LAS VEGAS -- It's easy to figure out what's hot now, or will be in the next six months. What's harder is to figure out where consumer electronics products are going 10 years from now. Robots anyone?
In a panel here at the 2012 International CES (formerly the Consumer Electronics Show), pundits and tech visionaries shared ideas of where marketable consumer technology could be in five to 10 years. The ideas included flexible, ultra-thin display screens, programmable domestic robots, and a world rife with connected sensors.
The idea of the connected "Internet of Things," whereby home appliances and mobile devices are connected and exchanging information is not a new one. But the panel pressed on to debate when the vision, which has been marketed by the technology industry, will actually come true.
Robert Stephens, chief technology officer of Best Buy (NYSE: BBY), said networked sensors are already making their way into the home, through the hands of hackers "having too many beers and screwing around on Friday night." The hackers are taking simple devices such as smartphones and programming them as networked sensors.
Stephens, as well as Henry Holtzman, "chief knowledge officer" at the MIT Media Lab, said it is not farfetched to have simple, wirelessly connected sensor devices that can be programmed to do simple things like tell us when the laundry is done.
Holtzman said a more interesting aspect of sensors is the way they can be used to evaluate social scenarios, such as the son or daughter who would use them to monitor the activity of an elderly parent alone in a home. Stephens has conducted such research projects. "In the project we built, we instrumented the entire kitchen to recognize traffic patterns which could detect a healthy person vs. a sick one."
Robots are another story.
Both Stephens and Brian David Johnson, Futurist at
Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), believe that domestic robots will arrive in the coming years, in at least software form before mobile hardware robots also become available. Stephens would like an online communication robot that can take virtual automated meetings. "That way I can have 16 meetings at once," he curiously hopes.
"I think of robots as laptops that can move themselves," said Johnson. "That's incredibly important. We're almost at the point where a robot could cost as much as a laptop, and we have the computational power [to do that]."
Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc., was the skeptic in the crowd. He said the sci-fi vision of domestic robots will need to address specific functions in order to attract consumers. "For something to be accepted by the consumer there has to be a specific need. For example, a robot tied to a medical need is understandable. But what you're talking about here.. robots filling in for other things is a little nebulous."
Holtzman also pointed out that the big problem with early robots are mechanical problems. "The mechanics are really tough. They require mechanics to fix them... People won't want to fix the robots every [few] weeks."
If robots are going to take a little longer to work out, the panelists had plenty of ideas of things that may have more commercial value in five to 10 years. Here are some items the panelists saw as hot -- or potentially hot -- in the coming years:
- Flexible display technology. Bajarin believes that with display screens becoming pervasive in all devices and now becoming a common interface, with the expansion of tablet computing, the industry will eventually produced "flexible" and ultra-thin screens that could unfurl from containers or be deployed in a variety of fashions.
- Environmental interactivity. Holtzman: "I'd like to make the whole world digital. I'd like the whole environment to interact with me. My hope is that at some level mobile devices will go away. The important of digital information is interactivity."
- New materials. "When the devices become flexible is interesting," said Intel's Johnson. "There's really interesting work where they are starting to put LED in contact lenses. The I/O is so close to your body you don't have to carry things around. It's about materials. The mobile device materials we've been using have been around 15 years."
- Pico projectors. Stephens: "I'm looking forward to pico projectors." Pico projectors are tiny sensors or displays that can be attached to your body (or, for example, in a contact lens) and used to transmit information about your environment. This is also referred to as "Augmented Reality," and MIT has conducted experiments with Pico projectors, which you can read about and see in a video here.
Clearly, one big idea coming out of this panel is that if you think you've already bought every electronic device you possibly could, there are more coming your way.