Three More Hot Technologies That Could Profoundly Change Handhelds

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This is another installment in a series of articles covering technologies that are still on the drawing board or in the laboratory but have the potential to have a significant impact on handhelds at some point in the future.

Bacterial Power

Seems like almost everyone is trying to find a replacement for the battery. The reason for this is obvious: while up to now traditional batteries have done a pretty good job of keeping our electronic devices going, just about everyone would prefer a handheld or mobile phone that only has to be recharged every few weeks, instead of every few days.

There are several candidates of battery replacements. The best known is the Fuel Cell, which can turn Methanol into power. Another option is the Micro-engine, a tiny generator that runs on lighter fluid. Recently, a new possibility emerged: bacterial power.

When your bacterially-powered handheld starts to run low on power, you won’t plug it into a wall socket. Instead, you’ll pour in a bit of sugar. The sugar will be converted by a strain of bacteria called Rhodoferax ferriducens into carbon dioxide and electricity.

This is the invention of Swades Chaudhuri and Derek Lovley, who have a prototype that is an amazing 83% efficient. The two say their invention is cheap to make and can be used in environments as cold as 40 degrees and as hot as 86 degrees.

These two are currently working to turn their proof of concept into a real product. They see no reason why a bacterial battery couldn’t be as small as a typical household battery today.

Tiny Hard Drives

While a handheld with a measly 128 MB of Storage is considered the state of the art, there are plenty of MP3 players on the market with gigabytes of Storage capacity. Apple makes a 40 GB iPod — that’s 10,000 songs.

The reason MP3 players can store so much is they have a tiny hard drive inside of them, while handhelds depend entirely on memory chips. A handheld or smart phone with a mini hard drive could store hundreds of MP3s, hours of video that has been reduced in size for a handheld’s screen, or thousands of pictures.

Toshiba has just announced a new milestone in tiny hard drives. This has a diameter of only .85 inches, making it about the size of a nickel. Nevertheless, it can store between 2 GB and 3 GB of data. Tosbiba believes this would be ideal to store music and other types of files on smart phones and handhelds.

This miniature hard drive is expected to go into production in 2005.

Inductive Pen Sensing

Currently most handhelds use touch screens. While this may be what people are used to, a British company named Wacom Components is urging a switch to inductive pen sensing, the same technology being used in Tablet PCs.

In a touch screen, there is a semi-transparent resistive digitizer placed above the display with an air gap between it and a flexible resistive membrane above. When a stylus or finger compresses the flexible membrane, it touches the lower resistive layer, activating the signal. While this is what handheld users are familar with, it has several drawbacks.

For one, the digitizer is exposed, making it more prone to breakage. For another, the digitizer sits between the user and the display, obscuring it slightly.

With inductive pen sensing, there is a sensor that sits behind the screen and detects a special pen at a distance of up to 14 mm. Because the sensor is behind the screen, the display isn’t obscured at all, while the digitizer is better protected. Also, because this sensor doesn’t require the multiple layers of a touch screen, devices can be thinner. And inductive pen sensing is more accurate than the current method.

Of course, this means that the screen can only be used with the specially-designed pen. Still, this pen doesn’t need a battery or any sort of power running to it.

Wacom Components says it is currently working with Symbian to develop smart phones using inductive pen sensing.

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