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
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
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.”
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
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.
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.