While sipping a cup of organically farmed,
artisan-brewed tea, I tap on my gigabit-wireless-connected tablet, to
pull up a 3-D 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
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 3-D depth or
artificial visual overlays -- will require more speed, storage and
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 3-D 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 512GB superfast solid-state, which you eject to take with you for offsite backup. On your way home, you stop at a movie kiosk outside a fast-food restaurant and buy a feature-length 3-D video download
on 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 Implementers 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 10 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
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 chairman 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 under way
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 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
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, 3-D 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
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
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 -- 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
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 1,000 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
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 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
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.
Disconnecting your active-shutter 3-D glasses from a charger, you
slip them on, eager to check out your downloaded copy of "Hulk VI:
Triumph of the Stretch Fabrics," the latest entrant in the green
anti-hero's film franchise. You drop into a comfy chair, tell the kids
it's time for a movie and twist the heat pouch on a bag of popcorn to
start it popping. The kids grab their own glasses and sit down to watch
the Hulk knock the Predator practically into their laps!
When television makers introduced HDTVs, it was
inevitable that they would figure out a way to render the technology
obsolete not long after everyone bought a set. And they have. The next
wave in home viewing is 3-D TV -- a 2-D picture with some stereoscopic
As 3-D filmmaking and film projection technology
have improved, Hollywood has begun building a (still small) library of
depth-enhanced movies. The potential to synthesize 2-D movies into 3-D
could feed demand, however -- the way colorizing technology increased
interest in black-and-white films in some circles in the 1980s. For
movies based on computer animation -- such as "Toy Story 3-D," a newly
rendered version of the first two movies in the series -- it's already
The promise of 3-D is a more immersive, more
true-to-life experience and substantively different from almost anything
you've watched before. In commercial theaters, 3-D projection typically
involves superimposing polarized or distinctly colored images on each
frame and then having viewers wear so-called "passive" glasses that
reveal different images to each eye. The brain synthesizes the two
images into a generally convincing notion of depth.
In contrast, 3-D at home
will almost certainly rely on alternating left and right views for
successive frames. HDTVs that operate at 120Hz (that is, 120 cycles of
refresh per second) are broadly available, so the ability to alternate
left and right eye images far faster than the human eye can follow
already exists. Fundamental industry standards are in place to allow
such recording, says Alfred Poor, an analyst with GigaOm and the author
of the Web site HDTV Almanac.
Viewing 3-D TV displays will require "active"
glasses that use rapidly firing shutters to alternate the view into each
eye. Active glasses are expensive today, but their price will drop as
3-D rolls out. Meanwhile, designers are in the development phase of
producing a 3-D set that doesn't require the glasses.
Sony and Panasonic have announced plans to produce 3-D-capable displays
and Panasonic recently demonstrated a large-screen version that the
company expects to ship in 2010. As happened when HDTVs rolled out,
premium 3-D TVs will appear first, followed by progressively more
Creating and distributing enough 3-D content to feed
consumers' interest may be more of a challenge. Poor noted that
filmmakers are currently making or adapting only a handful of features
each year for 3-D. But techniques to create "synthetic 3-D" versions of
existing films (using various tracking, focus and pattern cues for
splitting images) could fill the gap.
Existing terrestrial cable and IPTV networks should
be able to distribute 3-D content. The bandwidth that such networks use
to deliver typical HD broadcasts will be adequate for delivering 3-D
video once the networks upgrade to newer video compression techniques.
Satellite may face a more difficult road, since such systems already use
the best levels of compression.
For physical media playback, Blu-ray can store
the data needed and 3-D Blu-ray players are already on the drawing
board. No fundamental changes in Blu-ray will be necessary, so the trade
group that created the standard is focusing on compatibility -- such as
ensuring that a 2-D TV can play a 3-D disc.
Standards issues might not end up being very
troublesome, so long as the 3-D TVs are flexible enough. An industry
group is working on setting some general parameters, much as digital TV
was broken up into 480, 720 and 1080 formats, along with progressive and
interlaced versions. A 3-D TV may need to support multiple formats, but
all will involve alternating images and a pair of shutter-based
Poor expects that 3-D TV will be but a minor upgrade
to existing HDTV sets. The upgraded sets will need a modified display
controller that alternates images 60 per second for each eye, as well as
an infrared or wireless transmitter to send synchronization information
to the 3-D glasses.
'Augmented Reality' in mobile devices
You enjoyed "Hulk VI" so much on your home theater setup that you
decided to see it on the big screen. The movie is still playing, but
you’re not sure how to find the movie theater where it’s playing. In the
old days, you might have printed out directions from MapQuest; but
nowadays you don't need to do anything so primitive. Instead, you dock
your smart phone on the dashboard as you slip into your car and
instantly it superimposes driving directions to the theater on your
car's windshield. As you approach your destination, you see a group of
tall buildings. Superimposed on the windshield over one of the buildings
is the building’s name, the name of the movie theater inside it, the
name "Hulk VI" and a countdown to show time. "Turn left in 100 yards,"
the navigator speaks through your stereo as a large turning arrow
appears, guiding you into the parking structure.
In Neal Stephenson's book "Snow Crash," "gargoyles"
are freelance intelligence gatherers who have wired themselves to see
(through goggles that annotate all of their experiences) a permanent
overlay of data on top of the physical world. In less immersive fashion,
we may all become gargoyles as “augmented reality” becomes an everyday
is a catchall term for overlaying what we see with computer-generated
contextual data or visual substitutions. The point of the technology is
to enhance our ability to interact with things around us by providing us
with information immediately relevant to those things.
At work, you might walk around the office and see
the name and department of each person you pass painted on them -- along
with a graphical indicator showing what tasks you owe them or they owe
you. Though many case scenarios involve “heads-up” displays embedded in
windshields or inside eyeglasses, the augmented reality we have today
exists primarily on the “heads-down” screens of smart phones.
have released programs that overlay position- and context-based data
onto a continuous video camera feed. The data comes from various radios
and sensors built into modern smart phones, including GPS radios (for
identifying position by satellite data), accelerometers (for measuring
changes in speed and orientation) and magnetometers (for finding
position relative to magnetic north).
In an application called Nearest Places,
the names and locations of subway stops, parks, museums, restaurants
and other places of interest are shown on top of an iPhone's video feed.
As you walk or turn, the information changes to overlay your
"Smart phones and the related apps are the
trailblazers for augmented reality," says Babak Parviz, a professor at
the University of Washington who specializes in nanotechnology. "In the
short to medium term, my guess is that they will dominate the field."
Other prototype applications
display information dropped at particular coordinates as 3-D models
that the user can walk around or as animations whose details update in
3-D relative to the user's position. But the technology for those apps
isn't ripe yet; hand-helds require a more precise positioning mechanism
in order to handle that kind of data insertion. Fortunately, each smart
phone generation seems to include more and better sensors.
In other realms, augmented reality may serve to
provide not just additional information, but enhanced vision. One day,
infrared cameras mounted on the front of a car will illuminate a
far-away object represented as a bright-as-day image on an in-windshield
display. Radar signals and wireless receivers will detect and display
cars that are out of sight; and one piece of glass will host GPS and
Leaping past displays, Parviz and his team are
working on ways to put the display directly on the eyeball. They’re
trying to develop a technology for embedding video circuitry into
wearable contact lenses. While wearing such contact lenses, you would
see a continuous, context-based data feed overlaid on your field of
Before Parviz's lenses become a reality, augmented
reality is likely to become a routine navigation and interaction aid on
mobile devices. In addition, game developers may use the technology to
overlay complete digital game environments over the reality that gamers
see around them.
"Hulk VI" was great, but what should you watch this evening? Before
heading off to work in the morning, you click to some trailers on a
movie Web site, but you don't have time to watch many. So you use your
mobile phone to snap a picture of the 2-D barcode on one of the videos;
the phone's browser then takes you to the same site. On the commuter
train to the office, you watch the previews over a 4G cell phone
connection. A few of the movies have associated games that you try out
on your phone, too.
Remember when every Web site had a badge that read
"optimized for Netscape Navigator" or "requires Internet Explorer 4"? In
the old days, people made Web pages that worked best with -- or only
with -- certain browsers. To some extent, they still do.
The new flavor of HTML -- the standard program for writing Web pages -- is called HTML5 (Hypertext Markup Language version 5); and HTML5 aims to put that practice to bed for good.
Specifically, HTML5 may do away with the need for
audio, video and interactive plug-ins. It will allow designers to create
Web sites that work essentially the same on every browser -- whether on
a desktop, a laptop or a mobile device -- and it will give users a
better, faster, richer Web experience.
Instead of leaving each browser maker to rely on a
combination of its in-house technology and third-party plug-ins for
multimedia, HTML5 requires that the browser have built-in methods for
audio, video and 2-D graphics display. Patent and licensing issues cloud
the question of which audio and video formats will achieve universal
support, but companies have plenty of motivation to work out those
In turn, Web site designers and Web app developers
won't have to deal with multiple incompatible formats and workarounds in
their efforts to create the same user experience in every browser.
This is an especially valuable advance for mobile
devices, as their browsers today typically have only limited multimedia
support. The iPhone’s Safari browser, for example, doesn't handle Adobe Flash -- even though Flash is a prime method of delivering video content across platforms and browsers.
"It'll take a couple of years to roll out, but if
all the browser companies are supporting video display with no
plug-in, then there's no downside to using a mobile device," says
Jeffrey Zeldman, a Web designer and leading Web standards guru. "Less
and less expert users will have better and better experiences."
Makers of operating systems and browsers appear to be falling into line behind HTML5. Google Chrome, Apple Safari, Opera and WebKit (the development package that underlies many mobile and desktop programs), among others, are all moving toward HTML5 support.
For its part, Microsoft says that Internet Explorer 8
will support only parts of HTML5. But Microsoft may not want to risk
having its Internet Explorer browser lose more market share by resisting
HTML5 in the face of consensus among the other OS and browser makers.
HTML5 is now completing its last march toward a final draft and official support by the World Wide Web Consortium