Invisible Services
By Niall McKay in Silicon Valley, Wed Oct 16 00:00:00 GMT 2002

A closer look at some of the services driving future communications.


In Minority Report advertisements displayed on gigantic billboards chase Tom Cruise through a shopping mall as he tries to escape the police. It’s location-based computing at its worst. A GPS chip in a phone or a piece of clothing (although the movie used retina scanning for dramatic effect) could relay one’s exact identity and position so that advertisers could bombard them with junk marketing twaddle. Actually, that bit is not science fiction.

But whether it’s location-based advertising such as this or the continual video surveillance featured in George Orwell’s 1984, or the digital world generated by nasty computers in the Matrix -- tech gets such a bad rap from tinsel town that one wonders if there is any future in science at all.

“Hollywood always frames interactive technology in a sinister light,” says Jaron Lanier, Lead Scientist with the National Tele-immersion Initiative, one of the pioneers of virtual reality and the futurist who worked on the movie. “But then maybe they would because an interactive world is a world that leaves Hollywood behind.”

Lanier worked with Spielberg and his team to dream up a world with third- (or perhaps fourth- or fifth-) generation wireless services such as digital newspapers, wireless video conferencing, and location-based computing. Technologies such as telematics, (in-car computing and communications systems), and digital entertainments systems (featuring holograms and the like) also played a part. But as futures go, Minority Report gets a B + except, as Lanier points out, it’s all a little distressful.

Perhaps it’s because the Hollywood creative types want to hang on to their jobs or perhaps it’s because we tend to look forward with dread and back with nostalgia (even to wartime). Certainly, it’s true this limits our ability to dream up new possibilities. Thankfully, there are some exceptions to this rule, according to Chip Walter, co-author with William Shatner (Captain Kirk) of a book called “Star Trek: I’m Working on That: A Trek from Science Fiction to Science Fact.”

“One of the things that we found when we were doing the book is that everybody from Stephen Hawking to Neil Gershenfeld at MIT Media Lab said that they had been inspired by Star Trek,” he says. “That’s not to suggest that these people would not have gone into science anyway but just that Star Trek opened their minds to new possibilities.”

In many ways we already “boldly went” where nobody has gone before and surpassed those possibilities that were dreamt up in TV series, according to Walter.

“While William and I were visiting CMU Virtual Reality Lab, Randy Pausch [co-director of Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center] produced an exact replica of the original Star Trek communicator,” says Walter. “William reached into his back pocket and produced the Motorola StarTack phone.” Of course the StarTack was based on the Star Trek communicator but is just a third of the size of the original.

Similarly, many of the concepts in Minority Report are already out there. “The concepts in the movie are not, strictly speaking, science fiction. They can be found in laboratory,” says Lanier.

Indeed, the wireless videophone portrayed in the movie is already available from NTT DoCoMo in Japan. DoCoMo’s 3G FOMA service has yet, however, to capture the imagination of the public and is still very much in the alpha or beta testing stage with unreliable services and brick sized phones offered at enormously high prices.

The Driver

But what are the services that will drive the third-, fourth- and fifth-generation mobile communications revolutions? Well, lets say that first-generation enabled analogue voice and no data, and second-generation enabled digital voice and some data and third-generation will enable digital voice and high-speed data, fourth-generation should enable IP based voice and multimedia data. Then fifth-generation will involve all of the above, but the devices (as we know them) will begin to disappear and computing and communications should begin to make the leap to invisible or ubiquitous computing, according to Seamus McAteer, principal with the Zelos Group, a consultancy based in San Francisco.

“What was really appealing about the movie was that the computer-to-human interfaces were almost completely invisible,” says McAteer. “It was ubiquitous – meaning that it was just running in the background able to respond to the users needs. It was obvious that Microsoft was not doing the product placement in the movie because there was no sign of Windows or Internet Explorer.”

However, while most of the concepts in the movie have been around for some time (the idea for ubiquitous computing, for example, was pioneered by Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in the late 1980´s) there are several large obstacles to overcome before we can begin to migrate to this digital nirvana. If we are really to remove the interface, then the first thing we must do is to improve voice recognition technology. Without it, ubiquitous computing is at best as frustrating as when you try and teach your computer to recognize words and at worst a joke.

Location-based technology is already on the march and is a standard feature offered in all KDDI and J-Phone handsets in Japan. Both services enable the use to logging onto a network, and locate a friend who is also registered. You can even pull up a map on the handset display and watch their little dot approach your little dot. There are also roadside assistance services offered and games such as Ima-Hima (translated means “free time”).

Of course, such features are also used for so called Keitai or cell phone dating services -- which are often little more than prostitution services masquerading as games. Still, sex is great for getting the early adaptors on board.

Often when people talk about location-based computing, they mention the dreaded coupons example. Here a cell phone could beep with offers of savings off a cup of coffee at Starbucks or a Big Mac as you pass the store. . Just think how satisfying it would be to have a physical target for every junk mail you receive. It is unlikely, that McDonald’s or Starbucks or whoever would last a week without random people running into the stores and shouting obscenities at the staff.

What services that are successfully offered are entertainment listings that list the venues nearest you or offer you a route, complete with train changes, catching the last train back to the suburbs in Tokyo.

However, if you’re like Tom Cruise, then you’ll probably want your own transport. For this the movie’s creators built an impressive futuristic vision of telematics technology. The vehicle was able to drive itself and featured complete digital video communications links with the out side world and could be controlled by a police computer system.

Certainly, in-car communications we are about to make leaps and bounds insofar as audio systems will able to provide users with hands free, eyes free cell-phone operation. Robotic systems that can actually take over and drive the vehicle are probably further off than 2054 (the year when Minority Report is supposed to take place).

What is becoming clear is that the digital communications device (be it a cell phone or PDA or device like the Apple iPod) is becoming the central lynchpin on which the next generation of computing and communications services are built.

In the same way as the PC provided was the center of focus for development of Web based services, productivity tools and digital entertainment services (principally, audio and home video), the communications devices - complete with audio player, camera, and communications chipset - will provide the center of focus for the next generation of services, location, personal entertainment, and communication. In other words, the cell phone will play the walkman to the PCs rack system.

Still, that's not to say that we don't have a long way to go yet. As always, it’s easy to overestimate the short-term impact and underestimate the long-term impact of technology. From that point of view, I would lay money that by 2054 Lanier’s futuristic visions will look primitive.

Lanier’s beef is that despite the fact that telecommunications (both fixed line and wireless) and the Internet has brought people together is forever being portrayed as something that alienates people in the movies. So what does he suggest? “Well, one could imagine a scenario where one character created an incredible virtual world to seduce another character,” he says. Cool. I’d go for that. Wouldn't you?

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Niall McKay is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo Japan. He can be reached at www.niall.org.