5 key techs that will transform future Apple iPhones, smartphones

Apple [AAPL] has put the new iPhone, popularly known as the iPhone 5 and technically the seventh iteration of the device into production, weekend reports claim. Today we look at five technologies that seem set to revolutionize our future smartphone experience.

[ABOVE: Apple's recently revealed corporate recruitment video offers something tantalizing around one minute in. Bloggers last week got all over-excited dreaming it was the iPhone 5. It isn't.]

When it comes to the iPhone 5 we pretty much know what to expect: A 4-inch display, faster graphics and processor, a new design, software improvements, even better battery life and more. We've been digging away at these rumors for months. Look further forward than the next release and there's a range of new technologies that seem set to transform the experience of iPhone (and smartphone) users.

The way you move, baby

Gesture recognition. Apple has been moving in this direction in a small way with Multi-touch user interfaces. The company has even filed patents detailing its research into gesture-based interfaces. When I say gesture I mean the movement-style controls that mark the experience of using a Wii, or other gesture-driven console. Sit back because in future you'll be dancing for your smartphone.

Fresh research from ABI Research claims that 600 million smartphones will be equipped with vision-based gesture recognition in 2017. Pointing particularly at Qualcomm's gesture recognition tech inside the Snapdragon chip and Intel's promises of similar features within its future mobile processors, ABI states: "…gesture recognition will be useful for media tablets, portable media players, and portable game players. It is projected a higher percentage of media tablets will have the technology than smartphones."

Gesture recognition is a very exciting prospect, particularly for smartphones and tablets,” says ABI Research senior analyst Josh Flood. “These devices are already heavily entrenched into peoples’ lives and another communication interface is always very welcome."

Talk dirty to me

OK, it's a truism that almost every Siri user ends up confusing the poor automated assistant with dubious adult-themed requests at some point, if only to hear the censorious voice of the vocal assistant emit a strangled indication that such a request isn't really appropriate. These sorts of conversations have become their very own Internet meme, probably reflecting some form of social autism or something like that. The news? The voice recognition we have today is but a pale reflection of what we'll have tomorrow.

Even based on Siri's present capabilities, it really isn't too challenging to imagine our smartphones, iPads (tablets), Macs and PCs will one day be capable of near universal navigation using our voice. It goes beyond that, of course, for example:

  • You'll be able to ask your smartphone to let you know when you're near a shop selling a particular item and it'll watch your location until you are near such a place.
  • You'll be able to ask it to keep an eye on online auction sites until a particular item comes available, perhaps even instructing it to bid on your behalf.
  • Home automation (Apple's next big market) will mean you'll ask your phone to sort out the contents of your fridge or to switch the lights on when you're out of town.

There are lots of possibilities.

The interesting thing about these is that as operating systems inevitably become cloud-hosted the devices we use will become increasingly invisible. The connected device you're wearing seems likely to become part of your clothing, a chip inside your shades or something you wear behind your ear or clipped onto your bag. It won't necessarily need a display (though more on this later). As the OS moves into the cloud the value of the device will be less than the value of the services it enables access too.

When it comes to PCs, you can anticipate hosted applications (there's so much movement in that direction). Voice controls will open up new opportunities for the full recognition of both SAAS (Software as a service) models and the realization of the concept of "dumb terminals".

That's in combination with other forms of discreet interface, of course: the argument that people don't want to sit in an office talking to themselves while those around them also talk to themselves is incredibly relevant. The notion of a future comprised of people talking to themselves at close quarters but not to each other is both isolationist and horrifying.

Watch those curves

There's a great deal of work taking place to develop strong yet flexible displays which are tough enough for the stress and strain of daily living and yet cheap enough to manufacture in quantity.

"Flexible and foldable displays will first be implemented on smaller sizes like smartphones," Rhoda Alexander, IHS iSuppli tablet analyst tells Reuters. "Tablets may follow in a later progression, once manufacturing costs and yields have been tested."

That Reuters report explains that work is taking place to develop touch-sensitive flexible displays. What could this mean?

It means devices such as the Pebble smart wristwatch are road signs pointing to the way ahead. I'm imagining flexible displays worn on the wrist, or embedded into clothing. I can easily imagine iPads that fold up to fit inside your pocket, or computer displays you keep in an envelope in your office drawer when you're not around. In combination with voice controls, technologies like this will make your everyday computing environment almost invisible.

The connected computing environment will become a pervasive and completely mobile experience. (That's Post-PC, not PC-Plus I'm afraid).

Over to the father of the iPod, Tony Fadell, for a hint as to what's to come, he tells Reuters: "The big open area that is left to tackle is truly great input. There is tactile input as well as voice input. Those are the two inputs that still need to be addressed in tablets."

Waiting for Jedi

Some will remember the 3D Princess Leah video that is projected out of R2D2's head casting her distress call for Jedi Warrior, Obi-Wan Kenobi in the oft-rebroadcast movie, Star Wars.

It isn't hard to imagine this happening via your iPhone.

Here's a scenario: You decide to leave a video message for a friend using the built-in back-facing camera on your smartphone. It's a lovely message, however your buddy isn't taking calls at the time you make contact. That's not a problem. Your video is sent across all the same and will be shown when they review their missed calls.

"But we could do that already," you cry, "that's easily possible." And of course it is.

Add a pico projector (small low-powered video projectors that cast small images at a wall) to the mix and you can imagine your video message appearing at life size on a nearby wall when your friend picks up their message. Easier to watch than it is on your phone's display, and also a neat way to watch a movie or TV show or YouTube clip, too.

Then think about when pico projectors become capable of casting 3D images. That's inevitable, isn't it, given the prevalence of 3D television? Now you can imagine that Princess Leah distress call happening for real, right?

So when will 3D pico projectors reach market? I don't think we'll be waiting too long, and while the realization of this isn't quite up there with my Star Wars vision, work has already begun which suggests that if true 3D projection is indeed possible, then you only need to watch that space.  

If you can't wait there are already third-party pico projectors for iPhones available to you. I'm already being asked if pico projection will arrive with iPhone 5. I don't know, but for the record, despite the plethora of pre-release iPhone 5 rumors already in circulation, I've this hunch Apple has kept a few features under wraps. Will be interesting to see what that/those secret[s] might be, but I'm not convinced they will include pico projection, yet.


Those cameras are already pretty useful. iPhones are already the most used cameras to be used to capture those pictures submitted to Flickr. That's nice but given these cameras are placed within devices already in possession of more actual intelligence than any conventional camera, what else might these things do?

We've already noted the notion of gesture-based device controls. Now lets take a look at another idea: how can the camera be used to secure your devices?

Almost every consumer-focused image editing application now includes face recognition technology, so it's not a challenging step to imagine that in future your phone will recognize your face. This is very likely already achievable through a simple software development (well, I say simple, we all know this stuff is exceedingly complex).

In this scenario it won't be enough to type in your passcode, you'll also need to make sure the phone recognizes your face. It may even need to be convinced by hearing your voice.  Perhaps the camera will be used to assess and match your thumbprint. And it isn't too much of a stretch to think of it scanning your eyeball to look for a match with its file record of your retina pattern.

What other technologies do you think will mean the mobile devices we use today will seem outmoded to tomorrow's people? Let us know in comments below.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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