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I’ve seen the future of tech, and it’s flexible

In insight / By Sandra Vogel / 09 December 2016

Does anybody remember Minority Report?

It’s the movie about a police unit that can arrest criminals before they commit a crime. It deals with ‘precrime’. Lovely word. Minority Report is based on a short story by Philip K Dick – his imagination is also responsible for the likes of Blade Runner, Total Recall and the more recent The Adjustment Bureau.

Released in 2002, Minority Report is set in 2054 – far enough into the future for the viewer to allow all kinds of things to pass the intellectual ‘could that really happen?’ barrier, or simply be dropped into the ‘realms of fantasy, but I can live with it’ pot.

The idea of immersing people in a bath of viscous, clear liquid so they can foresee murders falls into the realms of the latter, for example.

Anyway, the key point I have about Minority Report is the way, all the way back in in 2002, Tom Cruise stood in front of huge screens and prodded, grabbed, swished and swooped around with his hands to see and manipulate information.

If only everyday dashboard analytics was like that, eh?

When will we get to the point where thin, transparent and glasslike screens replace the still rather boring looking monitors and displays we currently use for everyday computing on laptop, desktop, tablet, phone and wearable?

When will we all be able to pretend we are Tom Cruise on a high-octane adventure while we’re paying utility bills or looking up film times?

This week? Next week? Some time? Never?

Today touchscreens are everywhere, and we can use gestures to flick apps away, zoom, twist and turn information just like Cruise.

But in 2002 everyday technology was light years away from that. Just think that the iPad, which is arguably the progenitor of today’s widespread gesture based controls in the real world, isn’t even seven years old – it was launched in January 2010.

Still, there are some developments that could bring us closer to Cruise control sooner than we might think.

Clever old Panasonic has recently launched a flexible battery that will survive twisting to a 25 degree angle. There are three working versions, and they’re all just 0.5mm thick. They’re super lightweight. The smallest is 0.7g, middle is 1.4g and, erm, heaviest is 1.9g.

Delivering a maximum capacity of 17.5mAh, 40mAh and 60mAh none of the three cells is going to power anything very hungry. Smartwatch batteries count in the low hundreds of mAh, smartphones in the low thousands of mAh.

But smart clothing, and perhaps even low powered smart devices round the home, could be likely targets.

Something in the air

How will these micro batteries be charged? Quite possibly charging will be wireless.

I don’t mean plonking your smartphone onto a plate that’s itself tethered to the mains. That’s wireless induction, and soooo old school, man.

Nor do I mean using kinetic energy. You know, wind-up torches or power generated as you walk via a gizmo in your shoes. That’s around today and has been for some years – but it’s not popular. It requires too much human effort and forethought.
Nope, I mean true wireless charging that doesn’t mind where you put your device down because it sends power quite literally through the thin air using, for example, infrared or ultrasound.

Take a quick google for uBeam and Energous. They’re two of a number of firms working on wireless charging that’ll see batteries fill, as if by magic.

Now that’s what I call a flexible future. But near future, not far horizon. There is a possibility this kind of thing could be properly in the market within ten years.

What about the screens?

So what about the chances of wearing a black polo neck and grabbing at a screen a la Tom Cruise?

Well, curved screens don’t seem to be taking off the way the likes of Samsung and others might want.

Pundits still seem to prefer flat screens for leisure viewing. And while curved screens have made a very small dent in the consumer market, they’ve made no impression at all in the world of work.

On the other hand the technology festival that is CES, held every January in Las Vegas, is always good for a look at what’ll be launching in the coming year and what’s being worked on hard enough for the top tech companies to want to show off about it as stuff that might come to market ‘some time real soon’.

This year one of the most exciting things as far as this particular line of thought is concerned was LG showing off a display that can literally be rolled up so that it takes the form of a tube. Only 18 inches across the display is 1mm thick and colour OLED.

Imagine downloading your personalised daily multimedia newspaper onto that while you’re in the shower.

It’ll use wireless data transfer and get its battery filled through the air too, so it won’t matter where you left it the day before. You’ll be able to catch up on the news, sports clips, movie trailers, and whatever else you want while you’re having breakfast.

Do you remember the moving images in the Daily Prophet (Harry Potter’s daily rag)? They’re coming to the muggles.

With the next CES coming in January 2017, I’m sure there will be plenty more revelations to edge us towards a smaller, lighter, more wire-free, more flexible future.

Everything takes time, but I’m willing to bet that in a few years at least some of what it takes to make like Cruise in Minority Effect will be affordable for all of us.

Now, anyone can take the first step right now and buy a black polo neck sweater. But I’ll pass, if it’s all the same. That’s an acquired taste.

Sandra Vogel

Sandra Vogel

Sandra has been writing about technology for a living for more than twenty years. In her spare time she plays sax (badly), and explores canals with an inflatable kayak called Sunny.

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