Interim Technologies Big at CES 2010

Based on the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held this week in Las Vegas, Nevada, consumers in 2010 can look forward to a bounty of ebook readers, 3-D HDTVs, and computers in a wide range of body types. However, technologies just now breaking out of the lab promise to make many of these new consumer electronics obsolete, perhaps even before they are officially launched for sale.

Electronic Ink and Ebook Readers

Amazon’s Kindle made E Ink display technology popular. This year several consumer electronics companies and publishers previewed their own take on the technology. Plenty of ereaders retain the cluttered button-strewn interface of the Kindle. Others look more like Sony’s Reader, with fewer buttons and a touchscreen that allows swiping through pages. In an attempt to save the newspaper and magazine industries, ereaders are also getting bigger. The Skiff Reader measures 11.5 inches diagonal and will retain much of the complex layout of these media. Plastic Logic will market the Que for business use, where PDFs and other documents can be stored and displayed on a large electronic ink display. The Que is also the first device that places the electronic ink technology on plastic, rather than on glass. This should make the device more resistant to accidental damage and it marks the beginning of an era in flexible and bendable electronics.

All electronic ink ereaders are readable in direct sunlight due to the reflective nature of the electronic ink and high pixels-per-inch values. They can run on a single charge for days and the best can access cellular networks to make purchasing a new ebook easy. However, electronic ink is limited to a few shades of gray between black and white, and the refresh rate is very slow. These devices are also limited in what they can display. To address some of these issues, ereaders like Barnes & Noble’s Nook add a second display. This small color LCD panel is placed below the electronic ink display. The second display allows for a more vibrant and faster interface for ebook browsing, though the ebook text itself remains confined to the top display. Spring Design’s Alex reader adds the Android operating system for web browsing and running apps on the 3.5″ LCD. Battery life depends on how the reader is used; relying more on the LCD will require a recharge after only several hours. New ereaders like the enTourage eDGe go so far as to pair an electronic ink screen by a hinge to a full-sized LCD. The LCD side features tablet-like capabilities. As expected, such devices are bulky and battery life is measured in hours.

The ultimate ereader, of course, is one that offers readability, full color, video, and multimedia with battery life measured in days. Tablets (sometimes referred to as “slate PCs” at CES 2010) can offer some of these features but to date remain too bulky and battery draining. A combination of the upgraded Tegra platform from Nvidia with the display made by Pixel Qi appears to fair much better. Pixel Qi provides a 10.5-inch screen that combines the best of LCD technology with the best of electronic ink, all in one display. The display switches between modes automatically or manually depending on how it is being used, resulting in unheard of battery life for such a device. By making use of existing LCD production processes, the new displays are expected to be affordable almost immediately.

Qualcomm took a different approach with Mirasol. Mirasol is a grid of microelectromechanical system (MEMS) devices that reflect red, green, and blue light. When a voltage is applied, the two plates in an individual MEMS device are pulled together to produce black. By manipulating the state of these MEMS devices, other colors can be created. This activity is fast enough to support video. The result is a full-color and high resolution display that uses less power than electronic ink. There is only one mode and all use cases between reading and watching movies are supported. In footage filmed by the Engadget technology blog of a tablet using Mirasol at CES, the display had a yellow tint and was somewhat less vibrant than LCD. However, the technology at this early stage already offers a compelling number of capabilities future consumer electronics are expected to include.

Confined to ereaders, electronic ink may turn out to be a short-lived technology as future tablets with first generation technologies likes those from Pixel Qi and Qualcomm combine a variety of features together into one device. This convergence of comfortable and portable reading, browsing, watching, gaming, communicating, and other activities is already a hallmark of smartphones and is expected to make its way into larger and more powerful devices. Based on what was shown at CES, by the end of 2010 tablets with cutting-edge display and interface technologies may have replaced dedicated ereaders completely.

3-D HDTVs

3-D arrived in a big way at CES 2010. Along with all the new 3-D compatible high definition televisions on display and set for release in the coming months, DirecTV announced they would soon have three dedicated 3-D channels and Sony, Discovery Communications, and IMAX announced a joint effort to create a new 3-D network. Meanwhile, studios are beginning to announce their first 3-D Blu-ray titles and the phenomenal success of “Avatar” suggests this activity will only accelerate. Coming at a time when consumers are more quickly replacing their standard definition televisions with high definition LCD and plasma televisions, 3-D might have arrived at exactly the right time.

Although audiences are obviously enamored with 3-D at the movie theater, some commentators look to gaming as the killer application for the format. In “Avatar”, the flora and fauna pop out of the movie screen, but the audience has no way of lingering or setting off to explore the world at their own pace and in their own direction. Games are not necessarily limited to the linear storytelling and director’s perspective of movies. Players can move to look behind 3-D objects, which is a much more immersive experience.

One limitation of current 3-D technology, whether it is in games or movies, is the need for consumers to wear special glasses. It is unclear how consumers will take to this requirement. Will they experience initial excitement before relegating the glasses to a drawer? Will they adapt and begin to demand all video content in 3-D? Depending on how long it takes for this to become clear, a variety of other technologies may begin to transform televisions in coming years. For example, glasses-free solutions were demonstrated at CES 2010 but are still too expensive for widespread adoption.

Another trends will be increasing resolution from the current top 1080p standard. Video in this format is generally 1920 by 1080 pixels. Some theaters are already displaying movies in 2K resolution, which is about four times the resolution of 1080p. Meanwhile, filmmakers are beginning to shoot their movies in 4K resolution. 8K resolution has been demonstrated in Japan. How soon these resolutions will make their way into consumer electronics is unclear, but we can expect another digital television transition at some point in the coming decade.

Perhaps more compelling in the long-term, holographic video may leapfrog over the limitations of 3-D. Holographic video builds three-dimensional objects in a real space, allowing the viewer to walk around and interact with the objects.

This technology would require new cameras and filmmaking techniques, or it could be emulated much more quickly by increasingly powerful computers. Imagine a movie shot in 2-D and then fed into powerful computers that can recreate the 3-D aspect of any object in the scene. The limited perspective of 3-D movies would be overcome overnight.

Finally, the direct input of data into a person’s nervous system may make all display technologies obsolete. These data might be represented in three-dimensional space almost immediately, as consumers begin making their way through blended virtual and real reality. Intel expects to begin offering brain-machine interface technology to consumers around 2020 and the Singularity University and X Prize organizations are planning a prize to spur further research into the technology. If this technology arrives as soon as that, 3-D televisions may not be around all that long.

Computers

The computer as we know it today is rapidly changing. Desktops and laptops are giving way to cheaper netbooks, consoles, and HDTV’s with wireless and web-enabled apps, while smartphones and upcoming tablet computers explore multimodal interfaces that will soon relegate keyboards and mice to the museum. At CES, a plethora of netbooks and tablets were on display, adding more capabilities with a new generation of power-miserly microprocessors. Touch and multitouch interfaces were evident, and gesture recognition is coming to the XBox 360 this holiday.

Haptics, voice, gesture, emotion, touch, and other interfaces are coming together to allow consumers to interact with data in new ways. In addition to potentially replacing ebook readers in the coming year, tablets could also make desktops and laptops obsolete. Before brain-machine interfaces become available, tablets will have already started blending the real and virtual. They will become “windows” into virtual realm where data is displayed in increasingly sophisticated ways. At CES, the iPhone became both the control for a real toy helicopter – the Parrot AR.Drone – and a window to a world where that toy shot down virtual enemies.

Consumer electronics companies must contend with accelerating progress in science and technology that sometimes brings change even before they can release their devices to consumers. This decade will bring a change in the very materials used by electronic components. Consumer electronics will soon be flexible, bendable, transparent, and impossibly thin, well below the quarter inch that seemed to be hot at this year’s CES. Just like the majority of companies releasing ereaders this year, or those tepidly dipping their toes into new tablets, companies that simply jump on the latest technology bandwagon will find their products failing in the marketplace. Companies that press forward and try to redefine entire classes of consumer electronics may stumble across the right convergence of technologies that resonate with consumers at exactly the right time.

Buck Rogers, Frontier Guard Among Promising New Web Series in 2010

With a host of promising new productions, independent online filmmakers are leaving fan films behind for long-form projects based on original or licensed content. Hoping to duplicate some of the success of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, these new web series will experiment with a variety of business models on a variety of web-based video platforms in the coming months. 2010 just might turn out to be the year of the independent web series.

For years online fan films, most notably those based on Star Trek, have been tolerated by rights holders but prohibited from making money. Whether by amateurs or professionals within the filmmaking and television, these efforts have resulted in content of variable quality. Star Trek: Hidden Frontier was a fan series set after the canon events of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager, making extensive use of green screens to place amateur and professional actors within computer-generated scenery. Two sequel series were produced and crossovers between these and other Star Trek fan series occurred. The even more ambitious Star Trek: New Voyages – later renamed Phase 2 after Gene Roddenberry’s proposed 1970’s continuation of the original Star Trek series – brought amateurs together with professionals who had actually worked behind the scenes on some of the official Star Trek series. Sets were built and used, scripts were written by writers known for their canon work, and even some of the original series actors including Walter Koenig and George Takei guest-starred.

No matter how successful these fan series have become, they can only ever be labors-of-love; their production values are limited to the time, labor, and capital donated to them. They proceed as dictated by the schedule of participants who otherwise work day jobs. As a result, episodes are infrequent, merchandising is non-existent, and marketing depends on word-of-mouth and limited press coverage.

Web series based on original content do not face the same limitations, but until recently there have been few of them. Notable web series like Red vs. Blue offered high quality subscription downloads and DVDs for sale, while Xombie followed up its online debut with DVD releases, comics, and even a potential movie deal. Other web series like Ninjai: The Little Ninja and KarmaKula boasted outstanding production values but to date have been unable to transition to a business model that would ensure their continuation. This is not to say that every independent online filmmaker is seeking monetary returns from their efforts. Web series provide an opportunity to practice filmmaking, get exposure, and express creativity. Such web series tend to come and go quickly, often leaving behind only a tantalizing glimpse of what they could have been.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog may have changed all of this. Written by Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen during the Writers Guild of America strike of 2007 and 2008, this independent production found unprecedented success on the web. The series was released online for free for a limited time followed by paid digital downloads on iTunes and advertising-supported streaming on Hulu.com. While the people involved were all more or less Hollywood insiders, the incredible success of “Dr. Horrible” irrevocably turned mainstream attention to the web as a media distribution platform.

Another success has been Sanctuary. This show began as a pay-per-download web series only to be picked up by Syfy as a regular cable television series. Meanwhile, The Guild web series, featuring Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog alumnus Felicia Day, is now in its third season. The series enjoyed increased attention after a music video featuring its characters went viral:

The song single and video topped the charts on iTunes and Amazon. The series is also available for purchase on DVD.

A number of factors indicate that we are entering a golden age of independent content increasingly based on original or fully licensed material and distributed online:

  • the advent of the affordable Red One camera and the falling cost of filmmaking
  • YouTube and video distribution web services supporting 1080p high definition video
  • maturing web distribution options for video
  • diversifying business models
  • the number of recent web series successes

Will this content compete with mainstream television and movies? This will become more clear during 2010 as the latest web series arrive and seek out new audiences. Below are some of the projects that have been announced or entered production. The success of any one of them could lead to even more activity using the web as a central distribution and marketing tool.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d04CSCmeBjk%5B/youtube%5DHermit of the Mountain, LLC – Venus Rises promotional wallpaper – Mars Warship”]Venus Rises makes use of sets, on-location filming, and computer graphics to tell the story of class struggles between humans living on Venus and Mars after the Earth becomes inhospitable. A promising prequel episode was followed by the pilot episode in October 2009. More streaming episodes supported by ads are expected in 2010.

Riese production still
Riese production still

Riese began airing on YouTube on November 1, 2009. The web series follows the adventures of a warrior and her wolf in a steampunk fantasy realm. Riese is available in high definition and is notable for its exceptional production value and being filmed using the Red One camera system. Four episodes were released in 2009 and more are planned for 2010. The teaser trailer is below:

January 03, 2010 screenshot of Buck Rogers Begins website
January 03, 2010 screenshot of Buck Rogers Begins website

James Cawley is the principal behind the Star Trek: Phase 2 fan series. His production companies Cawley Entertainment Company and Retro Film Studios, LLC announced on January 12, 2009 that they had secured the rights to the Buck Rogers franchise. The web series will be based on the original Buck Rogers comic strip and will be unlike any of the series or movies previously based on the character. Bobby Quinn Rice will star as Buck Rogers and Gil Gerard and Erin Gray from the 1979-1981 Buck Rogers in the 25th Century television series will play Buck’s parents. A teaser trailer was released on November 30, 2009 on YouTube:

Principal photography began in September 2009. Production is expected to take about a year, with the series expected to launch in September 2010. With secured rights, the production companies behind the new Buck Rogers web series can consider a variety of business models, such as paid video downloads, ad-supported video streaming, and DVD releases.

Ten Years of Frontier Channel

[Commentary]

Here on Frontier Channel my beats tend toward planetary science, digital media, and life extension. By following digital media and other trends closely over the past decade I have learned a lot about prediction, commentary, futurism, and news reporting as it relates to emerging technologies. For example, it is clear now that specific news related to specific companies regarding their particular products only highlight present expectations. Trend tracking only becomes possible with news and statistics related to several companies and their products across multiple industries over time.

You would think this is obvious. However, in 2000 I was writing about specific companies developing hydrogen fuel cells, a technology that was expected to revolutionize energy creation, storage, and distribution over the rest of the decade. I was also writing about Media Fusion, a company that planned to “pass data over powerlines at speeds in excess of 2.5 GB/sec.” The clincher? I was saying the following about the AOL and Time Warner merger announced on January 10, 2000:

“Wow. Merge a content provider with a content delivery company and you have incredible potential. Definitely a sign of things to come.”

Yikes. Now, I do not claim to be a professional reporter or futurist, but it is sad to look back and realize that I could scarcely even be called a amateur of either back then. As it was, I took everything on faith, oblivious to how technology really progresses (fuel cells), fraud (Media Fusion), and how often companies make the wrong choices (AOL and Time Warner.)

Ten years after starting what would become Frontier Channel, the same enthusiasm for science and technology has not left me, but it is tempered by experience and good lessons learned. I more clearly separate my commentary from my news reporting. My predications are based more on reason than on enthusiasm, and I give them the level of emphasis they deserve: not much. I look toward scenario-building and other tools of the futurist trade to guide me through my exploration of the future. I am also much less interested in the far future; the near-term and its impact on me, my family and friends, and humanity as a whole are much more pertinent.

This is not to say that I think prediction and other commentary about technology trends are useless. For one thing, prediction is fun as hell! Bad predictions only make me want to make better predictions. As for commentary? I could not keep my mouth shut if I tried. Writing is expression, and express myself I must, in commentary, news reporting, tweets, research papers, fiction, etc. I have found more clarity through writing than in any other activity.

Predictions and commentary also fix thoughts in time, providing a repository online of what I was thinking at a particular time and how it related to everything else that was going on then. Like leaving breadcrumbs along an unfamiliar path, I can retrace that path in hopes of gaining greater wisdom and insight. Along the path from 2000 to 2010 I have learned that technological progress does not follow one technology to the next. Instead new technologies arise like plants out of a soil that is constantly being enriched. For example, the arrival of the iPhone, my absolute favorite technology of the entire last decade, cannot be explained by the strict evolution of media players and cellphones over several years. A better model is one that looks at a host of technologies in a holistic way and when they will support something like an iPhone. The iPhone arrived when the technological substrate upon which it was build could support it. That is, interface technology, memory, software development, cellular and wireless standards, and other technologies all had to reach a particular level of cost and availability before the iPhone could be created.

From this realization, I learned to focus on the “background” of technology development rather than the “foreground”. What the technology blogs focus on are technologies as they are released; this is the exciting and flashy foreground stuff. Much more interesting is the technological substrate that makes these foreground technologies possible. By paying attention to the technological substrate, I argue that it becomes easier to predict when certain future technologies will arrive. Let’s take that common cynical observation about us living in the future but not yet having flying cars. We do not have flying cars because the technological substrate cannot support them. For one thing, keeping track of vehicles in 3-D is a difficult problem. For another, fuel requirements remain high for flying vehicles. When will we have flying cars? When these and other problems are solved, by technologies that will serve as a foundation upon which flying cars can be built.

In August 2004 I was predicting a coming convergence of technologies that would allow my dream eBook Reader to be available to consumers:

“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.”

I did not have everything about this dream ebook reader correct; in fact, the product turned out not to be an ebook reader at all. It was the iPhone and many of the capabilities I was looking for came in the form of apps.While the Kindle and other current ebook readers resemble in many ways what I was predicting would arrive by the end of the decade, the iPhone turned out better than what I wanted. Today the iPhone is an unrivaled platform, supporting augmented reality, gaming, content creation, and other activities in a single device I could not have imagined back in 2004. All of this became possible, however, because a host of other technologies provided the appropriate foundation to support the iPhone, Kindle, and other similar devices. In fact, that infrastructure is still improving, leading quite probably to multimodal tablets that will lead consumers away from desktops, laptops, and netbooks over the next decade.

There were other lessons to be learned while writing for Frontier Channel. A specific prediction of a capability, such “a display resolution of at least 300 dots per square inch”, may turn out not to be necessary at all. Another: surprises do happen. This makes predication more difficult, but it also makes the future, when it arrives, more exciting. I also learned that studying technology trends can serve to improve your own personal financial situation. For example, I skipped over the entire era of cellphones from 2000 to 2007 that began including features like cameras and music playing. I stuck with a simple pre-paid phone with few features for years because technology trends indicated what I really wanted would be arriving later in the decade. By listing what I want in technology and paying attention to technology trends, I have learned to budget my money to make purchases at just the right time. This has led to incredibly satisfying, personal, and exciting purchases of products that I greatly appreciate and adore. The iPhone is my best example of this methodology, as is the desktop computer I just built.

This methodology also strongly suggests that this will probably be the last desktop computer that I will ever own, that the 2010s will see the peak of consumer electronics before an inevitable and spectacular crash around 2018, and that the Metaverse awaits humanity in the 2020s. Yes, this is a glimpse of my new predictions for the coming decade. Unlike the predictions I began making back at the beginning of Frontier Channel, these predictions are based on the lessons I have learned, analysis of technology trends based on years of compiled statistics, and attention to how these technologies progress, rather than handwaving. Yet it is likely that these predications are only incrementally better, if at all, then my previous predictions. Knowing the limitations of predictions may also make for better predictions.

The best part of owning a website like Frontier Channel is recording my thoughts in public, and being held to them. I look forward to another decade of writing and the discourse that results. I want to thank the readers who have followed along any time over the past ten years, especially those who have left insightful, informative, and interesting comments. I also want to thank the guest writers that helped tell the exciting story of emerging technologies. Here is to ten more years of news and commentary about the Great Frontiers of cyberspace, outer space, the ocean, and destinations in between!