Trends in Technology
J. Anthony VittalImagineering Comes True
When Steven Spielberg first conceived the screenplay for Minority Report, the film starring Tom Cruise, he convened a group of futurist technologists to develop a likely scenario for the technology to be commonly available in 2054. One of the concepts they developed, which was incorporated into the film, was the transparent display panels used ubiquitously throughout the film to display images and information in the workplace and the marketplace. That concept has been realized.
At the end of May 2006, researchers at the Technical University of Braunschweig in Düsseldorf, Germany, announced the development of entirely transparent organic light-emitting diode (OLED) pixels. Instead of using silicon transistors, commonly used in the liquid crystal displays found in today’s thin-panel monitors and screens, they use transparent thin-film transistors (TFTs) manufactured from a 100-nanometer-thick layer of zinc-tin oxide. Unlike silicon-based LCDs, which absorb most visible light, these TFTs transmit more than 90% of visible light, making them virtually transparent.
In the transparent displays, the OLED pixels are placed on top of the TFTs, which are deposited on inexpensive flexible plastic substrates using conventional techniques. By varying the voltage in the driving TFTs, the OLEDs can emit anywhere from 0 to 700 candelas 1 of light per square meter. By comparison, today’s typical flat-panel computer screens reach a brightness of approximately 300 candelas per square meter. Thus, these transparent OLED displays, as developed in the research laboratory, already are generating brightness levels more than twice those of contemporary monitors.
What will these transparent display panels be used for? Any application where one needs information displayed in the field of view. Imagine having driving directions and critical instrument readings displayed in your windshield. A surgeon having vital signs and other information displayed in his or her field of view while operating, instead of having to look away from the surgical field. What about seeing a witness through your display panel while you are examining the witness about a document in that panel? On a more prosaic note, consider having a television screen or computer monitor you can place in front of a window without obstructing the view. The potential uses are as varied as our imaginations.
When will you be able to buy one? According to the head of the responsible team from the High-Frequency Institute at the T.U. of Braunschweig, prototype displays should be available within two years. In the ordinary course, we should expect to see the first generation of these devices on dealers’ shelves by the end of the decade.High-Speed Wireless Computing
WiFi wireless networking is becoming ubiquitous. Cities across the country are rolling out free basic (relatively slow) WiFi connectivity in partnership with various providers. For those of us who are road warriors, we can get online in city halls, airports, courthouses, hotels, and any Starbucks coffeehouse. Windows® and Macintosh® notebooks have built-in WiFi capability. WiFi also is proposed for inclusion in the Linux kernel.
But what happens when you aren’t within range of a wireless access point? Cellular providers are offering alternative wireless solutions involving a wireless PC card modem accessing their third-generation (3G) networks using either UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service) or EVDO. High-speed download packet access (HSDPA) is another alternative. These protocols offer download speeds of between 400 and 700 kbps (kilobits per second). Compared to 802.11b WiFi (at up to 11 megabits per second) or 802.11g (at up to 54 mbps) or 802.11g+ “SuperG” (at up to 108 mbps), these wireless solutions are as slow as molasses in Minnesota in December.
Telecommunications equipment manufacturer Nortel and wireless chip manufacturer Qualcomm have teamed up to develop a new 3.5G technology known as the UMTS-HSDPA (universal mobile telecommunications system- high-speed download packet access) standard. Demonstrated at the CTIA Wireless 2006 trade show in Las Vegas, the venture has achieved download speeds of up to 7.2 mbps—more than an order of magnitude faster than 3G protocols—all over a cellular network. Using test terminals based on Qualcomm’s MSM6280 mobile station modem and HSDPA network equipment from Nortel, the 3.5G technology demonstrated significant benefits in addition to the vastly improved speed. Not only does the technology quadruple network capacity for data transmissions, it doubles the number of users per cell site when compared to current 3G technology.
This improvement in the performance of HSDPA makes the technology competitive with other wireless technologies such as WiMax, which boasts peak data speeds of up to 20 mbps, and average data rates between 1 and 4 mpbs.
For us, it means that we can be connected to the Internet (and therefore to our offices, our legal research services, and everything else we need to access) without any wires. If we can place a cellular telephone call, we can be connected at speeds close to those we experience in our own offices. In places where there is no high-speed wired connectivity to the Internet (no DSL, no digital cable), and therefore no WiFi, this new 3.5G technology will level the playing field by offering truly universal high-speed access.
Now all we need are operating systems that will switch off seamlessly between WiFi, WiMax (when it arrives), and the new 3.5G technology, and we truly will have universal wireless computing. The new technology will create the demand for them, and they will develop. In the meantime, enjoy the improvements.
1 A candela is the standard definition of luminous intensity under the International System of Units.
Tony Vittal, the former general counsel of Credit.com, Inc., has returned to private practice in California. He writes and speaks frequently on technology-related topics and is a member of the Editorial Board of, and a regular contributor to, the Technology eReport and the Technology & Practice Guide issues of GPSolo.