HE telephone has come a long way since Alexander Graham Bell patented the first one in 1876, and it has more interesting places to take us yet.
First we spoke to each other on the phone. Then we sent one another text messages on our mobile phones. Now, with a product like Apple’s FaceTime, we can chat with family and friends while looking at them in full video.
Soon, with the advent of holograms, we’ll have the technology to conjure up the people so they’re right in the room with us when we talk to them, according to futurologist Ian Pearson.
“If you want to talk to your mum, you might just say, ‘Hi, mum,’ and then you would see your mother right in front of you, as if she was sitting there on a seat next to you. The head-up display can make your mum appear as if she was there in full 3D, full life-size.
“You could make yourself a cup of coffee, and you could sit and have a natter over a cup of coffee and a mince pie with her. Augmented reality would be able to do that.
“It sounds science fiction, but all of the bits that we need to do that are already in existence.
“There are no new ideas in that. We’ve been talking about that stuff for 25 years. What we’re starting to see now is prices are coming down — the memory is cheap enough, the processing is cheap enough, the communications is fast enough. This next five years is when we’re going to start seeing that fall into place.”
Mobile phones, and their successor, smartphones, have pretty much reached saturation point. Nearly everyone from aged eight to 80 in Ireland has one.
It was officially recorded that the country has more mobile phones than people a couple of years ago. According to ComReg, there were 5,432,182 mobile phones registered for use at the end of March 2013, which compared to a population registered on census night of 4,588,252 in April 2011.
The little “computers in our pockets” have become an integral part of our existence.
According to The Economist magazine, 80% of smartphone users check their device within 15 minutes of waking up for news services or messages. About 10% admit to using it during sex. A condition known as “nomophobia” has been coined to describe the panic that sets in when you momentarily can’t find your smartphone. Yet they’re destined to colonise even more of our activity.
“If we think that smartphones are a massive part of our lives already, they’re going to become even more so,” says Stephen Conmy, the editor of Think Business and a founder of The Appys, an awards programme for app development.
“Everything is going to be accessible through these devices in the future. The smartphone will become a de facto tool for business, living, entertainment, socialising. You’re going to be able to do all your banking through it, to apply for loans through it, get medical check-ups, monitor your health.
“If you look at your media consumption, there are apps that can feed you stories based on your interests.
“The same applies for entertainment. It’s going to be able to collect data about you as a person, which will be fed back so it’s actionable and can improve your life.”
Conmy cites the example of geo-targeting, which has been around for a while but hasn’t reached its potential.
“Essentially what it means,” he says, “is that you’d be able to point your phone at anything — whether it’s a building, a business or an individual — and collect a huge amount of data.
“The phone, in turn, will be able to feed you information from, say, retailers that you have allowed to prompt you messages.
“This is all about permissions as well. Some users will happily give away all their data about where they are and their preferences so companies will be able to target them accordingly.
“If you look at what Facebook is doing in terms of e-commerce, it’s an indication of where the shopping element is going to go.
“If you’re walking down the street today, the phone, if you allow it to, can prompt you with a host of messages whether it be deals or bargains at nearby stores or deals in hotels or information about the area you’re going to in the next 10 minutes.
“You can book a cab immediately from wherever you are. You can get food delivered to wherever you are. You can borrow money virtually from a friend through the mobile phone. It’s limitless.”
The shape of the smartphone is being taken in lots of different directions. The Nokia Morph concept phone, which was unveiled back in 2008, offered an indication of where future design was headed, including the ability for the phone to be bendy so it could, for example, be worn around a wrist.
It has taken a while, but Samsung is likely to be the first to market with a bendable handset.
The snap-apart phone is a variation on this theme. Google’s Project Ara schedules a release of its snap-apart phone in 2016. It’ll be geared for the user who wants to dismantle the components of his or her phone and replace them, or add in, different modules, say, if the user wanted to install a scanner, a stronger camera, a wireless modem or keypad.
The basics are improving daily, namely stronger battery power, better screen resolution.
Smartphones are set to become far more durable, too, because conventional glass is going to be replaced with the wonder material graphene, which is around 100 times stronger than steel by weight.
“Wireless charging is coming down the line as well. You’ll be able to pop your phone down on a desk and the environment around it will charge it,” says Conmy.
The size, of course, of the mobile phone has yo-yoed since it became popular in the 1990s.
First it became gradually smaller in size. Now, in its smartphone incarnation, it has been getting steadily bigger over the last few years. The main brands on the market have settled at around the six-inch mark to accommodate better viewing, functioning as a hybrid of a phone and a tablet computer, or phablets, as they’re dubbed by geeks.
“The same thing happened with pocket calculators if you go back a few decades,” says Pearson. “They were enormous and then gradually got smaller and smaller until they were just a few inches tall, and people realised actually it’s now too damn difficult to use that small, let’s make it bigger again. The pocket calculators you buy in a Tesco’s now are all about the same size. They’re a natural, convenient size.”
The smartphone is, however, set to get smaller again, so small in fact it might disappear, reckons Pearson. He says there is a shift towards miniaturisation, citing Google’s release in November of a prototype pin lapel, a wearable device based on the communicator in Star Trek, which Captain Picard and his crew used to speak to the artificial intelligence on board the starship Enterprise.
It is worn on the chest, is activated by a light tap and is tethered to a smartphone by Bluetooth and voice command.
“We’re entering an era of digital jewellery,” says Pearson. “The first one was the smart wristwatch, which goes back to Dick Tracy times. We can now build smart watches where in previous decades it was only a concept in sci-fi. It’s a big trend. We’re going to see a lot of devices appear which are basically pieces of jewellery.
“Going back about 15 years, Orange predicted they would eventually be able to get all the consumer electronics you’d need into an earring stud. I would agree with that. It was quite a good prediction by their futurologist a long time ago.”
Pearson can foresee a day when the smartphone might be redundant or at best be reduced to being a remote control device.
“I make a joke sometimes to conference audiences that anyone in the room who hasn’t got a mobile phone is laughed at and would be called a dinosaur. Whereas in 10 years time, anyone in the room who has a mobile phone all their friends will laugh at them and call them a dinosaur.”
Already a lot of a smartphone’s processing and storage can be done across the cloud.
You don’t need a screen if you have augmented reality visors — like a slicker Google Glass — that Pearson believes we’re going to see becoming widespread over the next few years.
And if you don’t need a screen you won’t need a huge battery, which largely goes on feeding energy for the screen, to power it all. All you’re left with is the microphone and earpiece.
Augmented reality is the brave new world of mobile technology. All the big players, Apple, Samsung, and Google, are working feverishly behind the scenes to get an augmented reality display to market. They realise there is a lot of money to be made by mixing the real world with the virtual world.
“If you have a high-enough resolution display like on a PC for example you can make a book appear on that computer screen,” explains Pearson.
“You can read that book on the computer screen quite easily. You can do the same with an augmented reality display. Augmented reality is kind of taking virtual reality and mixing it with the real world. The first glasses that did that were Google Glass.
“The idea that you can squirt pictures straight into your eyes is a version of what the military have been doing in fighter plane cockpits for 30-odd years with the extremely expensive helmets fighter pilots wear. They’re opaque. They see the entire world through the computer. The computer is looking through its high-resolution cameras in every direction and the pilot can look right round and see through the steel that makes the cockpit.
“The fighter pilot is quite used to augmented reality. He has had it for 30 years. We’re now seeing the cost come down and new techniques for doing it, which are bringing that same kind of technology to the public with what is called head-up display.
“Once it gets to a price of €300-€400 that we typically pay for a mobile phone, that sort of price will allow us to have a pretty high resolution head-up display using light-weight goggles that will probably use lasers to shoot the image straight onto your retina in a few years time.
“That can go all the way over the next five to 10 years into active contact lens where you wear a contact lens in each eye, which is full 3D. When you have that high-resolution display, you can make anything you like appear right in front of you.
“If you want a smart wristwatch you could look at your arm and you’d see one on your arm. It would be as high-resolution as the real one by cheating your eyes into believing it is there.”
Last spring, Facebook invested $2bn (€1.85bn) in a company called Oculus Rift, which makes virtual reality headsets. According to a Vanity Fair interview in September, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has a hunch that headsets will go beyond providing 3D experiences for watching movies, playing games, taking in lectures and so on, and will eventually be used to scan people’s brains and transmit people’s thoughts the way we share baby pictures on Facebook today.
Sony and Microsoft are getting in on the act, too. Both companies are releasing virtual reality headsets next year.
“It’s very exciting,” says Conmy. “It’s not just going to be about gaming. You’ll be able, for example, to take a walk around the Dublin that James Joyce lived in.
“Somebody has developed a Bloomsday app so you can virtually walk around the Dublin of 1904. I’ve gone cliff diving off the Aran Islands using Oculus Rift. It’s pretty realistic. It’s interesting in terms of travel as well. If you want to tune out after work you could have a very real virtual experience with a headset on and go to Hawaii for 20 minutes.”
Sentient computing is the next step along this road. It was explored in the 2013 Oscar-winning film Her, which was created by Spike Jonze and starred Joaquin Phoenix as a guy who falls in love with a computer operating system called Samantha, played by Scarlett Johansson.
Could a man fall in love with an intelligent disembodied voice? Samantha has a sexy, husky voice. She’s thoughtful and she doesn’t nag him. What’s not to love?
“The film was a really compassionate look at alienation, with capitalism in some ways, and people’s inability to connect,” says Joshua Bell, an anthropologist who curated a two-year study into the culture of mobile phone usage at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
“What I like about it is that it takes a more benign view to sentient computers than, say, Hal in 2001 – A Space Odyssey or some of the robot films like Terminator.
“They’re working on sentient computers all the time. I just saw a video where programmers have programmed a robot so that the robots will question human commands. They say they’ve done this to prevent the robot from doing things that are either harmful to humans or harmful to themselves.
“The Apple interface Siri is an interesting forerunner to what Samantha in Her is, in the sense that you can have someone there to talk to, day to day, and it will ask you questions. I don’t think it’s far off.
“The question is whether humans will fall in love with this thing, this voice- activated personal assistant. I think it’s possible.
“The thing to stress, though, is that whatever the future is with smartphones it ultimately will be one that reflects the diversity of culture around the planet. New devices will come out but people will always find a way to understand them and use them in different ways, which is exciting.
“Now we live in a particular time because the field is still young that we’re really still working out what it is these things are doing to us, how do we use them more effectively and what do they mean.”
In the 1950s, it used to be frowned upon to go and eat, say, a sandwich, in public. Not today.
Our behaviour and etiquette is constantly evolving. Mobile phones have inevitably changed the way we behave in small, unusual ways. They are becoming a physical extension of the self. Spatial cues and actions, like jumping in a taxi or boarding a train, prompt us to reach for our phones. People similarly check the screens of their phones when using a toilet, which it is said, is the reason Samsung began waterproofing more of their devices.
Are there behaviour changes we should be concerned about?
“Every time a new technology comes out there are these moral panics that emerge,” says Bell. “That happened when the telephone came out, television, photography — people thought you could contact spirits and photograph spirits — so there is always this anxiety about new technologies, partly because new adopters tend to be the younger generation. It reveals generational shifts.”
There is an argument that our preoccupation with gadgets is driving us apart, that we’re obsessing over — them above relationships. In 2013, security footage on a city train in San Francisco caught a man conspicuously toying with a pistol in his hands. No one else in the carriage noticed him until he had shot someone. Are smartphones making us too self- absorbed? You might, for example, notice your teenage son or daughter is constantly fiddling with his or her smartphone. It seems teenagers never stop sending text and video messages. Is this something to be worried about? Is the art of conversation dying as a result?
Joel Kuipers, professor of anthropology and international affairs at Georgetown Washington University, takes up the theme of moral panic raised by his colleague.
“There are fears that people are more lonelier than ever and more isolated than ever,” he says.
“One prominent one is that because of cell phones and computers nobody is able to converse anymore because they send text messages instead, but the only empirical study that I know that looks at all solid is a study that was done recently by Oren Livio and Lauren Sessions Goulet.
“They studied surveillance videos of the courtyard in front of the New York Public Library in 1980. They compared those with surveillance videos from 2010. They discovered that the number of people engaged in face-to-face conversation was about the same before the age of cell phones as it is now.
“One of the things that we’re finding in our research is about the meaning of those face-to-face interactions because there are so many different ways to communicate.
“When you finally do get together to have a face-to-face interaction it takes on additional significance.
“It becomes more intimate perhaps than it once was because you could have chosen to interact by Facebook, text, Twitter or spoken on a cell phone. Now a face-to-face conversation is a bigger commitment.”
Kuipers and Bell have been collaborating on a three-year study of the usage of mobile phones by teenagers at a high school in Washington DC.
Kuipers says it has thrown up some novel findings, among them the generational differences in what constitutes a breakdown in phone communication.
“Parents,” he says, “sometimes interpret a failure to answer the phone as a cheeky lack of responsiveness. A child may interpret it more in technical terms, partly because they know more about the phone. For example, they may interpret it more about a failure of battery or lack of signal or the fact they’d put the phone on silent.
“One of the things we also found is that parents in lower-income communities are more likely to use restrictions on phone privileges as a way to punish children, whereas in more middle- class and upper-class communities, they actually increase the amount of cell-phone usage, of phone check-ins, because of parental surveillance on the phone.”
Bell has been struck by the rise in popularity of Snapchat, a mobile messaging system that allows people, predominately teenagers, to send messages, pictures, and video clips that are timed to delete once they’ve been viewed. It harks back to a time before types of communication — emails, pictures, Facebook threads, for example — were embedded on the internet forever.
“I would never have thought Snapchat would have been as popular as it is. It speaks to a particular moment, which shows what people’s media preferences are. Snapchat taps into a feeling of wanting ephemerality. I was born in the 1970s. I grew up when ephemerality was the nature of our conversations — face to face or on the phone. Maybe you’d write a letter but that was different.
“But then the computer changed the nature of communication. It made a more permanent record. Snapchat is almost a nostalgic return or attempt at being ephemeral.
“Although there are revelations that they actually keep your stuff!”
It might seem that with all the devices, phones, tablets, televisions, etc, that are competing for our attention perhaps our minds are fracturing.
Is the smartphone, which is constantly interrupting us with messages and news updates, slowly, frying our brains? Has it contributed to shortening our attention spans?
Kuipers says there is no good evidence to suggest our attention spans are less than they once were.
“I’m sceptical of people who say that children are no longer capable of focusing. There are opportunities to narrow your attention span with cell phones but I find that children can focus at the same rate as they always could in the past; it’s just now there are more alternatives to focus on.”
A world of mobile payments
We have arrived in the age of mobile payments. In its basic form, people can take a smartphone out of their pockets, tap it, and make a payment in a store.
Claire Maslen, head of financial services at GSMA, an association of mobile operators and related companies devoted to supporting the standardising, deployment and promotion of the GSM mobile telephone system, says within 18-24 months, users will take the process a step further.
“If I have the retailer’s application on my smartphone, I go look at products online, and make the payment for the product within the app when I’m browsing. Then I go into the high-street store and I collect the item. The payment piece is going to happen but it’s not going to be as clunky as me going up to a till and having to stand there and queue to make the payment.
“We’re going to see a lot more of payment within the app beforehand. Essentially you will use the physical retail store as a showroom where you can look at a product and touch it, but you’ve already done your payment on the app.”
Barclay’s Pingit mobile payment app, which launched in 2012, is another popular mobile payment function. It allows a user to wirelessly transfer money, say, a €50 loan, to a friend’s bank account by simply dialling the receiver’s number and hitting “send” on their Pingit app.
Maslen believes plastic cards will become obsolete before the dawn of a cashless society. People like the feel of cash in their hands. They feel they have better control than with a debit or credit card. It’s easier to keep track of money being spent.
She says mobile payments give greater transparency than card payments because users have the capability to receive a digital receipt or a text message alerting them to the purchase.
“I think there might be a leap-frogging. We could get rid of cards, and the same applies for loyalty cards and vouchers, all that paper and plastic. Put it on your mobile. So it will be a cardless society where the mobile becomes your identity to all of your different financial relationships or retail relationships.”
Location intelligence is the ability to build up a picture of mobile phone usage, the location of users, what time they’re online, and other data in public places, for example at airports, sports stadiums or residential areas.
City planners can use location intelligence to monitor and cater for large crowds on, say, a match day at Croke Park by highlighting buildings, streets, and neighbourhoods for traffic flow. Phone operators benefit from this information. So, too, do a number of other professions.
“Certainly security services would benefit hugely from having accurate information, as we’re seeing in Europe [after the Paris attacks],” says Paul Gowans, wireless strategy director at Viavi Solutions.
“Marketing people who are trying to put up advertising billboards is another interesting one.
“We’ve got a customer where they’ve been looking at flow of traffic to try and optimise where they’re going to put an advertising billboard because they want to make sure the position of it is towards the flow of traffic. They also want to know if the traffic is in the daytime, at nighttime, do they have to light it, and so on.
“There’s lots of value in using that location information. VIP tracking is another area. A phone operator might have a large enterprise as a customer. Say it’s got a big bank as a customer and in that bank it’s got 20 or 30 senior executives that they want to make sure are going to get the optimum service. You can have specific subscribers so that small subset of VIPs gets service at the highest level.”
Interestingly, Germany’s great car manufacturers, Audi, BMW, and Daimler (the owner of Mercedes), clubbed together in a deal announced in August worth over €2bn with Nokia to use its location intelligence system in a drive to get to market with the first driverless car, which investment bank Morgan Stanley believes will be sold to drivers by the end of the decade.
Can mobile technology improve healthcare? When it comes to healthcare, smartphones, even with the use of camera phones, can only achieve so much. They’re not very accurate for measuring things like blood pressure or a person’s heartbeat. It’s why the health industry is focused more on wearable devices, which could, for example, flag a worsening medical condition by checking the blood sugar levels of diabetic people and warn if necessary if someone was in danger, say, of fainting.
“There will be a plethora of devices. It’s a question of how to use that data and how do you get that data to the right person,” says Dr Yuri Quintana, global health informatics, Harvard Medical School.
“There are devices that you attach directly in your skin or contact lenses that can detect things in your eye about your body chemistry. There are probes smaller than a small pill that you can ingest that can detect things inside of your body and send information out to [external systems]. Some are being used experimentally in hospitals.”
“These probes flush out of a person’s system after use. Some of them would look at changes in body chemistry, but I also saw an example of somebody who has put a transmitter with a camera on one of these ingestible probes so you can get a visual inspection of your insides.“There are people experimenting with headphones to detect things in your ear. There are even people who have woven these devices into fabric so it could be a shirt that you wear that monitors biometrics.” Quintana says there is a broad range of diseases that could benefit from early biometric detection. Biometrics, he explains, includes blood pressure, body chemistry, heartbeat, and sweating. Each would be dependent on a patient’s condition.
If, for example, a person were a diabetic a change in his or her sugar level would be significant.
If the person has a history of cardiac problems an irregular heartbeat could be alarming, which might require medication or admission to a hospital.
He cautions, however, about over-optimism when it comes to developments in mobile health care apps. There is a lot of wastage and dead-end investigation.
“I’m surprised by how few apps have been successful. There have been 160,000 that have been released. Probably more than 90% don’t get used for more than two weeks.”
There are interesting mobile apps and serious games being created for people who suffer from neurological disorders or cognitive problems. These include apps for Alzheimer’s, attention deficit disorder, and autism.
Quintana references Akili Interactive that has designed a therapeutic video game for helping people to focus attention.
“There are other ones in experimental stage which detect changes in motion,” he says. “By use of your mobile apps and monitoring changes of movement you could detect early forms of depression — if you’re moving less, if you’re communicating less. Some apps have a depression-screening tool so you can go in there and answer questions.”