CRNTech: 20 technologies to watch this year

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CRNTech: 20 technologies to watch this year
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1. Augmented reality

Augmented reality is the process of overlaying the real world with additional information - bringing up book reviews when looking at a novel on your cameraphone, for example, or displaying historical facts when you're staring at a monument. It's a technology that companies from IBM to Microsoft have tinkered with, although so far with no more success than a dog pawing at a Rubik's cube.

However, 2009 brought a breakthrough, thanks in no small part to the iPhone. The combination of its camera, processing power, high-quality screen and GPS means that, almost by accident, Apple has created the perfect device for running such services. This has left companies free to concentrate on developing the software, with impressive results.

Esquire magazine experimented with the technology to bring extra content to its articles, with barcodes beneath stories triggering videos and additional information when the smartphone's camera was hovered over them. More useful in daily life are the iPhone apps like UrbanSpoon that overlay the street with directions to restaurants, but that's barely the beginning. The US military is developing an Android app that overlays engines with schematics, potentially turning anybody into a mechanic, while Nintendo's Ghostwire game will overlay spooks and spectres on the real world with the DSi's built-in camera. Swedish firm TAT is even developing an app that identifies people, and floods your screen with information scavenged from the internet.

If this breakneck pace of development continues, augmented reality could prove to be the standout technology of 2010.

2. Motion Tracking 

Few tech demonstrations caused as much of a stir in 2009 as Microsoft's Project Natal. Designed primarily for the Xbox 360 console, the full-body motion and audio sensor will provide a completely new way of interacting with games in 2010. Demonstrations of the technology included the rather creepy Milo, a virtual boy who can understand natural speech and read your body language, if Microsoft's video is to be believed.

Yet, as our very own Jon Honeyball commented, Natal is potentially much more than a plaything. The combination of RGB camera, depth sensor, multi-array microphone and dedicated software could make a difference in the workplace. "Face recognition, gesture control, watching what the user is actually doing... A small amount of this wizardry could make a significant improvement to the business desktop," Jon speculated.

Indeed, Microsoft is already moving beyond the Natal concept and is now working on sensors that monitor muscle movements. These would allow you to pinch your fingers to change tracks on your MP3 player while jogging, for example, or squeeze your hand to open the car door when you can't reach your keys (handy when you've got arm loads of shopping).

Most of this could turn out to be blue-sky nonsense, but if Natal does prove to be the gaming hit of 2010, it could really get the world in motion.

3. OLED

Since LCDs replaced CRTs, no earth-shattering advances have occurred in the field of desktop monitors. A steady decrease in response times, a move to widescreen and plummeting prices are all incremental steps, while the introduction of LED backlights makes little real difference to the viewing experience. Organic LED (OLED) technology - in which every pixel emits its own light and no backlight is required - will change all that.

OLED has already penetrated the handheld market, and its advantages - stunning contrast, high power efficiency, easy "printing" onto flexible materials - mean it will inevitably seep upwards into larger or more innovative devices. We've seen luxurious keyboards with dynamic OLED key labels; hi-tech watches with OLED faces; at Intel's Developer Forum we even saw a laptop with three additional OLED screens beneath its main LCD.

We're still some way from seeing OLED monitors or TVs at reasonable prices, but Samsung, the largest OLED manufacturer, has predicted that the technology will be commercially viable for laptop displays in late 2010. That remains an exciting day in the distance, but while we wait we can pass the time with any of the large number of smartphones, media players, digital cameras and photo frames sure to make the logical move to a display technology that perfectly suits their needs.

4. USB 3

USB 3's final specification may have been confirmed in November 2008, but it isn't until 2010 that the super-fast technology will begin to make waves, as component and peripheral manufacturers introduce products that can take advantage of the standard.

It's ten times faster than the near-decade-old USB 2, with the new SuperSpeed mode running at 4.8Gbits/sec rather than the mere 480Mbits/sec offered by the old standard, meaning that a 25GB file can be transferred in only 1min 10secs. USB 3 cables can also power larger devices, with the new wires carrying 150mA of juice compared to 100mA from USB 2.

USB 3 may be backwards compatible, but firms are already preparing products that will benefit from the additional speed and power on offer: the first USB 3 motherboards have already landed in the PC Authority Labs, and a wide range of products - including external hard disks, IP cameras, DisplayLink devices and high-end flash drives - will be unveiled in the coming year.

5. Android marches on

Nobody was particularly overwhelmed when Google Android made its debut in the Dream back in February, although as we stated at the time, that was more down to the lacklustre hardware than the operating system itself. A succession of vastly improved handsets later (such as the HTC Hero), and Android is now the most credible threat to the iPhone OS's sheer desirability.

Android has one huge benefit over the iPhone OS: it isn't tied to a single piece of (albeit magnificent) hardware. That's why international analyst firm Gartner predicts it will overtake BlackBerry OS, Windows Mobile and the iPhone OS to become the world's second biggest mobile operating system (behind Symbian) by 2012.

There's plenty to look forward to before then, however. The forthcoming Android 2 software will offer features such as multiple email accounts (including Exchange), improved camera support and social-networking synchronisation. Google has also lobbed a hand grenade into the back garden of satnav makers such as TomTom and Garmin by offering free turn-by-turn directions on Android 2, a feature that could arrive in Australia in 2010.

With Nokia still busy at the drawing board with the next version of Symbian, and Windows Mobile 7 unlikely to appear until the summer at the earliest, Android is poised to be the smartphone OS of the year. Just pray that it's kept away from netbooks (see our review of the Acer Aspire One D250 on page 44 to find out why).

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