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Computers of the next millennium: Unplugged

Posted: 22 Dec 1999 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:wearable computer? future? bluetooth? wireless? 802.11?

Technology will undoubtedly open up many new possibilities for both economic success and change in lifestyles.

My daughter is fairly computer literate and does not give much thought to the Y2K problem or the possibility of computers/software failing at the end of the millennium. But my wife lives in terror, fearing that planes will fall out of the sky, power utilities will fail (not mention computer banking systems), and even the "law and order" of the urban world will disintegrate into justice meted by roving bands of nasty men with guns. By the time you read this, hopefully none of this would have happened.

Well, here we are at the beginning of the 21st century. Most of Asia has just returned to full production following an economic recession and, in Taiwan, a potentially disastrous earthquake. Asian engineers, I suspect, would not deny the possibility, but are now a bit more sanguine about projections that this will be "the Pacific Century."

Technology will undoubtedly open up many new possibilities for both economic success and change in lifestyles. There will be some profound changes in the way we use computers and communications technology?things that will not easily be predicted from the current trends. And there are some things that reflect extensions to the current trends, which Asia should be quick to capitalize on.

The next millennium?or at least the next decade?will see a turning away from portable and desktop computers as we know them. Rather than large screens and keyboards, computers will increasingly reflect alternative input and output technology. Without a keyboard and big screen, the computing machines of the future will be unplugged and increasingly mobile.

Things that think

Some of the provocative developments to point to in the USA are those from the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These include "wearable computers" that fit in a shoe or on a belt. They answer your cellphone and make decisions for you, like whether or not to interrupt your conversation for a prioritized call. Shake hands with someone and you can automatically exchange business cards.

Professor Neil Gershenfeld, author of "When Things Start to Think," is more concerned with what you might call "thinking processes." How, for example, do you program your cellphone to prioritize calls for you? You can prioritize the list according to your callers, but would you (say) like your wife interrupting a business meeting to complain about the neighbors? If your cellphone has not just speech recognition but content recognition it could answer your phone for you, as your secretary would, listen to what the caller has to say, and make certain judgments on your behalf.

A shortlist of soon-to-be-familiar "things that think" would include:

  • Books that can change into other books

  • Musical instruments that help beginners

  • Shoes that communicate through body networks

  • Printers that output working things (rather than paper)

  • Money that contains behavior as well as value.

In this list, we can see the outlines of some vaguely familiar objects: interactive electronic books and games, personal digital assistants (PDAs) that do more than store and display your schedules and address books; musical instruments that teach kids to play; or smart cards that control admissions and security as well as purchases and banking transactions.

The books and shoe computers are among the most interesting, because we can see them as extensions of devices we already use like cellphones and PDAs. According to Gershenfeld, the enabling technologies that would make some of this happen include extremely low-power processors, ultra-sensitive sensors, wireless data transmitters and tactile, high-resolution displays?all of them handheld and portable.

New world of communications: Unplugged

Few developments will have more impact on the vision of the pocket communicator than wireless communications. Currently, huge development efforts are driving cellular telephony. Third-generation cellular, called "3G," and the transitional "2.5G" promise to upgrade cellular services so that users can receive data and images on the cellphone along with voice. Much of the development efforts in Wideband CDMA baseband and handset transceivers, DSP voice coders and channel separators are aimed at squeezing higher bandwidth from PCS and digital cellular slots in the 1.8GHz and 1.9GHz range, as well as 2.1GHz. Intel's recent acquisition of DSP Communications Inc., a manufacturer of CDMA and TDMA baseband chipsets for Japanese and Korean handset makers, told the world that the PC chip maker (in fact, the world's largest semiconductor supplier) does not want to be left out of the wireless cellphone revolution.

In principle 3G would allow users to cruise the Internet on a cellphone, but it may be a long while before the data bandwidth is suitable to support full graphic downloads. Rather, Internet page developers are looking for images that will "scale" to the modest resolution of a typical monochrome LCD. This hasn't stopped researchers from exploring the forward error correction codes required to ensure video over cellphones. As such, I predict the pocket cellphone will offer a broad range of communication services?voice, video, and information (data)?well before 2010.

In the near term, I would advise Asian engineers to look closely at the projections for the "Bluetooth" technology. Conceived from a partnership between Nokia, Ericsson, Intel, and Toshiba, Bluetooth was to serve as a wireless "cable replacement" between cellphones and portable computers. With a 1MHz clock and a 10mW transmitter operating in the 2.4GHz ISM band, Bluetooth might support 764Kbps data transfers between devices 10m away from each other.

But because Bluetooth is projected to be cheap to implement (below US$20), it has captured the imagination of many hundreds of developers who believe that with a little more power (maybe 100mW) and a little more sophistication it could displace the IEEE802.11 as a general-purpose wireless LAN. Everyone could be connected, as long as they were within (say) 30m of a Bluetooth node. Of course, implementing such visions will require more than 10mW RF transceivers, ARM7 controllers, and Flash memory. It will require some sophisticated LCD graphics.

Remember the time when S3 Corp. was leading the charge on 3D PC graphics controllers? Many manufacturers were using the ActiVision game, "Mech Warrior 2," to demonstrate the capabilities of their 3D graphics controllers. In this game, you are the pilot of a giant robot-like fighting machine, in battle with other machines like yours. In addition to the 3D action graphics, Mech Warrior 2 brought out the importance of voice I/O, since each fighting machine was equipped with a talking computer that would tell you interesting things about your mission as you played the game.

New methods to interface with machines

We will soon see an explosion of speech-input devices and systems (including those for car computers). These devices should be capable of exercising "command-and-control" functions with limited vocabularies.

Belgium-based Frontier Design (see Cover Story in Dec 1999 issue) has created a speech recognition core that embeds a number of DSP algorithms. With 40KB of memory and a little training, the device is claimed to recognize up to 50 words in many languages, including English, Chinese, French, Italian, and Hebrew. Many such devices will start to appear. Using these, you'll soon be able to tell a cellphone to "call home," or read off a number for it to dial. Frontier says a Singapore banking firm, Columns Ltd, is interested in using this for verbal ATM (automatic teller machine) transactions.

Of course our attitudes towards speech-enabled computers and machines have vastly changed (and will change even more) over the decades. In the past, I must admit that more than once I've lost my temper with a PC or Apple Macintosh and pounded on it unmercifully with my fist. In principle, the new Mac operating system and Windows 2000 should make computing machinery easier to use. Semiconductor miniaturization, the Bluetooth revolution and speech recognition technology will enable us to disconnect this machinery from the telephone and electrical outlets, and wear them in our belts or shoe heels. But do they seem any more reliable or any less intimidating?

Speech recognizers can generally recognize digits?one, two, etc.?without training on the speaker's voice. Thus, many modern elevators use speech recognizers to identify the destination floors. I remember stepping into a hotel elevator about two years ago and an automated voice asked me: "What floor?" I replied, "Ten," recognizing the digitized female voice vaguely as the same one used in the Mech Warrior 2 game.

Unfortunately, the joke was on me. The elevator hovered menacingly between the 9th and 10th floors, threatening to drop any instant. "Aren't you the guy," the elevator voice enquired, "who beat up the Apple Computer?"

Yes, we've made tremendous progress, but there's still a long way to go. Welcome to the 21st century.

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