Are you amazed by the capabilities of today’s handheld computers? Well, there are six technologies currently being developed that could significantly improve future handhelds. While they’re still years away in some cases, we thought you’d be interested in knowing what’s coming to a PDA near you.
When it comes to displays, the rule is “the bigger the better.” In fact, most people would love to have a handheld with a display as large as that found on their desktop computer, provided they don’t have to lug it around with them.
Sound impossible? Well, one interesting way to get around this paradox is with a technology called near-eye displays.
Near-eye displays are tiny screens positioned close to the eye that offer the appearance of being full-sized displays. Typically these are included as part of a pair of eyeglasses, where one eye can focus on the display while the other is free to let you see where you are going. According to a study by Ohio State University, users of the latest models of near-eye displays claimed they were as comfortable to use as a standard monitor.
So, by connecting a near-eye display to a handheld computer using Bluetooth, or some other form of wireless technology, you’ve got an absolutely hands-free mobile computer. That is, provided they come up with an appropriate navigation mechanism to replace the Touchscreen and mouse.
So, do we forsee a future filled with people wearing near-eye display glasses? Not likely. However, we do forsee a day when near-eye displays will be used much like we use headphones today. If you want to listen to some music, you put on some headphones and then take them off when you’re done; the same will be true for your near-eye displays. Still, despite its potential, near-eye displays are unlikely to completely eliminate the need for small screens on handhelds.
Remember when a handheld could run for weeks or even months on a pair of AAA batteries? Unfortunately, while screens have gotten more colorful and processors have gotten faster, battery technology simply hasn’t kept up with the increasing demands for more power.
A potential solution for the growing need for more power is fuel cells. Fuel cells create power — and lots of it — by converting methanol into water. In fact, fuel cells produce significantly more power than an equivalent size battery.
Initially, it’s likely that you’ll be filling up your own methanol fuel cell canisters from a larger bottle, then popping them into your handheld. But eventually you’ll be able to purchase standard sized fuel cells in stores, just like batteries.
Naturally, there are a few problems with fuel cells, like what to do with the excess water. The latest prototypes put the water back into the same container as the methanol and have ways to deal with the gradually decreasing concentration of methanol in the mix.
An alternative to fuel cells is the micro-engine. Developed by a team at Birmingham University, the micro-engine is actually a tiny motor — far smaller than a battery — that runs on lighter fluid. It may sound strange but a micro-engine can generate 300 times more energy than a similarly sized battery.
The head of the Birmingham University team, Dr. Kyle Jiang, predicts that all portable devices that currently use batteries will get their power from micro-engines before 2010.
Handwriting recognition and tiny keyboards aren’t bad for entering small amounts of information. But what you really need for quick input is a full-sized keyboard. While today’s popular folding keyboards offer this in a relatively small package, they’re still somewhat bulky. Ideally, consumers are looking for a full-size keyboard that takes up no space.
Sounds impossible? Well, a company called VKB Ltd. is developing something it calls a virtual keyboard.
A virtual keyboard consists of a laser that projects an image of a keyboard onto a flat surface which can then be typed on as if it were actually there.
In the same way that handhelds with near-eye displays will also have regular screens, handhelds with virtual keyboards will also likely include an alternate way to enter text, simply because a flat surface isn’t always available.
Random Movement Printing Technology
Printing has long been the Achilles heel of handheld computing. While your handheld computer may be ultra-portable, carrying around a full-size printer is hardly practical. However, a new technology called Random Movement Printing Technology (RMPT) might help all that.
The PrintBrush, the world’s smallest printer, from PrintDreams is a concept design that uses the company’s Random Movement Printing Technology (RMPT). Text and pictures can be loaded onto the PrintBrush from a handheld computer using Bluetooth wireless networking. Then the PrintBrush is swept by hand across any type of paper, no matter its shape, size, or thickness, with the PrintBrush printing the text and images as it goes. If the image is too wide to get in a single pass, you can move the printer back over the paper again to fill in the rest. PrintDreams says the device takes into account every possible hand movement, including rotation and sudden changes of speed and acceleration.
The PrintBrush is as long as a ballpoint pen, as thick as a mobile phone, and weights 12.3 ounces, or 350 grams. The first version of PrintBrush was designed to fit into a shirt pocket but the company says future versions will be even smaller.
PrintDreams is currently working with OEMs to make printers based on RMPT and hopes to have the first of these available in 2005.
Sony’s Interaction Laboratory was created to investigate the future of human computer interactions. One of its projects that could have an impact in the future is the flexible handheld.
New Scientist recently did an overview of the latest prototype, called the Gummi. Users control the Gummi not with a stylus or jog wheel, but by bending it. Piezoelectric pressure sensors and a touch panel are built into the device. The Interaction Laboratory put together a Quicktime video to demonstrate its prototype.
Obviously, the Gummi isn’t ready for prime-time. For one thing, at this point it is primarily an information retrieval device; there doesn’t appear to be any way for the user to enter text. But at least it shows that Sony is thinking outside of the box.
Now the bad news
Unfortunately, it’s going to be a long time before any of this reaches the market. Toshiba announced recently that it plans to release a fuel cell powered laptop next year; scientists are still working to make near-eye displays smaller, lighter, and more affordable; and companies are still working the bugs out of virtual keyboards. However, we believe the day will come when these hot technologies will be in common use.