Reporting from the Fount of Knowledge

The Frontier Channel returns today from a remarkable new setting for observing the frontiers of science and technology: the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being one of the premier centers for planetary science research in the United States and home to the upcoming Phoenix mission to Mars, UA is home to ophthalmologist Jim Schwiegerling. Dr. Schwiegerling is currently at work on a new generation of corrective laser eye surgery that should result in vision enhancement superior to current human abilities, by the end of this decade.

Rather than simply treating or correcting human medical conditions and diseases, research is poised to bring to the public technology to enhance human abilities. Bionic ears that are superior to the best biological ears, corrective laser eye surgery that results in 20/10 or better vision, drugs that decrease our dependence on sleep, and life-extension compounds are just some of the technologies that are expected in the next five years to begin confusing our definition of what it means to be human.

Meanwhile, I will be working on degrees in Physics and Astronomy and may volunteer as a human guinea pig.

Whatever You Want – 300 DPI

In our recent “Future Wants” column regarding a future eBook reader that will eventually replace ink and paper, one of the minimum requirements was a screen with a resolution of 300 dots per inch.

Samsung Electronics just announced the December 2004 availability of a LCD screen with just that resolution. At 2.6-inches it will end up in mobile phones, but Samsung also plans to use the technology in future smartphones and portable television-capable devices. Eventually, in probably less than 12-months, they should have a larger display available which might eventually find its way into a new generation of eBooks readers.

Introducing “Future Wants”

Frontier Channel announces today the launch of a new feature: Future Wants. This occasionally column will take a look at futuristic products that we would REALLY like to own, along with the features this product MUST have to warrant our purchase. Then we will make our best guess as to if and when such a product will be available to the average consumer.

First up, the future eBook reader that will finally doom books and magazines.

Future Wants: eBook Reader

Long predicted to replaced conventional books and other physical media like magazines and newspapers, eBook readers have been around for a couple of decades but have never enjoyed much success. The latest devices (released around the year 2000) were hyped as the models to finally usher in a new paper-free future. Alas, four years later eBooks have hardly made a dent, with only a tiny percentage of people reading digital text on old reader devices, their PDA’s or on their computer LCD screens.

When will eBooks take off? Let us first look at the competition: books and magazines. The books and magazines in your library are the ultimate in display technology. Ink on wood pulp still offers the highest resolution and ease on your eye of any reading device. Digital displays are no where near in quality. The portability of a book (or magazine) is also a strong advantage. Reading a book in bed is culturally common; trying to drag your computer into bed with you for some “light” reading is not.

An eBook reader must at the very least be as good as physical books, but to be successful it must also offer distinct advantages over the competition. Some of the advantages of digital storage of text are the ability to store entire libraries on one device, search and hyperlink functionality, and built-in dictionaries. These advantages married with a screen that rivals ink on paper would truly start a revolution in publishing.

Specifically, the future eBook reader must have:

  • a display resolution of at least 300 dots per square inch;
  • visibility in almost any lighting condition;
  • no noticeable flicker or refresh rate;
  • ample storage for entire libraries of books and magazines;
  • a size at least as large as one paperback novel page;
  • a weight less than a paperback book;
  • easy grip and thinness;
  • highlighting and note-taking features;
  • easy and fast download of new books and magazines;
  • at least 24-hours of battery life;
  • accessibility features such as the ability to change text size; and
  • a cost less than US$200.

The truly successful eBook reader would combine all of the above with:

  • a color display;
  • the ability to view images and perhaps video;
  • the ability to play music and read at the same time;
  • accessibility features such as voice readback of text for the blind; and
  • sharing features.

Are any such products in the pipeline? Surprisingly, the most likely route toward such a device will be through the Apple iPod music players, its competitors and their successors. These devices already combine may of the features above. A new crop of competitors with video capabilities are arriving later this year. The only major features left to include are a high resolution display screen and perhaps further thinning in size of the devices.

High resolution screens are on their way, perhaps as early as next year. With Rolltronics launch of their R2R technology for creating flexible displays, and the rapidly improving quality of E Ink’s electronic ink display, it is only a matter of time before displays become as comfortable on the eye as ink on paper.

Around 2006, all the technology components will be in place, and the truly great eBook reader should become available around 2007, if not a little sooner. Once introduced, subsequent versions with enhanced features will likely spell the end for books early in the next decade as more and more people are converted to the convenience of superior eBook readers.

MESSENGER Begins Fall Toward Sun

NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging spacecraft was successfully launched this morning at 11:15:56 a.m. PST. The spacecraft will be the first mission to the planet Mercury in 30 years and will be the first spacecraft to ever orbit the innermost planet of our solar system.

When falling toward the Sun, like falling toward the Earth without a parachute, an object begins to accelerate. The fuel requirements for a direct flight to Mercury are cost prohibitive, so MESSENGER will take a looping route using the gravity of the Earth and Venus to slow itself down to the appropriate speed to be captured by Mercury. MESSENGER will arrive at the planet in 2011 to begin a one year mission. Only 40 percent of the planet has been photographed, and most of the images are low resolution.

Because the spacecraft will be operating so close to the Sun, a sunshade is required. The instruments behind the sunshade will enjoy room temperature.

Broadband Out of the WildBlue

While cable and DSL broadband technology battle for supremacy in homes, new competition from satellites could remake the market just like they did television programming in the 1990s. WildBlue Communications’ first satellite was successfully launched on July 17, 2004 and the company plans to offer two-way broadband over a satellite dish in early 2005. At 1.5 Mbps download and 256 Kbps upload speeds, WildBlue’s service is competitive with both cable and DSL broadband.

Another advantage of WildBlue’s service is the availability of either DirecTV or DISH Network satellite TV over the same dish. Unlike cable and DSL, satellite service is available to anyone in the continental United States (as long as they have an unobstructed view of the southern sky to pick up the signal from the satellites) and should be popular with rural and small city residents.

The primary disadvantage to this option is the inherent latency of the signal from the satellite to the customer’s dish and back again. The delay is about a quarter of a second round trip, which is a problem for online gaming and voice-over-IP telephone calls.

Broadband Out of the Stratosphere

As mentioned above, the distance to satellites introduces a delay with the receiving dish on the ground. After clicking a link on a webpage, users of satellite broadband notice a split second pause followed by the sudden and rapid download of the new page. For general browsing of the Internet, listening to audio, and watching video, this is not a major hindrance. However, other applications like online gaming and voice-over-IP require little or no latency at all to work effectively. Imagine trying to play a rapid shooting game over the net with any sort of delay. You just cannot win.

Sanswire Networks is developing an interesting solution to the problem. Instead of launching satellites into space, they plan to launch “stratellite” airships into the stratosphere (perhaps as high as 13 miles up). The latency of a roundtrip signal from ground to stratellite would be insignificant for most if not all Internet applications.

The company successfully conducted a trial of their technology using a helicopter instead of a stratellite, the first of which has not yet been built. Testers were able to surf the Internet and make telephone calls to colleagues in other countries. Sanswire Networks plans to announce a construction and launch schedule for its stratellites soon. If successful, stratellites would hover above a fixed location and provide a stationary platform for Internet, cellular, HDTV, and other telecommunications uses. After 18 months a replacement stratellite would be sent up and the original brought down for retrofitting before returning to duty. In effect, the technology would act like a 13 mile high cellular tower with ground coverage the size of Texas, though the company plans on placing one stratellite over each major metropolitan area.

Rolling Out Flexible Displays

Current flat panel displays depends on rigid silicon-on-glass backplanes to drive pixel components. Rolltronics Corporation has introduced a new technology they trademarked under the name “FASwitch” that promises wallscreen televisions and flexible displays in the near future. The company “prints out” flexible backplanes like a printing press prints out a newspaper. The materials are cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and can be made in larger form factors than existing processes. In fact, Rolltronics envisions thin wallpaper-like panels that can be tiled on a wall to create gigantic televisions, at an affordable price.

This technology will likely be used first in coming electronic ink products. These devices will bring the superior resolution of ink on paper to digital displays and may finally usher in the age of digital books. Rolltronics is currently looking for partners and licensees to begin making use of their new technology.

Rolltronics has spun off a separate company, VoltaFlex, that plans to use the same Roll-to-Roll (R2R) processing technology to create thin, flexible, and rechargeable batteries. Both companies hope to bring R2R processing to the manufacturing of components that currently require much more expensive and complex processes to produce.