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Electronic Design

From Luggable To Wearable: Musings On The Future Of Mobile Data

Seems like part of the fun of a career in the fast-changing world of electronics is sitting around reminiscing about the archaic computing products of days gone by. Put a group of techies together and often there's a conversation like the one our editors had over lunch the other day—some good laughs about the hilariously small amounts of memory that we thought were all we'd ever need (that PC with 250 megs!) and fond remembrances of the cutting-edge machines of their day—the Kaypro II, the Newton, the PC jr., etc.

Bill Wong opens this issue's cover story on trends in mobile computing with remembrances of the Osborne Luggable, the progenitor of mobile products. Still, my favorite part of a lunchtime conversation with engineers is speculating beyond today's horizon and figuring out what our mobile computers are going to be like in another 10 years. What will make us look back on that "funny old Razr phone" or that "loveable ol' BlackBerry" with the sort of mirthful nostalgia we now reserve for that first luggable?

Smaller and lighter have been the obvious tenets in portable design. But as we trek down the path of convergence and into the brave new world of portable multimedia devices, practical functionality seemingly puts limits on further downsizing, i.e., if you're going to enter data via a keyboard, the keys can only be so small. (Texting on the phone is already pushing the limit for some of us.)

True, there are some interesting auxiliary keyboards out there—foldout, rollup, and even projection models. And beyond keyboarding, IBM touts voice input as a natural enabler for mobile data entry (see "Speech Recognition Gets Intuitive, Finds New Life In Mobile Applications," Feb. 16, p. 17).

Likewise, if you're going to watch mobile video or surf Web data on the fly, a display can be downsized just so far. Perhaps the future lies in nontraditional displays like virtual reality goggles or heads-up glasses, or the laser projection modules from Symbol Technologies. But most mobile services target users who want to keep at least partially grounded in the real world. For example, navigational data companies like Tele Atlas are gathering video images so portable GPS devices can show actual landmarks along with maps and directions.

Given these practical limits to downsizing displays and keyboards, it's interesting to think about the effect that new materialscan have on the weight, durability, and ergonomics of portable products. Roger Allan, in this issue's Tech Report on electronic paper and ink, considers the potential impact of the use of flexible plastics instead of glass in the design of portable displays.

Mobile products mostly have gained strength by bulking up with protective casings and industrial-strength packaging. Yet the smaller these devices become, the more likely they are to be dropped or lost. Fewer of us now strap on wristwatches. Why bother when you've got the time on the phone in your pocket? But a wrist-wearable computer a la Dick Tracy (enhanced via a few Bluetooth accessories) may be the future after all.

When it comes to mobile technologies, the greatest change may come from new batteries. Micro fuel cells are in the offing (see "Portables Eye Micro Fuel Cells To Replace Batteries," Jan. 12, p. 80). And at the NanoBusiness conference in New York last month, mPhase Technologies presented a nano-structured battery that enables ultra-long shelf life. "Nanograss tubes" keep individual droplets of reactive chemicals separated without leakage. Then, stimuli from RF or voltage can trigger the release of the droplets when power is needed.

At the nano conference, offerings from startup companies ranged from Illuminex's nanowire arrays for heat-pipe thermal transfer to Embedded Nanomagnetics' metal/ceramic nanocomposites for high-frequency magnetic applications. It's hard to say which of these technologies will emerge from the incubator, as there's such a broad range of research under the nano umbrella. But it should get easier to codify these emerging technologies.

During the NanoBusiness conference, the IEEE held a meeting to launch standards definitions for nanotechnology in electronics. The meeting focused on the taxonomy. From there, the committee considered where standards are most needed. For instance, what should the standard measurements for a carbon nanotube be? Hats off to the IEEE for wading in to the primordial nano stew and helping define the future!

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