10 cool futuristic technologies on the horizon now

Eleksen Group’s wearable gadgetry kicks off this year’s Horizon Award winners
It started as an idea for making more life-like puppets for the British TV show Spitting Image. Four years later, Eleksen Group PLC is hoping that its interactive textile technology will form the foundation for a new generation of wash-and-wear computer control and display devices.

The centerpiece of the technology is ElekTex, a fabric-based, pressure- sensitive control interface that can be integrated into jackets, bags and other textile products. The technology is already used as a remote control for iPods and cell phones in backpacks and coats. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Eleksen presented its latest design concept, which integrates ElekTex fabric controls with an LCD display that can interact with Windows Vista’s Sideshow feature. The latter exports information from a Vista laptop to a secondary display. Mini-applications, or “gadgets,” written for Sideshow can then wirelessly deliver e-mail, alerts or other updates to the remote screen even if the laptop remains in its case and turned off. Fabric-based controls and embedded control electronics interact with the display. Iver Heath, England-based Eleksen is also planning support for secondary displays on the Macintosh.

Initial implementations of ElekTex will likely be integrated into laptop bags with embedded button controls and small color LCD displays, says John Collins, vice president of marketing and business development at Eleksen. However, Collins envisions an eventual move to flexible displays based on color organic LED technology. That would allow the control and display surfaces to be embedded on any fabric surface, including a shirt. “Imagine receiving critical information from enterprise information systems on your sleeve,” says Vassilis Seferidis, vice president of product management.

Wow Factor: Wearable Gagdetry

Schedules and recent e-mails are viewed without powering up a laptop, through a fabric-embedded module.

ElekTex fabrics are constructed from woven layers of nylon and carbon-impregnated nylon that’s not only bendable, but also washable. Because of the nature of the material, it can be sewed, glued or even heat-welded into other fabrics. Mark Treger, national sales manager at Goodhope Bags Inc. in Chino, Calif., has embedded ElekTex sensors into backpacks to control iPods. “You can just sew through it. It just works,” he says. The one limitation is cost. Collins estimates that a laptop bag with the technology would cost about $200. But Treger says the cost of the ElekTex technology has already dropped by 50% in the past year. He sells a fabric keyboard for use with the BlackBerry that sold for $169 last year. Today, it’s priced at under $130, and by the holiday season, he says, retailers will be selling them for about $80.

The technology and the manufacturing process took years to perfect, says Collins — and that gives the company a leg up on any competition. “Their strength is understanding how to do the wiring and connections and create control surfaces with the right amount of tactile feedback,” says Leslie Fiering, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

“The knitted, woven materials allow us to get x, y and z coordinates,” says Collins. Currently, Eleksen is producing button and scroll controls. Next, it plans to support gestures across the control surface, simulating a mouse or fabric-based touch pad. “It’s a matrix arrangement, similar to what you’d find on touch-screen displays,” Collins says.

Seferidis expects viable bendable displays to be available in about two years. But he is working with vendors to make displays do more than just bend. “Our work will be to make them washable,” he says.

The Sideshow capability is “pretty cool,” says Fiering, but even more interesting will be what designers can dream up if the technology catches on. The most fascinating applications, she says, haven’t even been thought of yet.

Stanford University’s EyePoint: Web Surfing With Eye Gaze
Increased computing power doesn’t just make for better graphics; it opens up new ways to interact with computers. Take, for example, the EyePoint system developed by Stanford University doctoral researcher Manu Kumar.

EyePoint uses a four-step process that incorporates a user’s hands and eyes to increase accuracy and eliminate the false positives that come from using eye movements alone. Plus, the technique brings a more natural way of interaction to a broader band of users .

Wow Factor:Eye Commander

Makes eye-gaze a viable alternative to the mouse for everyday pointing and selection tasks, like Web surfing.

“Using gaze-based interaction techniques makes the system appear to be more intelligent and intuitive to use,” says Kumar. “Several users have reported that it often felt like the system was reading their mind.”

Here’s how it works: While looking at a screen, the user presses a hot key on the keyboard, magnifying the area being viewed. The user then looks at the link within the enlarged area and releases the hot key, thereby activating the link (a video demonstration is available).

Eye tracking, which has been around for decades, typically uses infrared devices embedded into a headset or a monitor frame. The devices track the centers of the user’s pupils and then calculate which part of the screen the user is viewing.

This method, however, has been plagued by errors, limiting its use primarily to people with disabilities that prevent using a keyboard and mouse.

Eye trackers are accurate to about 1 degree of visual angle. When looking at a 1,280-by-1,024-pixel, 96-dpi screen at a distance of 20 inches, this equates to a 33-pixel spread in any direction from where the user is looking. That’s not accurate enough to pinpoint a link.

“What is really exciting is that the processing power of today’s computers is completely changing the kinds of things we can use for computer interfaces,” says Ted Selker, associate professor at the MIT Media and Arts Technology Laboratory and director of the Context Aware Computing Lab. “Things like eye tracking are using channels of communication that literally were unavailable to interface designers even five years ago.”

“[Kumar’s] approach — using eye movement in a subtle, lightweight way, rather than as a direct mouse substitute — is exactly the right way to go,” says Robert Jacob, a professor of computer science at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Selker says eye tracking might become a standard computer interface within the next five years. For now, the primary obstacle is the high cost of eye-tracking hardware, although mass adoption of the technology would drive those costs down.

Ghost Inc.’s Ghost: The Everywhere OS
Ghost is founded on the passionate belief that the Windows and Mac model of your operating system — with your precious applications and data all walled inside one physical computer — is obsolete,” says Ghost’s creator, Zvi Schreiber.


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