4 min read

Consumer Tech Marches Closer To Star Trek

CES panel says top future technology trends include natural language processing, flexible displays, and robots. Will innovation be driven by consumers, not manufacturers?
CES 2012:
Elegant Gadgets Abound
CES 2012: Elegant Gadgets Abound
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
The 2012 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) might not be the place to see the most interesting consumer technology of tomorrow. Although there's no shortage of promising products on display at the tech industry conference, Robert Stephens, CTO of Best Buy and founder of Geek Squad, expressed sympathy with blogger Robert Scoble's recent claim that community-funding platform Kickstarter, rather than CES, is the place to see cutting-edge technology projects. He pointed to Twine, a programmable home automation module, as an example.

Stephens sides with the "makers" (hackers without the pejorative connotation), those who want to take things apart and make them better. He argues that the next wave of innovation will come from consumers more than companies. "This crowd is going to do it," he said. "They're going to tell manufacturers what they want to do with their products."

Stephens was speaking at a CES panel discussion about future technology trends, along with analyst Tim Bajarin, MIT Media Lab director Henry Holtzman, and Intel futurist Brian David Johnson. He went so far as to suggest that Best Buy products should come with two manuals, one that includes instructions and one that explains how the device can be disassembled and altered.

[ What's happening at CES this year? Read Samsung Unveils Supersized Smartphone. ]

In an age when mass-market technology products tend to be sealed, locked, or limited--ostensibly for the good of consumer but actually to maintain control and profits--this borders on heresy.

Holtzman took a swing at another sacred cow: the cloud. He said that Media Lab is particularly interested in alternate infrastructures for transferring data. Noting that sending data to and fro to the cloud places an unnecessary burden on network infrastructure--particularly at a conference such as CES with so many people and their devices communicating with the network--he said he was particularly interested in "crowdstorage," which is to say peer-to-peer data communication between devices. This probably isn't an appealing scenario for would-be middlemen of the cloud, those who see the potential to collect fees through their control of data transit and storage. Holtzman also suggested that the shift to LED lighting might afford an opportunity to use the modulation of LED room lights to transfer data.

The present, Holtzman suggested, looks very much like the future depicted in past episodes of Star Trek, particularly with regard to communication and voice recognition. He expects the next wave in voice recognition will take its cue from Apple's Siri personal assistant. "We've had voice recognition for a while now," he said. "What we're really starting to see is natural language recognition."

Barjarin cited three technologies that intrigue him most at the moment. He mentioned advances in optical cable from the likes of Dow Corning--which apparently has been able to develop an optical cable that can be twisted and knotted without damage--augmented reality, and flexible displays coming from manufacturers such as Samsung.

The three technologies noted by Stephens differed: They included wireless sensors, robotics, and home automation. He said his interest in home automation was not so much in the technical aspect of it as in its potential to accomplish useful tasks, such as shutting a garage door that had been left open and unattended.

There was excitement about robots, too, particularly from Johnson, who believes that we're almost at the point where robots will start to have an impact on people's lives. The most immediate practical application for robots appears to be elder care and monitoring.

Johnson said what he found interesting about Siri was not that it could answer natural-language queries--but that the software has personality. "Siri is kind of sassy," he said. "When people write about what they love about Siri, it's the jokes. It's the humor."

Holtzman remained unconvinced that personality would be important for autonomous agents. "Is personality just novelty?" he asked. "At the end of the day it's a little annoying." And Stephens appeared to agree, noting that humans prefer automation to interaction.

Another way to put it might be that people want software to be obedient. No one wants to hear, "I'm sorry, Dave, but I can't do that." At the same time, obedience doesn't make for thought-provoking interaction.

The Enterprise Connect conference program covers the full range of platforms, services, and applications that comprise modern communications and collaboration systems. It happens March 25-29 in Orlando, Fla. Find out more.