The future will be smaller and smarter

Imagine a single hand-held device that could function as a unified messaging platform, always connected to the network from anywhere in the world via a series of intelligent wireless nodes. It could be as small as a watch or piece of jewellery and have sophisticated speech recognition for all controls.

According to Raju Rishi, director of IP solutions for Bell Labs/Lucent Technologies in Holmdel, NJ, such a device and the network behind it is probably only two to five years away, with general public usage in about 10 years.

“Don’t be surprised to see a single wireless device that operates in three different modes: while you’re at home your station says you’re in range of the cordless phone so it operates as a cordless phone and you get your analogue rates; when you go on the road this thing operates like a cellular device; and when you get in the office it operates like a business telephone and goes through your PBX,” all courtesy of smarter host networks capable of advanced call routing, said Rishi.

He outlined four areas of communications technology that he expects will deliver significant change in the next several years: wireless technology; virtualization of the home and office environments; improved user interfaces including speech recognition; and advances allowing more and better collaborative networks.

On the wireless front, miniaturization research has been making some significant breakthroughs.

“We’re seeing devices become a quarter of their size roughly every five years, which is resulting in the portability of new and different products. Not only will we see wireless phones and personal digital assistants, we’ll see cameras, laptops and a host of other devices which allow communication to occur wirelessly across the globe,” on what Bell Labs is calling a communication skin of wireless nodes, said Rishi.

Current cellular phones are restricted to a certain size and power consumption because of the microphone and speaker, he said. By going to cheaper and lower-power devices based on silicon and gallium arcenide, the size of the devices can be decreased, but there’s still a problem. Because of moving parts in the speaker and microphone, mounting them on silicon itself is difficult. Rishi said, however, Bell Labs has successfully done so and this will allow production of telecommunications devices as small as a watch or piece of jewellery.

As cable modems and DSL lines proliferate along with satellite and wireless technology, Rishi said the near future will see much greater bandwidth not only to office, but to homes.

“One of the reasons cellular phones have a lower bandwidth capability is because they’re on the move. The signal is broadcast across a much wider range. But since your home is, hopefully, fairly permanent, you can direct an antenna at a particular home and get a better bandwidth capability.”

Rishi explained this will help foster a virtual working environment through the use of virtual telephones, which will provide features such as multiple lines through the PC or laptop, advanced conference calls and speed dial. A virtual phone also offers the possibility of unified messaging, bringing e-mail, voice mail and faxes together on the system.

“You’ll see a unification of directory architectures which will enable you to respond to an email with a phone call. The unified directory via LDAP or a more sophisticated technology that will map these directories together is going to be very important,” he said.

Also important will be the trend to improved user interfaces using artificial intelligence, speech recognition, and expert agents. Rishi said speech recognition requires massive hard drive space to store translations, as well as fast processors to perform them. As hard drives get bigger and processors get faster, that technology becomes more feasible.

“Speech recognition will be very important because as I mentioned with the cell phone earlier, the size of the cell phone is diminishing rapidly, meaning the dial pad will not be a useful interface. You’re going to need some sort of speech recognition capability to actually do the dialling, and I think that’s going to happen.”

Artificial intelligence insofar as the ability to make judgement calls will facilitate text to speech, speech to text, and optical character recognition. Rishi said eventually it will lead to on-the-fly language translators. While these technologies will appear in the next five years, however, true artificial intelligence in the sense of learning and adaptation by independent robots is still quite far away, he said.

In the meantime, expert agents will appear on PCs to do mail sorting, spam filtering, and improve search engines to remove the high number of useless hits. On the network side, expert agents will monitor systems and alert technicians, possibly long before a system actually gets to the malfunction stage.

Lastly, Rishi predicted that collaborative environments will become more prevalent with better audio and video technology, including surround sound, 360-degree cameras, and, of course, better bandwidth.

Rishi said he expects all of these advances to come in an interoperable form, especially for the consumer market.

“You may have a multimedia PC or laptop that allows you to do voice, video or data over the network, but your mom might strictly want to have a voice conversation with you…There’s no doubt in my mind that people will still have plain old telephone service, and it’s going to have to work with the new stuff,” Rishi said.