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Tomorrow's Gadgets

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Matt Swanston and Sean Wargo
Consumer Electronics Association
Thursday, June 22, 2006; 11:00 AM

Matt Swanston , director of business analysis, and Sean Wargo , director of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association were online Thursday, June 22 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the future of personal technology.

What kinds of gadgets and gizmos will make our daily lives easier? Will more devices be robotic?

A transcript follows .

About this series: Beyond the Future is a weeklong series of live Web chats with noted experts and Washington Post reporters examining the kinds of technological advancements the world could see in 20, 50 or even 100 years. Related news on the subject can be found on the Science and Tech Frontier pages of washingtonpost.com.

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Sean Wargo: Welcome all. Pleasure to be here today. Matt and I are ready to take your questions about anything that comes to mind relating to the potential future of consumer electronics. So be thinking about what features or attributes you would like the TV, PC, cell phone, household robotic servant, audio device, or game console of the future to have and fire away. We'll do our best to extrapolate out the possibilities with you.

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Washington, D.C.: The speed of new gadgets, especially cell phones, hitting the market today is incredible. I think cell phone manufacturers hope that people turn over phones every 6 months. The question that I have is based on what I've seen, all these new gadgets really don't matter much. They don't serve that much more of a useful purpose compared to what we had 6 months ago. These gadgets just make people's lives that much more complicated, rather than efficient (i.e. crackberry).

Matt Swanston: I am not sure I agree. Being unable to get your email while standing in line at the grocery doesn't stop it accumulating in your in box. I would argue that it is the senders, not the device you use to reply, that make one's life more complicated.

Sean Wargo: The hope of new gadget innovation as well is that we on net improve the user experience with each iteration. You could argue that certainly more features get built in at each stage. The challenge for us is this means more we have to learn how to use. But the value is often clear, such as having the ability to now access e-mail on the go. At each stage though we have the choice of what we adopt and use. Fortunately, for those of us wanting to keep it simple, stripped down options usually are available as well.

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London U.K.: How long before we can have a gadget that can do simultaneous vocal tranlation into any chosen language when we speak into it?

Sean Wargo: UK -- Did you catch the article in the latest Economist about the babelfish technology? They had a great summary in there about how close (or far) we are away from this. My understanding is much of the underlying technology is ready, it is a matter of improving it to where it responds to the structure of the language rather than just comparing phrases to a stored dictionary. My guess is the true universal translator is still about 10 years off. Thank goodness for increased computing power in smaller packages to help this along.

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Fort Worth, Texas: Do you expect cell phones and PDAs with GPS to be integrated into our bodies so we can access them without carrying them around?

Sean Wargo: This is a favorite topic of Matt's. I believe he will be the first in line to get the chip implant allowing us to essentially access our data on the fly. Seriously though you can imagine there will be some concerns over privacy and such that we will need to get through first, but the first true 'embedded techs' are coming out now. Witness the chipset you can implant in your finger that will allow you to sense electro-magnetic fields.

Matt Swanston: Before I can get my cybernetic implants, the fields of prosthetics, neurology and robotics will have to help those who are disabled in some way. Better prosthetic limbs, synthetic nerves and artificial organs will (and should) come first!

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Fort Worth, Texas: Do you expect individual air vehicles will whisk you around at 300 mph anywhere you want to go by 2050?

Matt Swanston: I can't imagine. So many technologies need to be addressed first. What would power these craft and how would we keep them from creating horrific crashes? And where is everyone going anyway? Wouldn't it make more sense to have everyone work from home? Broadband lets the virtual you travel around at the speed of light!

Sean Wargo: However, I would add that airplane style vehicles are certainly in development. The challenge is traffic management. Just imagine the LA rush-hour in the air. Probably further out than 2050.

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Reston, Va.: Will robotics move beyond the robot vacuum cleaners to doing general housework such as putting dishes away, stacking laundry, etc.

Matt Swanston: Yes, as long as we give up the notion that such a robot has to look and walk like a person. The issue here is that humans have become unwilling to adapt our homes to allow an inexpensive robot to do anything but vacuum. For example, if dishwasher racks fit inside our kitchen cabinets, the dishwasher could but the dishes away easily.

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North Bethesda, Md.: My brother was a senior person with AT&T and I like to ask him when we will have a cell phone with all voice controls. He said they have spent a lot of money but the outside noises have been the biggest problem. I think a voice controled cell phone could lead to a voice controled computer and do away with the keyboard and its bulk. What do you think? Is that a big step?

Also we need a decent battery to power a car for 600+ miles on a charge and weigh a hundred pounds or less. That would give us a step ahead.

Sean Wargo: I'm definitely a big fan of the voice controlled interface idea. Afterall this is among the most intuitive ways to get things done. The hurdle thus far has been the native computing power of the devices. Now with that eroding away, we can improve upon speech recognition and the devices ability to act. Similar to the universal translator this exists in parts now, such as the voice-activated contact list on a cell phone. Over the next 5 years we expect to see that show up in many more devices. Perhaps Windows 2010 will have it integrated...?

Sean Wargo: PS. Better batteries are a must too. We are seeing good advancements in fuel cells that will likely solve many of the power needs of both cars and our CE products. Will it meet your requirements anytime soon, not sure, but it will double your iPods duration within the year.

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Waitesfield, Vt.: As home networks and broadband connections proliferate, when can we expect to see more connected white goods (i.e. refrigerators, dish washers, etc.) that will facilitate greater command, control, and communication with these appliances?

Matt Swanston: A number of appliance companies have tried and continue to explore the prospect of connected appliances. The issue appears to be that most appliances don't have anything intelligent to say on the home network yet. When appliances can do more, i.e. go from fridge to microwave, etc. there will be much more reason for them to be connected.

Sean Wargo: The underlying idea here is more devices connected to the home intra and extra-nets sharing their information. Thus we are starting to see appliances get linked up. Using RFID tagging, for example, your refrigerator will soon share information about its contents with your PC and other devices. This could allow for automatic replenishment or at least a system for ordering groceries more efficiently. These ideas are only about 2 years or less away and are a part of a greater emerging picture of home connectivity that already involves the sharing of an Internet connection, music, files, and printers in the home as well as networked gaming.

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Vienna, Va.: Going back to the first question a little, most technology these days (cell phones, PDAs, game consoles) are just improving upon a theme. Do you see any new technology in the next few years that would truly change our lives such as going from no cell phones to cell phones or no Internet to many people having broadband? Maybe some kind of a paradigm shift?

Matt Swanston: Municipal WiFi access will go a long way in this regard because all your mobile devices would have access to content worldwide. The content could take the form of phone conversations, email, video and some other things we haven't even thought of yet. Also, a faster digital standard for transmitting audio and video over short distances will help too. The next generation of Bluetooth might do it but the dream is to have all your small devices interconnected wirelessly so you don't have to wear one do it all device.

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Arlington, Va.: Why do manufactures seem to be making things that break down quickly? The lifetime of a cell phone seems to be getting shorter and shorter, and that's just one of many things that this seems to be happening. Is this only going to get worse?

Matt Swanston: We find the opposite to be true. Most CE products are replaced long before they die. People want to upgrade more often than they need to because CE companies continue to provide new "can't live without" features at an excellent price point. I couldn't wait for my last TV to die so I could go HD!

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Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: What is your opinion on the Blu-Ray Vs HD-DVD format wars. Why not just make a player that plays both technologies?

And also, with the Holographic Discs on the way (or already here in test phases if I understand correctly) that hold 300 GB each - do you think the new technology can come out quick enough to make the blu-ray/HD-DVD war a moot point?

Thanks

Sean Wargo: I knew we couldn't go too far without the HD-DVD/ Blu-ray question. The choice as it stands now is certainly a difficult one, since both camps have a good line up of studios behind them. The good news for many is that certainly universal players are being discussed, though not guaranteed. For now, which to buy depends on the content you want to view and your price point.

As far as a next step technology, the real next opportunity seems to be with using no physical media at all and instead going the route of downloadable content. Think iTunes for movies and video content. Already we are seeing some of this in place and the momentum is building. For at least the next 10 years or so though, many of us will prefer to own a physical copy, which either of the new high-defintion DVD formats will provide.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you tell us about any exciting new applications for Bluetooth technology?

Matt Swanston: The next version of Bluetooth is said to be fast and robust enough to transport video and high quality audio. This could solve a lot of problems and might lead to devices that provide services on your personal network from under your car seat or in your briefcase. How cool would it be to answer your cell phone from your wrist watch for example.

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Chicago, Ill.: What do you think the future holds when it comes to DRM? Obviously there is a lot of fighting going on with viral clips spreading on the Internet as well as music that is so protected it can't be played on your CD player. I think there needs to be a reworking of formats, but do you think things will get more or less stringent?

Sean Wargo: I have to say this is one of our greatest concerns over here at CEA. While digital modes of distribution create great benefits to the consumer in terms of portability and usability, they also hold the potential for draconian protection schemes requiring you to pay every time you listen to or watch them. Thus it appears we will be playing cat and mouse about this for a long time to come. The content community will continue to sue its customers and ratchet up the protection to limit what we would consider to be fair usage of the content. No one thinks allowing customer to re-distribute content over the web should be legal, but making a back-up of a CD or DVD on your PC? Definitely. The same goes for time-shifting content for later listening of viewing. Both of these uses are at risk right now. The answer sounds cliche, but its true -- write your congressman or senator.

Matt Swanston: I agree with Sean. The importance of this issue can't be overstated and our industry will live or die based on how it turns out. CEA argued the case in the Supreme Court that resulted in consumers having the right to own a VCR with a record button on it. But some would say we have been losing ground since. Personally, I wonder what rights you as a consumer have to the content you purchase. Right now, none of your rights are guaranteed.

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Reston, Va.: Now that a system has been created that enables quadriplegics to "operate" computers to which they're attached by changing among alpha, beta, and theta states, do you envision a time when nerves can be simulated artificially in such a way as to restore mobility?

Matt Swanston: Yes, and it can't happen soon enough!

Sean Wargo: Or perhaps even a technology allowing nerves to be repaired -- this is also out there being explored. A little out of our field but certainly a worthwhile effort nonetheless. Sooner rather than later, please.

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Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: One more question - this time on Batteries and portable devices.

Companies pack SO many technologies into devices, its comical (when you take battery life into account). Why would I want a phone that plays MP3, and takes digital pictures... if after a morning of snapping pics and listening to tunes, the battery is dead by noon, when I want to call someone and make plans for lunch.

How far are we from having batteries that can power a phone, GPS, MP3 player, digital camera, Wi-Fi-enabled web surfing all in one device?

Sean Wargo: I couldn't agree more about this frustration. Fortunately there are answers. In fact, there was also a great article in the most recent Economist about this as well. Fuel cells are appearing to provide a viable solution, and in the very near term (we're talking within a year). These are said to be able to double the usage time of most portables, if only as a recharger to start.

Matt Swanston: This morning's Microbe World podcast featured a story about microbes that create hydrogen as a byproduct of digesting water and CO. Unfortunately, these microbes are much too sensitive to live in your cell phone now, but they are working on engineering something that is a bit heartier. Talk about renewable energy! "Honey, could you feed my cellphone!"

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Maryland: When is the beamer coming? (You know: "Scotty, beam me up!")

Matt Swanston: Maybe never. A friend of mine calculated that the computer required to keep track of where each atom goes would be the size of the universe itself. Even Moore's law would have trouble keeping up with that type of computer horsepower, but you never know.

However, I think we will give up traveling before that happens. Most travel is for business so if we learned to do business from wherever we are, we could start using our vehicles as they were intended as freedom machines!

Sean Wargo: All I can say is ... never say never, but certainly a long way off. Consider it another Mt. Everest engineering challenge.

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Washington, D.C.: Following up on the issue of feature creep: A few years ago I got a nice, thin PDA (Visor Edge). Of course, for the same price today I can get a much more powerful, capable PDA - but I should also be able to get one with the same features in a smaller package. But I can't! Manufacturers have only gone in one direction: same size, more power. Why?

Matt Swanston: A couple of reasons. First, we aren't getting any smaller so the devices we use can only get so small. (I am secretly afraid to walk and talk on my cell phone for fear that I might accidentally swallow it!) The other issue is you guessed it battery technology. Smaller batteries still pack less power and until that changes, there will be a limit on how small things can get. That's why you don't have a Dick Tracy video phone watch yet.

Sean Wargo: See our post on fuel cells and battery power though. The answer to more power in a smaller space is within reach. But let's not forget, we also want to have a reasonably sized screen on this device too, along with the current keyboard requirement. These 2 design challenges are also likely limiting the amount of miniturization. Perhaps in the future we will seperate the receiver from the display and use voice recognition, thereby making the individual parts smaller and easier to integrate on our person. Stay tuned.

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U Street, D.C.: Video iPod, or XM Inno? Which is a more killer gadget?

Sean Wargo: Depends on what you want to be able to do. The iPod allows you to carry video, digital images, podcasts, and music around with you. The Inno can store music files too, and provides portable access to XM's satellite radio service. Plus, you can record songs for later playback on the same device, or tag them for purchase from Napster. Samsung's Helix offers similar function as does the Sirius S50. You decide. All are great products... I own one of each type of option...

Matt Swanston: Also depends on your commute. If you drive, you can't watch video on your iPod so video won't be the killer app for you as it would be if you ride Metro. On the other hand, live content from above is a cool option to catch breaking news and unfamiliar bands. For me, podcasts are the hot ticket because I can listen to today's news but only on the subjects that interest me like CEA's SmartBrief podcast which brings you CE news each and every day! Better yet, get one of each!

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Arlington, Va.: Hello gentlemen, when can I reasonably expect a combo such as 5MP camera, 60GB mp3 player, and phone in one at the size of a Treo or smaller? Should I buy an iPod to hold me over for a while? Many thanks...

Sean Wargo: I would say, stay tuned for that combi device. These types of solutions are coming out slowly and surely now. Convergence of features and a shrinking form factor are the name of the game in our industry. Should you wait? Depends on whether you want to take your music with you now...

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Menlo Park, Calif: Hiya Matt and Sean ...

Kevin Kelly (Wired ed.) used to say, "what do computers want? A: everywhere, always connected, always on"

So, when is it going to happen and in what form? Hi res goggles? (those cell phone screens are nowhere.) Fast interfaces (voice, air key board : forget thumb typing), small size, great battery life, always with you, in your clothes, on your wrist.

Thanks, Bob

Matt Swanston: Personally, I am voting for the wrist. People are unwilling to wear odd looking gadgets in public, even if they help them be more efficient. So these devices will have to adapt to the way people currently dress. I would like for my analog watch face to turn into my Treo screen whenever my phone rings, even if it is in my pocket. But for now, just finding a pair of music headphones on which you can answer your phone is challenging enough!

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Mt. Pleasant, D.C.: I have two first generation DirecTivos (my girlfriend calls me an early adopter who doesn't upgrade).

I'm thinking that in the near future, I could replace both DirectTivos with a single Microsoft Windows Media Server on Vista, then be able to view the content stored on two TVs, one in the living room plugged to an Xbox 360 and the other TV sitting right next to the computer. Is this realistic?

Sean Wargo: It is certainly increasingly possible to use a PC to collect and manage video content. In fact, you can already do it depending on what content you want to watch. Right now that content would be coming over the web (using something like iTunes or Vongo) or off an antenna, but in the future you could imagine a solution for satellite TV. Right now that doesn't exist. We have seen a solution for cable, that would allow your PC to tap into a cable stream. You are right though, once the content is on your PC it is now available throughout your home network, whether that includes another display or an Xbox. But to hook in satellite you still need a seperate box or tuner, until the satellite companies create a PC card sat tuner.

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Detroit, Mich.: Should I buy a Blue-ray player or HD-DVD?

Matt Swanston: Yes!

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Laurel, Md.: Are we ever going to have a device or set of devices that work together in sensible ways?

I'm aggravated by the number of times I have to repeat my contact data. My "home base" for info is my home computer, and from there I update my web email account, my work email account, my Palm pilot, and I have to do my cell phone manually. But I'm often not sitting at my home computer when I get a new contact or an update, so I have to use paper reminders or email to update it later. I can't just use my cell phone to update the others, for example. Is a universal contact book possible in the future, or are things going to continue to get worse?

Matt Swanston: It looks to me like things will start to get better when more people have access to faster broadband from more locations. That way, all of this data could be stored and updated in a central location. Some of the portal sites are already offering rudimentary systems that include TiVo scheduling etc.

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Fairfax, Va.: Where do you see entertainment technology settling in between cellular phones and iPod type technology? Is it too obvious or does the phone seem to be the destination for music, information, entertainment and communication all in one?

Sean Wargo: This idea certainly has legs, but in the end, it might be hard to tell the difference between the 2. In other words is it an MP3 player with cell phone capability or a cell phone with MP3 playback. Ultimately both are just features that are combinable in many different ways and form factors. But you can still imagine a world where dedicated music players and dedicated cell phones still exist. That is the beauty of personalization.

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Washington, D.C.: I thought it was funny that you want to answer your cell phone from your wrist watch-- I don't wear a watch, and use my cell to check the time!

Matt Swanston: Exactly! I'd rather go back to the old way!

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Sean Wargo: Thanks everyone! Great questions. We look forward to doing this again in the future. And in the meantime, keep dreaming up new ideas.

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