3 tech advances that will change PCs forever

We are on the cusp of a significant change in PC design driven by parallel changes in where the OS and apps run; head-mounted displays; and battery technology. This combo will drive us toward a new era of wearable computers by the end of the decade.

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Disclaimer:  Most of the companies mentioned are clients of the author.

With the impact of COVID-19, sales of laptops – particularly Chromebooks for education – have been going vertical, and several OEMs are reporting shortages. But the most common clamshell design goes back to the early 1990s, well before recent advances in processor technology, GPUs, memory, storage, operating systems, displays and even battery formulations.  We keep playing with different variants like the coming Microsoft Surface Neo, but they still fall well short of what you might have expected to evolve in the last 30 or so years. 

There are three coming technology advances that will dramatically change not only how we work, but what we use – changes some of which are currently accelerating thanks to the ongoing pandemic. 

Let’s talk this week about what’s coming and the future of PC hardware.

5G and Virtual Windows

I’m going to start by blending two technologies that together should drive a massive change in what goes into future PCs.  With 5G, we get near wired fiber-like performance that isn’t just related to bandwidth but to the AI technology surrounding the modem, which further optimizes the data stream and makes it both higher performing and vastly more reliable.  To make a virtualized Cloud experience work, you need a very robust connection, and 4G just doesn’t get us there. But, according to Qualcomm, 5G hardware will directly address this issue and provide a way for those with 5G hardware to have a virtual terminal with hosted workstation performance. 

This advance wouldn’t work unless Microsoft stepped up, and it has  with the Microsoft Virtual Desktop. The combination of these two things means you don’t need the processing power required to run applications locally. Instead, you’ll run them in the Cloud, shifting the performance emphasis from what we currently think of as PC technology (processor, GPU, storage, memory) to the modem and the Cloud itself, where you then are likely to see bottlenecks. 

This change should provide substantially more flexibility in design then we currently have. 

Head-mounted displays

We have made a lot of advances in head-mounted displays over the last five years.   The coming HP Reverb 2 VR headset will be as much of a game-changer as the company’s high-performance first edition.   Current generations of VR headsets have cameras so you can still effectively see what is around you.  Coupled with imaging software that can incorporate what the camera sees, you could address the one sustaining problem with living with a head-mounted display: the inability to see a keyboard for finger placement, and being isolated from the things around you. 

The use of a very high-resolution head-mounted display would address one of the biggest problems with current laptops, the limited size of the screen.  With a very high resolution, you can effectively make the virtual display you see in a head-mounted display any size you want, making large monitors redundant by providing a far more portable alternative. 

This change also frees up designers to get more creative with laptop case designs because the size of the display will no longer constrain them.  They might even break out the keyboard and come up with wearable designs that plug into or wirelessly connect to the head-mounted display, keyboard, and pointing device which, could be modular as well. 

Battery breakthroughs

It may be hard to get excited about battery tech because we’ve had so many promising battery breakthroughs that never made it to market.  Part of the problem is that for decades we didn’t focus much on batteries; only in the last few years have we started investing in battery R&D again.  While this delayed approach did result in a lot of false starts and disappointments, someone was eventually likely to get it right. A company called Echion Technologies suddenly looks interesting. 

This company, spun out of Cambridge University, has created a high-performance battery that can reportedly recharge in just six minutes at nearly any size.  This advance would not only revolutionize laptops, it would dramatically overcome the big refueling negative for electric cars. 

What makes the technology promising is that Echion Technologies was designed not to develop the technology but to commercialize it.  While its one-year time frame to bring the technology to market was too aggressive (given that it’s now been around for more than a year), it still appears to be far closer to success than other technologies ever got. 

Another emerging technology is Supercapacitors, which many thought would replace batteries last decade. Supercapacitors not only charge far faster than batteries, but they also don’t wear out, making them ideal for both personal electronics and cars.  Shortcomings have been energy leakage, energy density – and cost.   While farther out than Echion’s battery, this group involving Duke University and Michigan State appears to have a viable model that seems to be within five years of being ready for market.  If it makes it, this new battery alternative would massively change the power dynamics for PC and other personal currently battery-powered tech. 

Since most of the articles I’ve seen showcasing this Supercapacitor capability tie into wearables, the idea of a small wearable PC becomes far more viable once this technology becomes real. 

The impending birth of a broad market wearable PC

We’ve had wearable PCs since the early days of this century, but they’ve tended to be very limited and focused on tasks where a user is working, needs a PC, but also needs to work hands free. These were historically used for things like taking inventory, and more recently, as high-performance VR platforms (HP’s wearable PC comes to mind).  But they tend to be large, heavy, and impractical as a day-to-day PC solution. 

However, if you were to shrink them down, make them more affordable, give them a far better mixed-reality headset that better integrates the user into both real and virtual worlds, and use Cloud resources to boost performance, I think you’d have something that has the potential to obsolesce everything currently in the market. 

Within the next five years, all of these parts should come together to create a PC revolution.  As I sit at my desktop working to finish this column so I can put on my own VR headset and play Half-Life Alyx (the first VR Game that could drive widespread VR use), I’m reminded how much better it will be when I can unplug and genuinely use a PC anyplace I am or want to go.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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