensors,” said Feng Zhao, principal scientist with Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in Palo Alto, Calif.

Zhao, whose research speciality is in the area of collaborative sensing and diagnostics, pointed out that things as primitive and basic as thermometers can be considered sensors, and instruments such as cars have had sensors in place for many years.

“Now, MEMs (microelectrical mechanical system) sensors have become increasingly available and cheap and small. That affords us the possibility of using a multitude of these sensors in the environment or inside machines for applications such as environmental sensing or machine services or diagnostics,” Zhao said. “At the same time, wireless communication is becoming more and more ubiquitous.”

What’s missing at the moment, he said, is a way of taking all the islands of information available from different sources and networking them in a cohesive and intelligent way, a concept he calls Sensornet.

“These tiny devices would have this capability to talk together,” he said, adding that he expects this technology to really take off in the next five to 10 years, though a lot will depend on the software development needed.

“We are beginning to see more and more embedded, light-weight software …what we are going to see is more emphasis on the software technology to support the infrastructure of these wirelessly-connected sensors.”

Once there is an infrastructure in place, Zhao said collaborative sensing could pave the way to a future where smart machines could self-diagnose mechanical problems, smart roads could make travel safer and less congested by noting accidents and potholes to a car’s GPS and smart refrigerators will understand families’ dietary requirements.

In this era of heightened security awareness, sensors may also be crucial for determining things like building safety and intrusion detection, Zhao said.

“I think sensors have a great role to play to make us feel safer both inside a building or outside on the highway.” The real challenge will be making sure the data from the sensors is not somehow used by unauthorized sources, he added.

Faces in the crowd

In fact, security itself, not surprisingly, is one of the highest-growth research areas these days. Fingerprint readers are the most widely used and least expensive biometrics technology, but are not foolproof, and tend to bog down networks.

Facial recognition is another area that is getting a lot of attention. Casinos, retail outlets and airports are already incorporating some of this technology, which works with hidden security cameras to isolate human faces in still pictures, then measure an array of facial characteristics of a person’s face such as the distance between the eyes, angle of the nose and the thickness of the lips. However, although current systems claim to be able to find a match against a database of about eight million images in less than a second, these systems offer far from airtight accuracy, because of the limited number of images available and the huge compute requirements necessary to scan the data.

See me, feel me

Although the banking industry obviously has a huge stake in security practices, it is also involved in many other research areas as well.

For example, in addition to increased security for banking, NCR is concentrating on innovative ways to make ATMs more accessible to a greater proportion of the population, according to Nick Hames, vice-president of the financial solutions division at NCR Canada Ltd. in Toronto.

“So, we are looking at making the machines more accessible to people in wheelchairs, to the visually impaired, and we’re looking at speech synthesis (technology) as well to lead people through transactions,” Hames said.

“We’ve got people like the Royal Bank of Canada that are rolling out machines that have an audio jack on them, that combined with bigger print on the screen, would help a visually impaired person.”

A different, but related area of research the company is also undertaking is in the area of self checkout terminals in the retail industry, which allows consumers to scan their own purchases rather than having to go through a cashier, Hames said.

“And again, that’s using the same accessibility guidelines, speech synthesis and all that kind of thing with it.”

Longer term, NCR is also looking at incorporating “Sip-n-Puff” technology into personal computers. “They (users) actually blow through a straw in Morse code and the machine picks that up (and translates it),” Hames said. This technology could prove beneficial for people with severe disabilities who could not push the buttons on the machine, he said.

Accessibility when surfing the Web is also an issue. Traditionally, this experience has been limited to engaging one, or at the most two, senses. However, research being done at the University of Toronto’s Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (ATRC) looks at ways to extend the number of senses being engaged online, especially within the realm of distance education, according to Rob Harvie, information visualization consultant with the ARTC.

Presently, Web-based curriculum does not simulate the experience of touching and manipulating objects or environments, a concept known as haptics.

But this project will allow users to “feel the face of information,” Harvie said, using a “mouse that fights back.” It adds haptic and multimodal capabilities to VRML (virtual reality modelling language) and translates what’s on the screen to a multi-sensory experience. For example, if you move the specially-designed mouse over a 3D rendition of water on the screen, you will hear the sound of water and feel “a specialized sense of viscousness” at the same time, Harvie said. Users who have tried the new haptic environment have been “absolutely amazed,” he said, noting that it isn’t really like having a real-world experience; it’s more like “discovering a new colour.”

Chip away

Not surprisingly, a common theme surrounding many of the emerging technologies is the need for ever-greater compute power. With this in mind, Intel Corp. is targeting a new microprocessor in the next five to six years that will have a billion transistors running at around 20GHz, according to Rob Willoner, technology analyst at Intel in Santa Clara, Calif. That equals about 250 times the processing power of the fastest Pentium chip today, he said.

Key advancements, also slated for release in the next five to six years, are in the areas of lithography, transistors, interconnects and chip packaging, he said.

“Packaging is a key element in microprocessors, just like your body packages your brain,” he said. A new packaging technology Intel announced recently, called BBUL (Bumpless Build-Up Layer), is unlike traditional methods because it does not use tiny solder bumps to attach the silicon die to the package wires, but instead, builds up the package around the silicon. “This allows the chip to run faster, it offers some power savings, it allows the chip to run cooler, it also makes the package much thinner and lighter,” Willoner said.

Advancements in lithography, using light to print transistors and interconnects onto the silicon, are also needed as chips become smaller, he said. “It’s kind of like if you are writing finer and finer lines, you need a sharper pencil.”

Intel is currently researching ways to use Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV), which has a short, precise wavelength. But with this new technology comes a whole new set of problems, he said. For example: “You have to enclose the entire lithography system in a vacuum, because air absorbs light at that frequency.” The need for specialized conditions makes this particularly expensive, he added.

But not all new chips will be costly. Xerox Canada is researching ways to make chips more economically using the organic materials such as carbon.

For the last 40 years, silicon has been the backbone of the semiconductor industry, said Rafik Loutfy, corporate vice-president of Xerox Research and Technology at Xerox Research of Canada in Mississauga, Ont. But by about 2010, silicon will not be as useful for making chips because the features will not be able to be made any smaller and the cost will skyrocket.

“Carbon has been the backbone of life since the dawn of civilization,” Loutfy said. “And now we are coming back again and finding that carbon and other organic molecules will become the next generation of [semiconductors].”

Organic materials have conducting and light-emitting properties, but the main challenge is that they are not stable and are vulnerable to breaking down due to oxidation, he said.

“(However) we are gaining a very deep understanding of the causes of the degradation, and we are putting chemistry measures into the molecules…in order to prevent the paths to degradation.”

Once semiconductors can be made stable in this way, it will open the market up for very cheap uses, such as putting “smart labels” on packages of food, he said. Simple applications for carbon semiconductors could be seen in as soon as four years from now, he added.

Too much information

Although research is being done in many varied areas, there is a common theme and a common need emerging, according to George Forester, business development officer with Institute for Information Technology at the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa.

“People are going to be better connected. The devices out there will be able to integrate all kinds of information from whatever sources, so you won’t necessarily be hooked up to a phone company, you’ll be hooked up to a connectivity company.” What is missing currently is a transparent software infrastructure to control the devices and properly manage the information, he said.

“Everybody wants to think that all these devices are going to save time and energy and so on. But so far, [it’s] one of the illusions that we have. What we need now is the intelligent use of all that information so that it allows a lot of things to go on automatically…and it gives you more leisure time [and] more time to learn,” he said.

There will be a period where we will be bombarded with new devices and technologies, and we will suffer from information overload, before standards will emerge that will filter the information more intelligently, he said.

“Some people say there is a convergence of technologies, but it’s more like a collision of technologies that’s occurring. And we have to go through the collision before we can get to the convergence.”