Mobile Today becomes What Tomorrow?

By Christopher J. Andrews

Imagine for a moment several mobile computing scenarios that might be pulled out of the news websites of tomorrow:
Scenario 1: A field cable technician picks up her cell phone at her house, opens an application to review her job orders for the day, then leaves the house and puts her phone in its cradle in her truck. At the touch of a button on the steering wheel, the phone requests a route to the first job location and gives audible directions to the driver en route while logging time-en-route. Once at the job site, the technician removes the phone from its cradle and the phone starts logging on-the-job time. The technician approaches a junction box and uses the phone to scan an RFID tag at the location. Once she opens the junction box, the technician uses the phone to view true 3D representations of the proper configuration of the cables in the box. As the technician works, she records audible notes and attribute updates into the phone and then closes out the job with a verbal instruction, all of which has been recorded in a Web-based enterprise Work and Maintenance Management System.

Scenario 2: An elderly man's phone has detected that it hasn't moved for longer than 2 hours during the man's normal waking hours. The phone issues an audible alarm and, upon receiving no response from the man, emits a signal that triggers a passive RFID device implanted under the man's skin. The RFID device is able to respond not only with its identity, but also with a brief burst of telemetry that indicates that the man is experiencing heartbeat irregularities and that his blood sugar is dangerously low. The phone sends an automated text message to a medical alarm system, including not only the health data for its owner, but also the fact that the man is not in his own apartment, but is in a private reading room in the condominium's library.

Scenario 3: A major search engine and Web content portal company announces the acquisition of a new company that promotes its product as online personal experience advocacy. The large company, which has consumer-oriented, Web-based, 3D maps, declares that the software from its new acquisition will allow people with cell phones to post and advertise video blogs, podcasts, GPS information and text messages to the Web in an online virtual world where allowed users can view and search millions of multidimensional personal journals. As a bonus, the announcement states that individual users' journal entries - positional, video, audio and text - can be searched and indexed so that advertisements, news and subscription services will be automatically filtered for each user's tastes.

The development of the mobile computing device as a ubiquitous part of daily work and personal life presents the opportunity to examine how technology drivers are pushing the integration of geospatial and mobile technology rapidly into the future. A few years ago, these scenarios would have sounded improbable, if not impossible. Now they simply sound like the next advance in mobile technology. What would have been science fiction has taken on the inference of "not yet invented,” rather than "far-fetched." Our expectations about what new technology is to come have changed, even if the basic drivers that will enable the technologies that realize these scenarios probably haven't changed much in thousands of years.

Bandwidth begets more bandwidth, more quickly
In the middle ages, a highly trained Christian monk would take months to scribe approximately 3.6 million ornate characters on leaves of dried animal skin to make one complete Bible. With compression algorithms in today's world, the same words in electronic format can be compacted into a package of approximately 1.5 million bytes. At the data transfer rates of the earliest cellular phones on so-called 1G networks, the compressed Bible could be downloaded in approximately 1.75 hours, although no mobile device at that time could display or even store that amount of text. On a present day 3G mobile network, the download time drops to approximately 6 seconds. On a 4G network, anticipated to be in place in some areas by 2010, that time drops to 0.06 seconds [bandwidth data (pdf)]. At each technology transition, from vellum to telegraph to Internet, the increasing ability of the human race to rapidly send large quantities of information has not only improved access to information, it has also decreased the time necessary to achieve the next improvement in data exchange. Today a complex geospatial database must be downloaded in parts and pieces to be used on mobile devices, but tomorrow a mobile user will likely be able to view, modify and collaborate on complex 3D models in seconds.

Gadgetry for the masses
Think back to the size of the rotary dial on the phone in your grandmother's kitchen… not the whole phone, just the dial. Compare that to the size of your cell phone. Now take a look at the $10, five megapixel camera whose lens you can see on your cell phone. Pull back the phone casing to reveal a speaker smaller than a dime that you can hear across a room. Finally, browse through the applications on the phone to find your calendar and compare that to the size of a paper Day-Timer. Bell's Law of Computer Classes suggests that approximately every 10 years decreases in price converge with technology to put a whole new generation of computing capability in the hands of the everyday consumer. After 60 or 70 years of computer generations, we have put calculators the size of buildings into museums and now have calculator applications that are incidental and ubiquitous pieces of software on mobile phones, which in turn are smaller than a deck of playing cards.

Consumer generations
Ask 20-year-olds if they've ever seen a typewriter in real life or had to choose between leaded or unleaded gasoline. In 20 years, you might ask 20-year olds if they've ever used cash money for a purchase or seen a paper movie, bus or airline ticket and you may get the same answer. As consumer generations change, skills and expectations change along with them. The typing skills of today may still imply that you use a QWERTY keyboard with approximately 50 keys, but the "typing" skills of tomorrow will likely be based on the current middle school pupil's ability to send a thousand, 120 character text messages per week, all with a keyboard that has 20 or fewer pea-sized keys. The expected user experience of each new generation opens up alternative workflows and technologies that might have been limited by the practical use of tools and applications for preceding generations. Survey-quality 3D GPS location in the hands of a sixth grader? Bet on it coming to a Best Buy near you within five years at most.
Automation of instruction-based operation

Early science fiction movies showed futuristic computers with a myriad of buttons, levers and dials. The creative talent behind these "devices" were attempting to imagine new technology with expanded capability. They believed that human (or alien) operators would simply follow long lists of instructions to operate more complex machinery, but they were wrong. In the drive to make hi-tech work within a serialized TV show, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek writers hit upon the fact that as technology complexity increases, the ability to automate instructions also increases. Star Trek gadgets reflect the actual path of the interaction between humans and technology; with the flip of a dial or the push of a single button an entire complex analysis or operation may be invoked.

In our world we often hear a client suggest that we "program a new button." Programming languages have been invented to help automate highly complex chains of tasks to operate advanced technology. When James Gosling, the father of the Java programming language, seemed to imply that the most popular mobile programming environment, Java Micro Edition (JavaME), might be dead, it turned out that Dr. Gosling was not announcing that JavaME would be killed off, but instead he was speculating that as the performance and capabilities of mobile devices improved, JavaME would eventually merge with the more commonly known Java Standard Edition (JavaSE). That is, Gosling was pointing out that the limited JavaME would eventually be forced to mature into the more advanced capabilities of JavaSE to automate complex technology and to provide intuitive, enhanced software-based user experiences on mobile devices.

A proactive market
Reexamining the scenarios at the start of this article, many of the elements of each scenario can already be satisfied by existing wireless communication, GPS, GIS, BIM, Web-based application and database technologies. Although these scenarios seem futuristic, they are not so unbelievable as to be far-fetched.As mobile and spatial technology consumers, we already expect that such scenarios will likely occur in the near future.

Now imagine another scenario. Suppose that your $10 camera phone component is actually taking thousands of throw-away images that it analyzes to track the roll, pitch and yaw of your phone and of you. From this information, the phone knows how to alter its graphical display so that you can actually view 3D objects in-the-round on your phone and to even track its own trajectory to be used in games and data creation. If that sounds far-fetched or even "not yet invented," think again. NTT DoCoMo, Inc., a major Japanese cellular phone provider, is already proving out such technology to build the next generation of its cell phones for the Japanese consumer market. The market has now come to expect that bandwidth will increase, that gadgets will become cooler and smaller, and that user interfaces will become simpler. Companies like NTT DoCoMo are responding by anticipating these trends and even enlisting their competitors to help prove out the infrastructure and technology that will enable their next generation of computing users. And while you and I are comfortable typing on our keyboard that has 50 or more keys, it's likely that our children or grandchildren will someday ask us questions such as "What was it like to type on a computer?"or "So, what did 2D maps look like, anyway?"

Published Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

Written by Christopher J. Andrews

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