The most impressive advances in my opinion have been:
- The precision of the touch screens. We have had touch screens on phones for many years. I used to use my Palm with my finger when I couldn't be bothered to get out the stylus. The difference in the last few years has been the ability to track finger movement with high precision and in real time.
- The software. With my Palm of five years ago, there were some things I could do that I still can't do on my iPhone, but the overall experience of the latest generation of mobile OS's has been extraordinary
- The integrated hardware: Bringing together a GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, two cameras, digital signal processing, wifi with the ability to serve as a base station, bluetooth, high resolution screen and high speed CPU have provided incredible synergies and opportunities for software writers.
Lots of pundits are discussing what the iPhone 5 will bring to the iOS platform. However I am interested in predicting what will be integrated into mobile phones in five or ten years from now. Below are some of my predictions. Note that I am not mentioning very near-term capabilities like near-field communication (e.g. for payments) that we pretty-much know are coming.
1. Chemical sensors: There has been a lot of recent development towards small devices that can detect minute amounts of chemicals in the air. Devices that plug into the iPhone are already available (or see here and here). My guess is that we will see these integrated into all high-end smartphones in 10 years, if not 5. Furthermore, I predict that they will have capabilities as good as a dog's before too long. Imagine the possibilities;
- Smelling to detect dangerous chemicals in the environment and warning you and others.
- Instant personal breathalyzer: Probably a few lives saved.
- Diagnosis of diseases. Medical practitioners will be able to make hugely beneficial use of this, but so will ordinary people. Your phone could alert you about what kind of sickness you have, by analyzing your breath. Or it could warn you to stay away from others who might be contagious.
- Telling you if food is bad
- Recognizing flowers, perfumes and even people and animals by smell.
- Telling you the humidity level
2. Pressure sensor / altimeter. These have been available on discrete GPS units for some years. Inevitably they will find their way into iOS and Android phones. They will be useful for navigation (GPS signals are much less accurate in the vertical dimension) but also warning of weather changes.
10 year-probability? 90%
3. Laser: This can be used as a pointing device, but it could have many more useful applications. It can be used to accurately measure distances (such devices are already carried around by real-estate agents to measure rooms). And as this article shows, it can also be used to add to the power of the chemical sensor I discussed above. It could also be used to aid in image stabilization in the camera.
10 year-probability? 75%
4. Broadcast Radio Reception, both FM and digital. It is a waste of bandwidth to send duplicate streams to everyone who wants to watch live events when there are broadcast signals available. Some iPods already have FM radio; I would love this capability since I always feel a little guilty listening to CBC radio over the Internet (in terms of bandwidth) when there is a perfectly good over-the-air signal. In countries where there is a transition to digital radio, such as the UK, I think the devices will be able to receive such signals too, and perhaps even digital shortwave.
10 year-probability? 100%
5. Broadcast TV Reception: This naturally follows from the last point. This might be the saviour of broadcast TV. Once the tuner is in the phone, it can become a PVR as well. I think mobile TV will first appear on devices, but I also think they will be able to receive regular broadcast TV.
10 year-probability? 99%
6. Highly accurate voice-to-text and voice recognition. Voice-to-text on the iPhone is dreadful. My phone often tries to dial the wrong number. However inevitably this will improve, I think the ability for the phone to detect who is speaking (on the phone and its user) will also be integral, This gives rise to lots of security benefits: You could tell the phone to not respond or to send some form of alarm when an unrecognized user tries to use it.
10 year-accuracy? 98% correct text-to-speech.
7. Integration with cordless phones in the home. When I walk into my house, my phone should be able to connect to my landline as a cordless phone. Although many people are getting rid of landlines, they are still very beneficial from the perspective of avoiding the need for ever larger numbers of cell towers. They also provide a natural in-home conferencing ability. I think a future generation of DECT will be found on mobile phones, and when you buy a base station, you will either buy a few smartphones along with it as your remotes, or else just not bother and use your existing smartphones.
10 year-probability? 90%
8. A camera as good as any of today's mid-range SLRs: The advantages SLRs will retain are interchangeable lenses, a viewfinder, a large lens for low-light applications, and discrete controls facilitating ease of use. However, for pure available-anywhere picture-taking, phones will start to be used by professional photographers. Point-and-shoot cameras will disappear from the market.
10 year-probability? 95%
9. Integrated forbidden-action controls: A standard will be created whereby a business that wants to ban photography or an entertainment venue that wants to ban all kinds of recording as well as accidental sounds, will be able to set up a transmitter that will broadcast its requirements within the premises. Mobile devices will be programmed to obey these directives; it will be possible to scan devices upon entry to confirm to the proprietors that a device is compliant. Although there will always be people who oppose this, it will actually be good for most of us: I don't want a requirement to leave my phone at the front desk of a company, just because it has a camera. Hackers will take joy in overriding these controls, but for most people, they will make life simpler.
10 year-probability? 80%
10. Microscope / telescope: The continued ability to jam more pixels into camera sensors will lead to the ability to digitally zoom to ever greater levels. Combined with well-designed macro lenses, this could enable phones to serve both as microscopes (perhaps to 10x) and telescopes.
10 year-probability? 98%
11. Real-time facial recognition: We are seeing facial recognition rapidly invading out lives. Phones surely will be able to do it. If you forget who someone is, you could discretely point your phone at them (if you can figure out a way to do this discretely). I will have more posts about facial recognition in the near future.
10 year-probability? 99%
12. Integrated special-purpose chips specifically to boost artificial intelligence capabilities: These might be neural net chips or something similar. We have special-purpose graphics chips already, so I don't think this is too far-fetched. They could be used to boost voice-to-text, facial recognition, simultaneous translation, and many other things. I am going out on a limb on this one. Perhaps it won't be 10 years. We shall see.
10 year-probability? 50%
Check back at my blog as the years roll by to see which of these are coming true.