A look at futuristic tech in 2010

From artificial intelligence to augmented reality, industry players and analysts give spin on how these cutting-edge technologies will take off--with caveats--in the new year.
Written by Liau Yun Qing, Contributor

Imagine being able to move any object simply by touching a screen, or have digital information "pop out" from a mobile device.

Surface computing and augmented reality, as well as artificial intelligence and telemedicine, have received much interest over their potential to enhance user experience. ZDNet Asia features the four technologies and discusses their development in 2010.

Surface computing
Surface computing has moved from "a research curiosity to deployed technology." This was according to Jackie Fenn, vice president and research fellow at Gartner, in a July 2009 report.

Agreeing, Faysal Abdul Aziz, managing director of Malaysia-based startup Smart Surface, believes 2010 will lay the foundation for the takeoff of surface computing, as it will receive exposure through high-profile projects and diversify into industries beyond media and advertising into games, education, conferencing and medical industries

Patrick Chan, chief technology advisor of emerging technologies at IDC Asia-Pacific, believes the way users are acclimatizing to touch interfaces is a stepping stone for surface computing."The younger generation who are currently in schools are more attuned to touch devices, and they will shape the next generation of tech consumption," he added.

The market will see the emergence of bigger screen devices in 2010, as major players such as Microsoft, Dell, Lenovo and Apple release tablet-like devices which are a cross between a smartphone and a laptop, said Chan.

"These devices will increase in number with more simplified functions onboard to access the Internet, online videos and social collaboration software, and require much less power to operate," said Chan. "[We can expect] newer touch screens [that] can be controlled by voice, pen, eye tracking or touch."

Microsoft's Surface general manager Panos Panay, believes surface computing is a major advancement in computing that moves beyond the traditional user interface to a more natural way of interacting with information. Microsoft Surface targets vertical markets such as retail, hospitality, financial services, healthcare, automotive and the public sector. But like all new technological investments, Panay added that organizations need to consider whether investing in surface computing will help reach their business goals.

Augmented reality
Augmented reality (AR), where digital information is overlaid on the user's view of the real world, is slowly but surely moving out of its industrial niche. Gartner's Fenn, in her July 2009 report, observed that AR on mobile devices will experience an increasing amount of visibility and hype over the next few years, thanks to market leaders such as Nokia, and startups designing applications for the Apple iPhone and Google Android.

Bhavya Khanna, wireless research associate at ABI research, noted that AR can also serve as advertising for both retail and service operators in cities. The travel industry is another area made for AR, she said, adding that applications from Lonely Planet already exist. "Smart cities that wish to promote tourism would be well advised to link up with application providers to include such overlays, such as tourist information, historical and archeological information for tourist destinations."

Principal analyst Windsor Holden of Juniper Research added that from a business perspective, AR has the potential to be extremely valuable, especially in fields like engineering and security.

However, he reckons that 2010 will unlikely to be a breakthrough year for AR. He argued that very few handsets are AR-capable--the technology requires accelerometers, a digital compass, camera, mobile broadband and GPS.

Holden told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that the technology itself has yet to reach a point where enterprise applications can be usefully released. "GPS alone does not offer the level of precision necessary for deployment, particularly for time-critical applications," adding that there's a lot of work being done in sensor fusion which could overcome these problems, but which would be longer-term solutions.

On the software front, too, Khanna noted that while AR applications such as "layers" do exist, the overlays on reality are still lacking for all but a few cities in the world.

Artificial intelligence
Will 2010 be the year of the artificial intelligence (AI) finally?

Researchers Ng See Kiong and Li Haizhou told ZDNet Asia that while the "grand traditional vision" of AI allowing computers to replace humans with human-like intelligence is not quite there yet, progress made by AI researchers has made some form of AI applications possible.

Ng, who is from the Data Mining Department, and Li who is from the Human Language Technology Department of the Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R), said AI-like technology that is ready to take off for enterprise is data mining, as this can process large sets of data to identify useful trends and patterns. These can be used as business intelligence for enterprise through customer profiling such as in CRM (customer relationship management) applications, providing recommendations such as in Amazon's "People who bought this also bought that" function, and sentiment analysis of online discussion. I2R is a member of Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).

Such applications include voice recognition technology which, while not able to understand human speech totally, is capable of recognizing numbers and keywords. These technologies can be used in voice mining applications such as searching and indexing of news videos by keywords, according to the I2R researchers.

AI can also be deployed to look for specific patterns in images and videos, such as in surveillance applications for tracking passengers in public places like airports, said the researchers. They added that while computers may not have the same level of visual understanding as trained human eyes, they do not get fatigued.

IDC's Chan also concurred. He noted that many functions in AI that are domain specific--speech recognition and face recognition--are entering the industry platform. Examples given were performing searches using voice, face recognition in camera, and sensory functions in robots that do specific chores like vacuuming, counter reception or assistive shopping.

And with the advent of the Internet and improvement in technology like cloud computing, "samples for training AI engines and computing cycles needed to complete these engine learning are now not a problem", he said, adding that the problem at hand is to scale to larger problem domains that are holistic in nature and which integrate many existing AI functions such as sight, touch and voice.

That said, the ability to match AI to human capabilities is still "way off the next few years", said Chan.

For organizations considering implementing AI, Ng and Li also pointed out that they should take into consideration their ROI (returns on investment) cycles. The researchers noted that AI should be used for computer-assisted operation and not to replace human decision. The computer should be used for its strengths--non-fatigue, can scan large data, systematic analysis of data, pattern recognition--as long as the organization expects and tolerates computer-generated errors.

With simple telemedicine applications already here, 2010 is seen as the year of the sophisticated telemedicine technology, believes Anthony Cox, senior analyst at Juniper Research.

Simple telemedicine applications in place already are those using mobile networks to disseminate information or cellular networks for remote patient consultancy. Cox pointed out mobile-based patient consulting projects such as Healthline in Bangladesh, Medicall in Mexico and Teledoctor in Pakistan. The next step, employing more sophisticated telemedicine, is on trial largely in the United States. These include heart monitoring, recording glucose levels and using cellular technologies to check on aging populations, he said.

Advocating that telemedicine will not only create opportunities for medicine, it will benefit technology through innovations and enhancement of the telemedicine market is Guan Cuntai. He is the program manager for Assistive ICM for Health Monitoring and Rehabilitation at the I2R.

Guan adds that telemedicine will require communication, information and media technologies to transmit, archive, retrieve, analyze and process users' health information.

Organizations that would benefit most from telemedicine would be hospitals, clinics, nursing home, insurance companies, medical device companies, and service providers such as the telecommunications service, software services and medical services, he pointed out. "It is the dawn of these new services, and telemedicine will eventually enter mainstream care," he said, adding that telemedicine will penetrate into more homes as the aging population increases. In fact, he noted that companies such as Bosch and Cardionet, have already launched services for mobile or home-based telemedicine services.

IDC's Chan believes telemedicine will continue to evolve in the near term, but that the community and network need to mature. He noted that a serious concern affecting telesurgery is network lags. "Although there are emerging state-of-the-art facilities appearing in Asia, such as the Singapore National Eye Centre telemedicine in Ophthalmology, there still is a gap to network performance."

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