5 New Technologies That Will Change Everything Part I
While sipping a cup of organically farmed, artisan-brewed tea, I tap on my gigabit-wireless-connected tablet, to pull up a 3D movie on the razor-thin HDTV hanging on the wall. A media server streams the film via a superspeedy USB connection to a wireless HD transmitter, which then beams it to the TV.
That actor--who was he? My augmented-reality contact lenses pick up the unique eye motion I make when I have a query, which I then enter on a virtual keyboard that appears in the space in front of me. Suddenly my field of vision is covered with a Web page showing a list of the actor's movies, along with some embedded video clips.
These technologies will come to life in the distant future, right? Future, yes. Distant, no.
Speed and content (much of it video) will be paired consistently across mobile, laptop, desktop, and home-entertainment systems. New ways of using video--including adding 3D depth or artificial visual overlays--will require more speed, storage, and computational power.
In our preview of technologies that are well on their way to reality, we look at the connective tissue of USB 3.0, 802.11ac, and 802.11ad for moving media--especially video--faster; at HTML5 for displaying video and content of all kinds consistently across all our devices; at augmented reality to see how the digital world will stretch into our physical reality by overlaying what we see with graphics and text; and at 3D TV, which will add image depth and believability to the experience of watching TV.
Before you leave work, you need to back up your computer. You push a button, and 5 minutes later, while you're still packing up, your system has dumped 150GB of data onto an encrypted 512GBsuperfast solid-state drive, which you eject to take with you for offsite backup. On your way home, you stop ata movie kiosk outside a fast-food restaurant and buy a feature-length 3D video downloadon sale. You plug in your drive, the kiosk reads your credentials, and while you watch a 90-second preview of coming attractions, the 30GB video transfers onto your SSD. You pull out the drive and head home.
USB may be one of the least-sexy technologies built into present-day computers and mobile devices, but speed it up tenfold, and it begins to sizzle. Cut most of the other cables to your computer, and the standard ignites. Bring in the potential of uncompressed video transfer, and you have a raging fire.
Any task that involves transferring data between your PC and a peripheral device--scanning, printing, or transferring files, among others--will be far faster with USB 3.0. In many cases, the transfer will be complete before you realize it has started.
The 3.0 revision of USB, dubbed SuperSpeed by the folks who control testing and licensing at the USB Implementors Forum (USB-IF), is on track to deliver more than 3.2 gigabits per second (gbps) of actual throughput. That transfer rate will make USB 3.0 five to ten times faster than other standard desktop peripheral standards, except some flavors of DisplayPort and the increasingly out-of-favor eSATA.
In addition, USB 3.0 can shoot full-speed data in both directions at the same time, an upgrade from 2.0's "half duplex" (one direction at a time) rates. USB 3.0 jacks will accept 1.0 and 2.0 plug ends for backward compatibility, but 3.0 cables will work only with 3.0 jacks.
This technology could be a game-changer for device connectivity. A modern desktop computer today may include jacks to accommodate ethernet, USB 2.0, FireWire 400 or 800 (IEEE 1394a or 1394b) or both, DVI or DisplayPort or both, and--on some--eSATA. USB 3.0 could eliminate all of these except ethernet. In their place, a computer may have several USB 3.0 ports, delivering data to monitors, retrieving it from scanners, and exchanging it with hard drives. The improved speed comes at a good time, as much-faster flash memory drives are in the pipeline.
USB 3.0 is fast enough to allow uncompressed 1080p video (currently our highest-definition video format) at 60 frames per second, says Jeff Ravencraft, president and chair of the USB-IF. That would enable a camcorder to forgo video compression hardware and patent licensing fees for MPEG-4. The user could either stream video live from a simple camcorder (with no video processing required) or store it on an internal drive for later rapid transfer; neither of these methods is feasible today without heavy compression. Citing 3.0's versatility, some analysts see the standard as a possible complement--or even alternative--to the consumer HDMI connection found on today's Blu-ray players.
The new USB flavor could also turn computers into real charging stations. Whereas USB 2.0 can produce 100 milliamperes (mA) of trickle charge for each port, USB 3.0 ups that quantity to 150mA per device. USB 2.0 tops out at 500mA for a hub; the maximum for USB 3.0 is 900mA.
With mobile phones moving to support USB as the standard plug for charging and syncing (the movement is well underway in Europe and Asia), and with U.S. carriers having recently committed to doing the same, the increased amperage of USB 3.0 might let you do away with wall warts (AC adapters) of all kinds.
In light of the increased importance and use of USB in its 3.0 version, future desktop computers may very well have two internal hubs, with several ports easily accessible in the front to act as a charging station. Each hub could have up to six ports and support the full amperage. Meanwhile, laptop machines could multiply USB ports for better charging and access on the road. (Apple's Mac Mini already includes five USB 2.0 ports on its back.)
The higher speed of 3.0 will accelerate data transfers, of course, moving more than 20GB of data per minute. This will make performing backups (and maintaining offsite backups) of increasingly large collections of images, movies, and downloaded media a much easier job.
Possible new applications for the technology include on-the-fly syncs and downloads (as described in the case study above). The USB-IF's Ravencraft notes that customers could download movies at the gas pump at of a filling station. "With high-speed USB [2.0], you couldn't have people waiting in line at 15 minutes a crack to download a movie," Ravencraft says.
Manufacturers are poised to take advantage of USB 3.0, and analysts predict mass adoption of the standard on computers within a couple of years. The format will be popular in mobile devices and consumer electronics, as well. Ravencraft says that manufacturers currently sell more than 2 billion devices with built-in USB each year, so there's plenty of potential for getting the new standard out fast.
Video Streaming Over Wi-Fi
When you get home--with your high-def, 3D movie stored on a flash drive--you plug the drive into your laptop and transfer it to your network file server over a gigabit Wi-Fi connection. A couple of minutes later, the movie is ready to stream via a 60GHz wireless link from your networked entertainment center to your wall-mounted HDTV.
Wired ethernet has consistently achieved higher data speeds than Wi-Fi, but wireless standards groups are constantly trying to figure out ways to help Wi-Fi catch up. By 2012, two new protocols--802.11ac and 802.11ad--should be handling over-the-air data transmission at 1 gbps or faster.
As a result, future users can have multiple high-definition video streams and gaming streams active across a house and within a room. Central media servers, Blu-ray players, and other set-top boxes can sit anywhere in the home, streaming content to end devices in any location. For example, an HD video display, plugged in with just a power cord, can stand across the room from a Blu-ray player, satellite receiver, or computer--no need for expensive, unsightly cables.
The 802.11ac and 802.11ad standards should be well suited for home use, though their applications will certainly extend far beyond the home. The names reflect the internal method of numbering that the engineering group IEEE uses: 802 for networking, 11 for wireless, and one or more letters in sequence for specific task groups (that's how we got 802.11a, b, g, h, n, and others).
The 802.11ac standard will update 802.11n, the latest and greatest of a decade's worth of wireless local area networking (WLAN) technology that began with 802.11b. With 802.11ac,wireless networking performance will leap from a theoretical top speed of 600 mbps to a nominal maximum of more than 1 gbps. In practice, the net data carried by 802.11ac will be likely be between 300 mbps and 400 mbps--up from 160 mbps or so for a good real-world 802.11n setup, and more than enough capacity to carry multiple compressed video streams over a single channel simultaneously. Or users may assign individual streams running on unique frequencies to a number of separate channels. Like 802.11n, 802.11ac will use many antennas for receiving and sending data wirelessly.
The 802.11ac flavor still won't have the capacity to carry lossless high-definition video (video that retains the full fidelity and quality of the raw source), however. Today, lossless video is common over wired connections after decompression or decoding of a data stream from a satellite, cable, or disc. The right hardware will be able to take the 802.11ac compressed data stream and send it directly to a decoder in an HDTV set; some HD sets already have this capability today. But when uncompressed video has to stream at a rate faster than 1 gbps, a speedier format must be used.
That's where 802.11ad comes in. It abandons the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands of the spectrum (where today's Wi-Fi works) to the newly available 60GHz spectrum. Because the 60GHz spectrum has an ocean of frequencies available in most countries--including in the United States--you'll be able to use multiple distinct channels to carry more than 1 gbps of uncompressed video each.
Unfortunately, the millimeter-long waves that make up 60GHz signals penetrate walls and furniture poorly, and oxygen readily absorbs the waves' energy. So 802.11ad is best suited for moving data across short distances between devices in the same room. Apart from supporting fast video transfers, 802.11ad will permit you to move files or sync data between devices at speeds approaching that of USB 3.0--and 1000 times faster than Bluetooth 2.
The 802.11ad spec is one of three competing ideas for using the 60GHz band of the spectrum. The Wireless HD trade group, a consortium of consumer electronics firms, is focusing on video use of the 60GHz band, while the Wireless Gigabit Alliance (WiGig) is looking at networking and consumer uses. Membership in the various groups overlaps, making an interoperable and perhaps unified spec possible. Though 802.11ad doesn't specifically address video, it will be a generic technology that can accommodate many kinds of data. At a minimum, each group will work to prevent interference with one another's purposes.
The combination of 802.11ac and 802.11ad, coupled with USB 3.0, will allow you to position clusters of computer equipment and entertainment hardware around your home. USB 3.0 and gigabit ethernet might connect devices located in a cabinet or on a desk; 802.11ac will link clusters across a home; and 802.11ad will carry data to mobile devices, displays, and other gear within a room.
Allen Huotari, the technical leader at Cisco Consumer Products (which now includes Linksys products and ships millions of Wi-Fi and ethernet devices each year) says that the change in home networks won't result from "any one single technology in the home, but rather a pairing of technologies or a trio of technologies--wired and/or wireless--for the backbone and the wireless on the edges."
This means fewer wires and cables, better speeds, and higher-quality video playback than anything possible today. By 2012, both specifications should be readily available.