[AI] The future of the PC

Sanjay ilovecold at gmail.com
Tue Apr 20 02:38:23 EDT 2010


SuperSpeed USB, HTML5, 3D TV, augmented reality and faster Wi-Fi are five new
technologies that could change technology as we know it.  Glenn Fleishman takes
a glimpse into the future of the PC

While sipping a cup of organically farmed, artisan-brewed tea, I tap on my
gigabit wireless tablet PC and pull up a 3D film on the razor-thin HDTV hanging
on the wall.  A media server streams the film via a SuperSpeed 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.  Immediately my field of vision is filled with a
web page showing a list of the actor's movies, complete with embedded video
clips.

It all sounds like the film 'Minority Report', but the only far-fetched part
is the idea that we'd dump our good old-fashioned cuppa.  Tomorrow's
computing and entertainment promise subtle but important changes in our
relationship with the digital world around us.

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 3D depth or artificial visual overlays - will require more
speed, storage and computational power.

And the technologies that will provide the connective tissue are just around the
corner.  USB 3.0, 802.11ax and 802.11ad will move media - particularly video
- faster, while HTML5 will display content of all kinds consistently across
all devices from PC and laptop to smartphone, digital TV and more.

Augmented reality, meanwhile, will become reality, overlaying what we're
accustomed to viewing with graphics and text.  On top of this, 3D TV will give
television programmes image depth and believability - and in far more
convincing fashion than Channel 4's recent 3D TV showcase week.

Here's how the most world-changing technologies of the next three years will
fit in.

USB 3.0 

As we reported in our Jan 09 issue ( page 20), SuperSpeed USB is about to
launch, ramping up the transfer rate of your most heavily used PC port to 4.8
gigabits per second (Gbps).  And, crucially, you can use current USB 2.0 devices
with the newer jacks.  Additional pins on USB 3.0 sockets boost the data
transfers by a factor of 10.

While not the sexiest-sounding concept, USB 3.0 will ratchet up the capabilities
and cut the cables of the technology built into all present-day PCs and most
mobile devices; in other words, it should have a huge effect.  Add uncompressed
video transfers and you're in a whole new realm.

Imagine you're about to leave work and you need to back up your computer.  You
push a button and, a few minutes later, while you're still packing up, your
system has dumped 150GB of data on to an encrypted 512GB super-fast solid-state
drive (SSD).  You take the disk with you for offsite backup.

On your way home, you stop at a kiosk in the town centre to buy a feature-length
3D video download.  You plug in your drive, the kiosk checks your credentials
and, within 90 seconds, the 30GB video transfers on to your SSD.  You pull out
the drive and head home.

Any task that involves transferring data between your PC and a peripheral device
will be far faster with USB 3.0.  In many cases, in fact, the transfer will be
complete before you even realise it's started.

USB 3.0, christened SuperSpeed by the USB Implementors Forum (USB-IF), is on
track to deliver more than 3.2Gbps of actual throughput.  It will be five to ten
times faster than other standard desktop peripheral standards, except some
flavours of DisplayPort and the increasingly out-offavour eSATA.  USB 3.0 can
shoot full-speed data in both directions at the same time, too.

USB 3.0 jacks will accept 1.0 and 2.0 plug ends for backward compatibility, but
3.0 cables will work only with 3.0 jacks.  This technology could be a
game-changer for device connectivity.

One device does it all 

Today's desktop PCs include jacks to accommodate ethernet, USB 2.0, FireWire,
DVI, DisplayPort and eSATA.  USB 3.0 could eliminate all these except ethernet.
In their place, a PC may have several USB 3.0 ports, delivering data to
monitors, retrieving it from scanners and exchanging it with hard drives.  The
improved speed capabilities come 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 to stream at 60fps,
according to Jeff Ravencraft, president of the USB-IF.  That would enable a
camcorder to forego video compression hardware and patent licensing fees for
Mpeg4.  You 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 USB 3.0's versatility, some analysts see the standard as a possible
complement - or even alternative - to the HDMI connection found on Blu-ray
players.

Leading the charge 

The new USB 3.0 flavour will also boost computers' credentials as 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
synching, the increased amperage of USB 3.0 might let you do away with AC
adaptors.

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, laptops 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 rear - we expect to see
similar numbers of USB 3.0 ports appear on devices soon.

The higher speed of 3.0 will also accelerate data transfers, 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 applications for the technology include on-the-fly syncronisation and
downloads.  Ravencraft notes that customers could even download movies at a
petrol station while they fill up.

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, too.  Manufacturers
currently sell more than two billion devices with built-in USB each year, so
there's plenty of potential for getting the new standard out fast.

Video over Wi-Fi 

Today's Wi-Fi will be left in the dust by 802.11ac and 802.11ad, both of which
will be capable of carrying multiple video streams and operating at far higher
data rates.

You get home from work, plug your flash drive into your laptop and transfer the
HD 3D movie you downloaded earlier 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 centre to your
wall-mounted HDTV.

Wired ethernet has consistently achieved higher data speeds than Wi-Fi, but
wireless standards groups are constantly trying to come up with 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 1Gbps or faster.

As a result, we'll be able to have multiple HD video and gaming streams active
across a house and within a room.  Central media servers, Blu-ray players and
other settop boxes will sit anywhere in the home, streaming content to devices
in any location.  For example, an HD video display, plugged in with just a power
cord, could stand across the room from a Blu-ray player, satellite receiver or
computer - with no need for expensive, unsightly cables.  The 802.11ac/ad
standards should be well suited for home use, although their applications will
certainly extend far beyond this.  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.

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 600Mbps to a nominal maximum of more than 1Gbps.  In practice, the net
data carried by 802.11ac will probably be between 300Mbps and 400Mbps - up
from 160Mbps or so for a good real-world 802.11n setup, and more than enough
capacity to carry multiple compressed video streams over a single channel
simultaneously.  Alternatively, you could assign individual streams running on
unique frequencies to a number of separate channels.  In common with 802.11n,
802.11ac will use several antennae for receiving and sending data wirelessly.

Lossless HD video 

The 802.11ac flavour still won't have the capacity to carry lossless HD 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 data stream and send it directly to
a decoder in an HDTV set; some HD sets already have this capability.  But for
uncompressed video to stream faster than 1Gbps, a speedier format must be used.

That's where 802.11ad comes in.  It abandons the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands and
works in the newly available 60GHz spectrum.  Because the 60GHz spectrum has an
ocean of frequencies available in most countries, you'll be able to use
multiple distinct channels to carry more than 1Gbps of uncompressed video each.

Unfortunately, the 1mm-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 let you move files or
sync data between devices at speeds approaching that of USB 3.0, and 1,000 times
faster than Bluetooth 2.0.

The 802.11ad specification is one of three competing ideas for using the 60GHz
band.  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 of the various groups overlaps, making an interoperable or even
unified specification possible.  Although 802.11ad doesn't specifically
address video, it'll be a generic technology that can accommodate many kinds
of data.  Each group has said it will work to prevent interference with one
another's purposes.

The combination of 802.11ac, 802.11ad and USB 3.0 will let you position clusters
of PC and entertainment hardware around your home.  USB 3.0 and gigabit ethernet
might connect devices in a cupboard 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, technical leader at Cisco Consumer Products, says the change in
home networks won't result from any single technology in the home, "but rather
from a pairing of technologies or a trio of technologies - wired and/or
wireless".

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.

Pseudo 3D TV 

Panasonic and other HDTV makers are looking to faux 3D technology to provide
stereoscopic depth - not to mention a reason for consumers to buy a newer set.

Disconnecting your active-shutter 3D 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 instalment in the green antihero'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'd come up
with a way to render the technology obsolete once everyone had bought a set.
And they have.  The next wave in home viewing is 3D TV - a 2D picture with
some stereoscopic depth.

As 3D film-making and film projection technology have improved, so Hollywood has
begun building a (still small) library of depth-enhanced movies.  The potential
to synthesise 2D movies into 3D could feed demand, however, just as colourising
technology increased interest in black-and-white films in the 1980s.  And for
movies based on computer animation such as Up and Toy Story 3D, it's already
happening.

The promise of 3D is a more immersive, true-to-life experience, and promises to
be substantially different from almost anything you've watched before.

In cinemas, 3D projection typically involves superimposing polarised or
distinctly coloured images on each frame.  Viewers wear 'passive' glasses
that reveal different images to each eye.  The brain synthesises the two images
into a generally convincing illusion of depth.

By contrast, 3D at home will probably rely on alternating left and right views
for successive frames; the ability to alternate left- and right-eye images far
faster than the human eye can follow already exists.  Alfred Poor, an analyst
with GigaOm, insists that fundamental industry standards are in place to allow
such recording.

Viewing 3DTV 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 3D rolls out.  Meanwhile, designers are
developing 3D sets that don't require the glasses.

Sony and Panasonic have announced plans to produce 3D-capable displays, and
Panasonic recently demonstrated a large-screen version that the company expects
to ship in 2010.  Premium 3DTVs will appear first, followed by progressively
more affordable models.

Creating and distributing enough 3D content to feed consumers' interest may be
more of a challenge.  According to Poor, filmmakers are currently making or
adapting only a handful of features each year for 3D.  But techniques to create
'synthetic 3D' versions of existing films (using various tracking, focus and
pattern cues for splitting images) could fill the gap.

For physical media playback, Blu-ray can store the data needed, and 3D 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.

And standards issues might not end up being particularly troublesome, provided
the 3DTVs 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 3DTV may need to
support multiple formats, but all will involve alternating images and a pair of
shutter-based glasses.

Alfred Poor expects that 3DTV will be a minor upgrade to existing HDTV sets.
The upgraded sets will need a modified display controller that alternates images
for each eye, as well as an infrared or wireless transmitter to send
synchronisation information to the 3D glasses.

Augmented reality 

Babak Parviz, a professor at the University of Washington who specialises in
nanotechnology, is working on a bionic contact lens that can 'paint' imagery
and data directly on the eye to augment reality.

Imagine, then, that you enjoyed Hulk VI so much on your home-theatre setup that
you decided to see it on the big screen.  The film is still showing, but
you're not sure how to find the cinema where it's playing.  In the old days,
you might have printed out directions from Streetmap; but nowadays you don't
need to do anything so primitive.

You dock your smartphone on the dashboard as you slip into your car, and
instantly the device superimposes driving directions to the cinema on your
car's windscreen.  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 cinema inside it, the name Hulk VI and a
countdown to the start time.

"Turn left in 100 yards," the navigator says, speaking through your stereo
system, as a large turning arrow appears to guide you smoothly into the car
park.

In Neal Stephenson's book Snow Crash, 'gargoyles' are freelance
intelligence gatherers who have wired themselves to see 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 experience.

Augmented reality is a catch-all term for overlaying what we see with
computergenerated 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.  Although many case scenarios
involve 'heads-up' displays embedded in windscreens or inside eyeglasses,
the augmented reality we have today exists primarily on the 'heads-down'
screens of smartphones.

Several firms have released programs that overlay position- and context-based
data on to a continuous video camera feed.  The data comes from various radios
and sensors built into modern smartphones, including GPS radios, accelerometers
and magnetometers.

In an application called Nearest Places, for example, the names and locations of
parks, museums, restaurants and other places of interest are shown on top of an
iPhone's video feed.  As you move, the data changes to overlay your
surroundings.

"Smartphones and their apps are the trailblazers for augmented reality," says
Parviz.  "In the short to medium term, my guess is that they will dominate the
field."

Other prototype applications display information dropped at particular
co-ordinates as 3D models that the user can walk around, or as animations whose
details update in 3D relative to the user's position.  But the technology for
those apps isn't ripe yet; handhelds require a more precise positioning
mechanism in order to handle that kind of data insertion.  Fortunately, each
successive generation of smartphones 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-windscreen 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 traffic reporting.

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 vision.

Before Parviz's lenses become a reality, augmented reality is likely to become
a routine navigation and interaction aid on mobile devices.  In addition, games
developers may use the technology to overlay complete digital environments over
the reality that gamers see around them.

HTML5 web browsers 

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 film website, but you
don't have time to watch many.  So you use your mobile phone to snap a picture
of the 2D barcode on one of the videos; the phone's browser then takes you to
the same site.  On the train into work, you watch the previews over a 4G mobile
phone connection.  A few of the films have associated games that you try out on
your handset, too.

Remember when every website had a badge that read 'optimised for Netscape
Navigator' or 'requires Internet Explorer 4.0'?  In the old days, people
made web pages that worked best with - or exclusively with - particular web
browsers.  To some extent, they still do.

The new flavour of the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) - the standard program
for writing web pages - is called HTML5.  It 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 websites that work 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 the browser
to have built-in methods for audio, video and 2D 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 details.

In turn, website 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 a particularly 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 JavaScript, just the video tag and no
plug-in, then there's no down side to using a mobile device," says Jeffrey
Zeldman, a web designer and web standards guru.  "Less and less expert users
will have better and better experiences."

And HTML5 appears to be making progress, with makers of operating systems and
browsers falling into line behind the standard.  Google Chrome, Apple Safari,
Opera and WebKit (the development package that underlies many mobile and desktop
programs), among others, are moving toward HTML5 support.

Microsoft says that Internet Explorer 8.0 will support only parts of HTML5.  But
the firm may not want to risk having its browser lose more market share by
resisting HTML5 in the face of consensus among the other operating system and
browser makers.

HTML5 is now completing its last march toward a final draft and official support
by the World Wide Web Consortium.



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