The Year Ahead: Top ten technologies to watch

Robots, cars, power and light. Just some of the sectors that'll see action next year

1. Wireless networks
We're in the middle of a wireless revolution, and next year will be more of the same. Bluetooth is working and cheap, 802.11a and 802.11g will bring 55 megabits a second to your radio network, and a whole host of small, cheap, low power devices may yet give us the automated, computerised home that we've promised ourselves since the 1950s. Look out for Zigbee, the low power, low speed technology promised to be cheaper than Bluetooth and to run for months on ordinary batteries, but it has competitors; with Microsoft launching Bluetooth systems that don't work with other Bluetooth devices, beware the fragmentation of the market into different semi-standards. 2. Location-based services
You might not know where you are, but your mobile phone does. The network operators are already talking about beaming adverts to your phone or PDA when you're in the vicinity of a shop; somewhat more usefully, the same technology will tell you where to get petrol, cash, food or help, and automatically summon the closest free taxi to you. At the same time, GPS satellite navigation technology is getting much cheaper and more reliable and will be built into more things. Including active pet-collars, although quite why you'll need to know where Tiddles is to within five metres anywhere on the earth's surface is not entirely clear. 3. Holographic storage
Holographic storage is real science fiction stuff, with lasers writing complex three-dimensional patterns to optical recording media. It's also the epitome of next year's hot product, as people have been promising amazing things 'next year' since the mid-nineties -- giving hard disks and solid-state storage ample opportunity to keep up. But IBM is still keen, as are a handful of small start-ups, and the promise of terabyte storage in tiny spaces still hangs tantalisingly just out of reach. 4. Solar power
The trouble with solar cells has been that they take more energy to make than they produce during their lifetime -- all that silicon smelting, purifying and processing. Which makes the idea of plastic solar power, using organic compounds that you mix up and spread out like paint, very appealing. This year has seen a number of research departments and companies produce prototypes: they don't make much power, they're not very robust and they're not ready to come out and play just yet, but the potential is vast. 5. RFID
Expect 2003 to be filled with radioactive dust: the motes will be radio-frequency identity chips, and the activity comes from the scanners that will monitor their progress through the world. The idea is that physical items get labelled with RFID chips which can be read from up to 20 metres away, and then manufacturers and distributers flood the supply chain with scanners hooked up to central databases. Gillette's just ordered half a billion RFID chips to put on its razors: one day soon, you'll be walking around with enough transponders in your clothing and stuff you bought to be tracked from Mars. Just thought you'd like to know. 6. Telematics
Cars are getting cleverer, but not so the car makers -- who still haven't adopted a universal standard for in-car networks and IT. There are many contenders -- OSEK/VDX, MOST, IDB-1394 -- each of which does something better than the others, but FireWire and Bluetooth are likely to be a part of whatever ends up in the mix. The ideal, where you can buy electronic peripherals for your car with the same choice, interoperability and ease of installation as PC add-ons, is getting closer, but for now if you want to have an MP3 server in your Skoda that updates itself by Wi-Fi whenever the car is parked outside, you'll have to do it yourself. 7. Robotics
Robots are getting commoner: you can now buy lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners that bumble around under their own power. Philips is working on 'ludic robots' that try to be come unpredictable, amusing companions, Sony's AIBO dog has already spawned a new generation of smarter artificial canines, and the company has demonstrated its bipedal, humanoid SDR-4X, which can recognise faces and up to 60,000 words, work out a path across a room using its stereoscopic vision and dance in a most beguiling if slightly unsettlingly fluid manner. It should be available next year for the same price as 'a low-end luxury car'. 8. Lighting
You may already have a keyring LED torch, have noticed LED traffic lights popping up or even replaced the bulb in your Maglight with a solid-state alternative. These applications are just the beachhead for light-emitting diodes, which are producing more and purer light than ever before. They use a tenth as much power and last thousands of times longer than incandescent lights, but still cost twice as much as fluorescents to build. That'll change, if not this year then next -- oh, and you can make them change colour at will. Expect that dimmer switch in the living room to become a red-green-blue mixing control -- or better yet, just have a wireless LAN node built in. 9. Gaming
Of course, there'll be better graphics in the next generation of games consoles, but the real fun will come through broadband multiplayer environments, complex links into games via mobile phones and emails, and better-than-ever artificial intelligence, economic models and modding. Already, a small cult of machinima has started up, using game engines as studios to create movie-like scenes. Hollywood has always worried about fans taking over its valuable properties: now it looks like online gaming will go the same way. Just don't think about slash fiction. 10. Displays
Spies report that you can search the whole of Akihabara, Tokyo's high-tech retail wonderland, and not find a single TV or monitor using a cathode ray tube. With more factories gearing up to produce 17-in LCD panels, and even bigger sizes coming on stream, 2003 will be the first year in which LCD displays outsell CRTs -- they've currently got between 20 percent and 30 percent of the market, depending on who you talk to. That's bad news for other display technologies, both established like plasma and speculative, like light-emitting polymer.


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