FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Portable Doctor

Samsung is developing a fourth generation (4G) mobile device that can function as a "portable doctor," checking a user's vital signs and communicating with a physician via a translation function.

The device would likely be marketed to frequent travelers, those in remote and rural areas, and military and emergency response personnel. With data speeds between 100 Mbps and 1 Gbps, the device can transmit enough sound, video and other data allow a physician to make a full diagnosis of a patient.

Samsung hopes to make the device available by 2009, though its marketability will largely depend upon the adoption of 4G. Security and medical licensure issues will also need to be resolved before the "portable doctor" is ready to see you.

Source: Korea Times

Wal-Mart RFID Tags Starting to Pay Off

Through its widely-touted implementation of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, Wal-Mart has been able to reduce out-of-stock merchandise by 16% over the past year, and can restock tagged merchandise three times faster than non-tagged items.

Currently, 130 major suppliers tag their products to Wal-Mart's specifications, and another 200 are expected to come online by January.

Wal-Mart's success -- coupled with the falling cost of tags -- will almost certainly ensure adoption of RFID by other retailers. This payoff, though, is not without controversy. Critics have protested, in particular, Wal-Mart's practice of tagging computer equipment, and privacy fears about RFID in general appear to be gaining momentum.

Source: Wired

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Best Experiences Money Can Buy

Need a holiday gift for the man or woman who has everything? Instead of falling back on the candy that won't be eaten, the gadget that will be broken or lost, or the sweater that will be regifted, give them an experience they'll never forget.

The retail trendwatching firm Springwise has zeroed in on the trend toward "experience stores," cropping up precisely because, in our affluent economy and a $250 billion-a-year gift-giving market, we're simply running out of clever stuff to give to each other (or ourselves).

Simply purchase a gift card or certificate for the experience of your choice, whether it be hypnosis, personal fitness training, make-up instruction, floral arrangement, an arts-and-crafts activity, or a glamour photo shoot. Experiences are available for all interests and budgets, but for those with a taste for the exotic, consider a chance to drive a NASCAR racer or fly in a Russian fighter jet.

If you're not careful, you may be able to get some experiences for free. Credit cards such as Diners' Club and American Express are allowing their customers to spend their membership points on being a rodeo clown for a day (is that a gift or a punishment?) or meeting Sting backstage.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Report: Nearly All Foods to Have RFID Tags by 2015

Within a decade, the majority of food items worldwide will be tracked in some manner through radio frequency identification (RFID) tags.

According to a report titled Food and Livestock Traceability, 900 billion food items and 824 million livestock could be tagged by 2015. Aside from economic and logistical benefits, the main drivers for tagging will be enduring the safety of the food supply, whether from organic threats such as diseases, or from terroristic sabotage. The full report is summarized (and can be purchased) here.

Source: WiseMarketer.com

Monday, October 24, 2005

China as Flu Incubator

Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek wonders if the growth and increased global influence of China will open the world up to greater risk of flu pandemics:

The basic factor that is fueling this surge of viruses is China's growth. (China is the natural habitat of the influenza virus.) As China develops, it urbanizes, and its forests and wetlands shrink. That forces migratory birds to gather closer together—and closer to human habitation—which increases the chances of a virus spreading from one species to the next. Also, growth means a huge rise in chicken consumption. Across thousands of homes in China every day, chickens are slaughtered in highly unhygienic ways.

Not to mention increased air travel to and from China, allowing an infectious strain to spread around the world literally within hours.

Zakaria goes on to suggest (more or less correctly) that world governments would be largely helpless in the face of a pandemic. Granted, the US and other governments are trying to be proactive about the avian flu, but once a highly contagious strain breaks out, not even the most efficient organization could get enough people quarantined and inoculateded fast enough.

The solution, then, is in prevention... and that means going to the source -- China -- to keep any flu outbreaks contained. Given China's size, such an effort would require international cooperation on an unprecedented scale, as well as foresight tools to help planners anticipate likely areas for outbreak. Money and resources would help, too. Zakaria notes that the World Health Organization's's entire flu division has just 12 employees, and that the US government's budget for influenza research is $112 million -- pocket change compared to what we spend on other national security initiatives.

Source: Newsweek

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Politics of Pets

As our pets become an increasingly important part of our lives, politicians will need to take into account the needs of pets and their owners, factoring pet issues into regional and national policy.

Adding to the litany of things that Hurricane Katrina may have permanently changed, disaster planners need to develop contingency plans for allowing evacuated pet owners to take their pets with them, and for helping petowners care for their animals during emergencies. One insight from Katrina was the many Gulf Coast residents who stayed put during the storm because they refused to leave their pets behind.

Extending this line of thought, pet policies could even become pivotal in close political contests. Pets don't vote, but their owners do, and they might, for example, get behind the candidate who promises to create dog parks in town, or sponsor free rabies clinics. What about tax deductions for vet visits, medications and obedience training? Although most pet policies currently exist at the local level, could petowners eventually organize and create state and even a national lobby in the mold of the AARP?

Pet issues may even become prominent in the private sector. Employers might find pet insurance a pivotal benefit for attracting and keeping workers, as well as paid leave to tend to a sick pet.

Naturally, a, uh, bone of contention will ensue when one person's right becomes another person's nuisance, or even danger. Petowners who succeed in overturning restrictions on the number and type of pets, for example, may unintentionally open the door to dangerous and aggressive animals (if I can have any type of animal I want, can I keep a tiger in my backyard?), and exotic species that, if let out into the wild, could harm indigenous wildlife.

Source: Christian Science Monitor (via Yahoo)

Americans are Drinking Healthier

Bottled water is America's most popular drink, according to a recent survey by the American Institute for Cancer Research. Asked which beverage they consumed daily, those surveyed said bottled water, along with soda (formerly the leader), milk, coffee and fruit juice, in that order. Beer, liquor and cocktails ranked near the bottom of the survey.

In another blow to non-healthy drinks, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (best known for its campaigns against fattening foods) is urging the government to require obesity warning labels on sugar-laden beverages. Currently, there's no indication that their idea will become law anytime soon.

Source: Men's Health

Web 2.0: The Subtle Bubble

A couple of weeks ago we explored how Web 2.0 is the new hype du jour, and asked whether it represented a more mature version of the Internet or just another bubble. Now, Umair Hague of the aptly-named Bubblegeneration blog worries that Web 2.0 is taking on too many of the characteristics of the late '90s dotcom boom. For example, he notes how many startups are focusing on getting acquired by big players like Yahoo and Google rather than building something more substantive:

I think these [acquisitions] are kind of the wrong incentives for entrepreneurs. What made the Valley cool was it's refusal to think small, and do truly disruptive things. But getting a small change acquisition to essentially extend a Yahoo/Google/etc product line sets incentives for incremental, not disruptive, innovations and models.

At the same time, Umair notes that VC capital is far more focused and less free-flowing than it was a decade ago, so the big Web 2.0 deals aren't anywhere near as big as their Web 1.0 predecessors. Which could be a good thing. The VCs this time around seem to be using much more discretion in choosing their investments. Plus, the bigger they come, the harder they fall...

What's striking about Web 2.0 is how quickly people began to disdain it after it began making headlines. Folks, understandably, are still smarting from the last dotcom bust, whether they embarrassed themselves by buying into the hype (hey, we all did!) or lost something more tangible, like their retirement funds. The reaction to Web 2.0, though, is especially curious given that there's a question about how much Web 2.0 "hype" really exists. Sure, it's the hot topic among bloggers and new media types, but surveys suggest that the average Internet user barely knows what a blog is, let alone the more cutting edge Web 2.0 concepts. Umair's noting of tepid VC enthusiasm similarly makes the point.

For commentators such as the always-provocative Nicholas Carr, Web 2.0 isn't even a technical concern. In one of his blog posts, Carr discusses the ethical and spiritual aspects of new technology. Whether or not you agree with Carr's premise, one thing is clear; for him, technology takes a back seat to culture, process and perception when it comes to discussing Web 2.0.

Web 2.0 won't be a bubble so much as it will come to a slow boil; its benefits will be more subtle, and will be adopted without the average user even realizing it. As Umair says, there are fewer startups out there with ideas that appear disruptive at first blush. But that's not to say they aren't innovative. One of the key benefits of Web 2.0 is that it improves and streamlines what people are already doing (searching and posting Web content, for instance) rather than creating whole new ways of doing things. Take the Google Maps API. Developers can use it to create all kinds of mashups, making maps out of virtually any database. But to users, the end product -- no matter how useful they may find it -- is simply another web page. They don't have download and learn new software in order to use it. The same goes for blogs and wikis, which for the most part present as standard websites. Sure, people will adopt new technologies such as mobile devices, but they don't have to to realize the benefits of Web 2.0.

Web 2.0 represents incremental, sustaining change rather than radical, disruptive change. That, therefore, may be why many Web 2.0 startups haven't yet caught the eye of VCs.

Source: ZDNet

Friday, October 21, 2005

Could Machines Compete with People for Food Supply?

At first blush, biofuels made from vegetable oils seem like the ideal renewable, eco-friendly solution to the world's energy needs. But an unintended consequence of using these oils for fuel could be food shortages and higher food prices. Already in Europe, rapeseed oil that's used to create diesel fuel is in short supply, and prices have soared since September.

The supply squeeze will affect foods that use rapeseed oil, such as margarine, mayonnaise, salad dressings and some chocolates. Although food industry representatives in the EU are urging fuel producers to switch to non-edible vegetable oils (or perhaps recycling discarded cooking oil, as has been done experimentally), soy and palm oil supplies could be similarly impacted by biofuel use. Some food manufacturers are switching to sunflower oil, while greater use of corn oil could benefit farmers in the US.

Although high crop yields will help keep vegetable oil supplies and prices in check for the near term, a future blight, natural catastrophe or a poor crop could harm both the supplies of fuel as well as certain foods. Such potential problems need to be addressed as biofuels gain acceptance in other parts of the world.

UPDATE: For more information on biofuels, please read the extremely informative comments to this post by "Joe-in-Texas".

Source: Reuters (via Planet Ark)

Buckypaper: Strong, Light and Flexible

What are the uses of a material that is 250 times stronger than steel, yet 10 times lighter, and highly conductive of heat and electricity? The applications could fill a book -- or a blog -- which is why a Florida State University research group is devoting time and effort to research the potential of "buckypaper."

So named because it is made of nanotubes of Buckminsterfullerene (a.k.a. buckyballs or carbon 60), buckypaper could be used to create flexible video displays (e-paper at last?), lightning-proof exteriors for airplanes and other structures, armor that's invisible to radar, and electronics that are smaller and more rugged than anything currently in existence.

Buckypaper has displayed such potential that the FSU project, led by recognized nanomaterials expert Ben Wang, has received two military grants totalling $3.7 million.

Source: EurekAlert

Kurzweil and Joy on the 1918 Flu Genome

The other day, noted futurists Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy published an article in the New York Times sharply criticizing the decision by the US Department of Health and Human Services to publish the full genome of the 1918 influenza virus:

This is extremely foolish. The genome is essentially the design of a weapon of mass destruction. No responsible scientist would advocate publishing precise designs for an atomic bomb, and ... revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous.

The article has generated controversy, as many have come to the defense of HHS and claimed that open access to such information is less of a security threat than a crucial tool for building defenses against viruses. Writes Jamais Casico in WorldChanging:

Open access to this kind of information is of much greater use to people trying to defend us all from pandemics than to those few who might try to attack us. As with software source code, openness to a multitude of eyes provides far more security than does secrecy. A handful of researchers, operating under classified conditions, will not be able to learn as much about the functioning of a virus than could thousands or even millions of researchers around the world.

Kurzweil and Joy call for efforts to regulate the way that this kind of information is published. Stopping just short of an argument for censorship, they advocate "agreements by scientific organizations to limit such publications and an international dialogue on the best approach to preventing recipes for weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands." Such efforts, while understandable and well-intentioned, are unworkable in today's environment for at least two reasons. One is the viral (sorry) nature of today's information environment; anyone can post anything on a blog, where it will be circulated and referenced within hours. The second is money; like it or not, if there's a financial incentive to publish this type of information, it will happen.

The controversy over the release of the genome highlights the pros and cons of our New Media paradigm. In the old days, Somebody in Power could prevent the networks and the press from hearing about something (or even tell them not to mention it), and that would be the end of that. But that was then. We haven't yet learned to balance freedom of information with its responsible use... and we may not for a very long time. In the meantime, we have to live with the fact that information is like a teenager who leaves home for the first time. On the surface he's responsible enough to make it on his own... but even the most responsible kid can get into a world of trouble.

Almost a footnote in Kurzweil and Joy's piece is a call to arms, of sorts, for making antiviral healthcare a national priority:

We ... need a new Manhattan Project to develop specific defenses against new biological viral threats, natural or human made. There are promising new technologies, like RNA interference, that could be harnessed. We need to put more stones on the defensive side of the scale.

Perhaps the threat of a pandemic will be the proverbial "last straw" that finally makes the US government get serious about national healthcare. The Bush Administration is trying to be proactive about a possible avian flu epidemic; if President Bush were to use flu prevention as the cornerstone for redefining how this country delivers healthcare, it could stand to be his greatest achievement.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Redrawing the Map into "Spheres of Influence"

The CommonCensus Map Project is using a web-based survey to literally redraw the map of the US. The project uses "spheres of influence" among major cities to distinguish regions that transcend traditional state boundaries.

Relying on the "wisdom of crowds," the map continually changes based on input from visitors to the CommonCensus site. Visitors are asked where they live, and then are asked to choose a city that has the most influence over their region. For instance, I live in southern New Jersey, which strongly identifies with Philadelphia (as opposed to northern New Jersey, which identifies with New York City). Not surprisingly, CommonCensus places South Jersey in the Philadelphia sphere of influence (which encompasses all of southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware as well). The New York City sphere covers North Jersey, most of the eastern third of New York State, northeastern Pennsylvania and southwestern Connecticut.

CommonCensus represents far more than an idle exercise. The results from such a survey could provide more accurate demographic data for marketing (especially if coupled with wealth and income data from sources such as Claritas PRIZM), as well as a basis for Congressional redistricting. At the very least, it could lead to a new (and more accurate) way of thinking about how geography relates to demographics, politics and commerce.

You Hand Us Your Old CDs... We'll Do the Rest

The rise of iPods and MP3s are leading to some interesting new business models, with music download sites representing just the start.

Are you one of those folks who has a huge collection of music CDs but no time to copy them to your new digital music player? If so, Riptopia may be the service for you.

Actually, Riptopia offers two distinct services. You can ship them your old CDs, and they'll return them to you, along with a CD of your favorite songs in MP3 format. Or, you can purchase an iPod preloaded with music of your choice, for about $1 a CD plus the cost of the device.

Like services that copy your old home videotapes to DVDs, Riptopia serves an important transitory niche for new, disruptive technologies. A hallmark of such technology is that they are so different from what came before that consumers have to work to adapt to them. Services like Riptopia make their mark buy making that transition easier and faster.

Source: innovation.net

Save Endangered Animals -- Use Viagra!

A curious study on the use of Viagra in China (conducted by Pfizer, Viagra's manufacturer) has found an interesting benefit to the drug. No, not that benefit! The study found that the use of modern erectile dysfunction drugs in traditional cultures decreases in the use of endangered species for making impotence medicines. The body parts of seals, tigers and reindeer have all been used for this purpose.

Source: WorldChanging

Proposed UK ID Cards Have Security Holes

As the UK considers implementing national electronic identification cards, Microsoft's top UK security person, Jerry Fishenden, says that the proposed system could lead to "huge potential breaches" and compromising of personal information.

"I have concerns with the current architecture and the way it looks at aggregating so much personal information and biometrics in a single place. There are better ways of doing this. Even the biometrics industry says it is better to have biometrics stored locally."

Fishenden also accuses many of the vendors working on the project of keeping quiet about security flaws as they have a potentially huge stake in it.

Security of a national ID system is a major concern, as many countries (for better or for worse) may move to such a system someday... possibly placing many of their citizens at risk of identity theft.

Source: Silicon.com

"Mommy Track" Poses Challenges for Women, Employers

For the past several years, increasing numbers of professional women have been choosing to take breaks from their careers to raise their children. This is becoming a noticeable problem in fields that are experiencing labor shortages, such as in healthcare.

Problems also arise when these women re-enter the workforce. According to a survey by the Forte Foundation, women re-entering the workforce have trouble finding jobs and pay scales equivalent to what they had before they left. The survey also found that these women often preferred fewer hours and lighter workloads. At a time when widespread labor shortages are forecast for the next several years, employers may need to be extra creative if they plan to attract and keep happy these returning "mommy trackers."

Source: Herman Trend Alert

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Entering the "Mobile Media Era"

Piling on all the talk about Web 2.0 is Shawn Conahan's take on entering what he called the "mobile media era." Though media observers such as Jeff Jarvis have been making similar observations for some time, Conahan sums up the various eras of media (TV > Cable > Internet > Mobile) nicely, and points out logical and important tipping points between each. Most crucially, he notes that what appear to be the current trends toward mobile media are not necessarily the major ones:

Notably, it is the first time in the history of media that people have been walking around with both media consumption and production devices, making them active participants in the creation and distribution of media. No longer Watching or Surfing, people are co-creating, mashing, blogging and networking together a media fabric that threatens the status quo in a significant way. Media is being more widely distributed farther away from the center of the network, this time right to the furthest edge – the pocket of every man, woman and child with a mobile-connected Personal Media Device. I find it most interesting that low production value MMS is often more compelling than slick, high-production quality television because it is personalized and serves a purpose very different from TV. I would like to state clearly that, while it is an important link on the value chain, the definition of “Mobile Media” is not “TV on your mobile phone.”

The TV is being replaced by the Personal Media Device. The set top box is being replaced by the SIM chip. The MSO [multi-system (cable TV) operator] is being replaced by the wireless carrier. I wonder if John Malone sees the similarities.

Whether mobile content in the way Conahan imagines it replaces more corporate and traditional forms of media will depend on many criteria -- the way mainstream media responds to mobile media, the content they make available, and the restrictions placed on it by government and corporate interests, among others.

From Toys to Gadgets... And From Kids to Adults

Childhood toyland
mystical merry toyland
once you pass its borders
you can never return again!

-- Perry Como

Last year, we first noticed the trend toward high-tech gadgets displacing traditional toys on children's wish lists. The trend seems to be even stronger this year, with kids asking for digital music players and digital video cameras instead of toys.

Manufacturing high-tech products for kids could be the saving grace for toy manufacturers, whose revenues have been shrinking for the past few years. Hasbro and Mattel are rolling out kid versions of digital video cameras and prepaid cell phones. However, this strategy has some serious problems:

The electronics strategy is risky for toy makers, though. Profit margins on consumer electronics are slim - and the problem extends to electronic toys... And while consumers may dash to the local toy store for the latest iteration of Elmo, they tend to wait, rather patiently, for prices to fall before adopting new technologies like DVD players and digital video recorders.

"There isn't an industry where product prices come down faster than consumer electronics," said Sean McGowan, an analyst at Harris Nesbitt.

There is also the possibility that children will pass up the kid-friendly version of digital audio players and cellphones and head straight for the adult version, a trend that analysts are already seeing with PCs and laptops.

Amber Eldridge, a 10-year-old from Atlanta, is transfixed by advertisements for the iPod and wants the real thing "so I can take my music with me."

The latter point is well taken, considering that kids are the "power users" of computers and other electronics in many families.

Regardless of how successful toymakers are with this strategy, it points to a continual blurring of the lines between childhood and adulthood. Just as young adults ("kidults") are living at home longer and continue to indulge in childhood interests long after reaching adulthood, kids want to emulate grown-up behavior at an ever earlier age. Perhaps in some way, we're reverting to the social pattern that existed before the Industrial Revolution, when children were largely seen as miniature adults.

This trend is important to understand, as it's fraught with implications and unintended consequences, both good and bad.

RELATED: Just as technology is blurring the lines between childhood and adult pursuits, it is blurring the line between work and leisure. As Geoffrey Bowker, executive director of a California research institute, told CNN, "This is always the case with new technology. Often the effects are paradoxical. The overall upside is that we can maintain a rich social and cultural life while dashing from pillar to post. The overall downside is that our spiritual development -- which requires empty time, contemplation -- is suffering enormously."

Sources: New York Times (via International Herald Tribune), pasta and vinegar

The Latest in Tech Fashion: From Geek to Chic

Why buy a $10 cell phone case at a discount store when you can set yourself apart with a $305 Louis Vuitton "international telephone case"? Small, popular gadgets, combined with Bluetooth devices that free the user from wires, are making tech devices tres chic.

One fashion designer describes its thigh holder for cell phones and PDAs as "really practical and really sexy." Bluetooth headsets and other wearable technologies are gaining acceptance, and judging by the expansion of chain stores such as Simply Wireless and mobile phone kiosks at malls, sales are on the rise. Usability issues remain, however. Says Roger Entner of the research firm Ovum, "If you wash your sweater [with a device inside] it's toast. Or you have to charge your sweater or jacket. It's kind of silly."

Source: Washington Post

More Shoppers Turning to Gift Cards this Holiday

Time was, the gift card was considered the lazy person's way out of holiday shopping, or a last-minute stocking stuffer at best. No longer. According to the gift card industry, 84% of US consumers will buy a gift card this year, with the average US consumer expected to spend $248 on gift cards this holiday season.

In today's marketplace, gift cards offer many advantages for both consumers and retailers. Many shoppers appreciate the opportunity to shop themselves at their favorite stores with their gift cards, allowing them to take advantage of post-holiday sales and the latest products. Gift cards can be used online as well as in stores, adding to their convenience.

For gift givers, cards take the guesswork out of shopping; one might know that a recipient likes clothes, but not exact styles and sizes. Cards also save time, can be mailed easily, and can be purchased at grocery stores and other convenient retailers. For stores, gift cards often encourage shoppers to spend more money than they might otherwise, and cut down on post-holiday gift returns.

Best of all, Santa can fit many more gift cards on his sleigh! So odds are you may receive one or more gift cards this holiday season.

Source: eMarketer

Video Screens as Packaging Labels

Imagine going to a grocery store and finding a turkey... with a video label that catches your eye. The label could also play videos showing proper preparations, serving suggestions, the store's current sale price (perhaps dynamically updated), and recipes using other products such as stuffing mix and cranberry sauce. Can you tell I'm getting psyched for Thanksgiving?...

Siemens has developed a paper-thin electronic label that can display LCD video, recently displayed at a German food packaging conference. The eco-friendly display, which is powered by printable batteries, could be made commercially available as early as 2007. However, because the batteries last for only a couple of months, the labels will only be useful for products with a relatively short shelf life.

What will be interesting is how these labels could interact with RFID tags, displaying information based on location or relevant to the individual shopper.

Sources: Food Navigator, unmediated

The Future of Futurism

Wired examines the future of futurism as a profession, citing observations of such notables as Andy Hines of the Association of Professional Futurists: "It used to be there were a few superstars... What you're starting to see now is a lot of lunch-pail sorts of futurists." In other words, anyone with some insightful observations (or wishing to share the observations of others) can use the Internet to network, conduct research, and post their ideas on a blog or a wiki -- regardless of professional affiliation.

Greg Burton of Genius Now takes that thought a step further, suggesting that old-school futurist organizations such as the World Future Society are at risk of becoming obsolete. Like Andy, Greg recognizes the importance of grass-roots networks in disseminating futures information. "This is a major change in the way people are structuring responses to global situations, often routing around the incumbent architectures. Implications need to be explored, and some of the issues created need to be described. This is the edge of real-world activity. Planning for a job as an 'eco-relations manager' for a traditional corporation isn’t."

The flip side to all of this is that most traditional businesses are just beginning to grasp the importance of futurism. Perhaps an emerging role for WFS is that of a lobbying and awareness organization, reaching out to those in power both in government and in business, and educating them about the need for futures and foresight programs.


Squidoo.com is a beta project that combines elements of wikis, blogs and tag sharing to create a unique new teaching tool. As the inaugural post on its blog states:

We’ve built a platform that makes it easy for anyone, even a newbie, to teach people about topics they care about. We believe that everyone is an expert about something, and the Squidoo.com platform is designed to make it easy to do that.

It’s a guide (like about.com) and a reference (like wikipedia.com). It’s a place for personal expression (like typepad.com) and an open platform for real people (like del.ico.us).

A manifesto of sorts called "Everyone is an Expert" explains the Squidoo philosophy. At the very least, it's a concise explanation of some of the Web 2.0 trends that are beginning to shape up.

Anyone interested in beta-testing can submit their e-mail to the main Squidoo site.

Source: Smart Mobs

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Are US Automakers in for a Good Decade?

CNN/Money posts a scenario looking back, from the perspective of 2015, on the rebirth of the "big three" US automakers. The recent bankruptcy of auto supplier Delphi, combined with the need to develop more fuel-efficient models, spurs the revitalization. The scenario also envisions surging car demand from China and India (ignited in part by the fall of Chinese communism) and strong partnerships between US, European and Japanese automakers.

South Korea's "Ubiquitous City"

In what at first seems to be a throwback to the utopian urban visions of early 20th century futurism, South Korea is developing a "U-City" from the ground up, using bleeding-edge "ubiquitous" technology to monitor everything from citizens' medical records to garbage collection.

New Songdo City, being built on a man-made island 40 miles from Seoul, will feature pervasive computer technology throughout, driven by RFID tags and CDMA wireless communication. Although many Western observers would find the lack of privacy disquieting, Asian countries are more interested in the technological potential of such environments. Says John Kim, a Korean-American who is leading the planning for the U-City:

"U-life will become its own brand, its own lifestyle... [A resident's smart key] can be used to get on the subway, pay a parking meter, see a movie, borrow a free public bicycle and so on. It'll be anonymous, won't be linked to your identity, and if lost you can quickly cancel the card and reset your door lock.

"Residents will enjoy 'full videoconferencing calls between neighbors, video on demand and wireless access to their digital content and property from anywhere in Songdo.'"

With English as its official language, the city is designed to attract international business as a "free economic zone." The city will also feature ample open-space parkland and recreation facilities. The $25 billion project is slated for completion in 2014. Already, South Koreans are already applying for the chance to be among New Songdo's 65,000 residents.

Sources: New York Times, Future Feeder

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Dotcom Boom, Part Deux?

This has been a very good year for the Web. According to the monitoring firm Netcraft, the Web grew more in 2005 (by 17 million sites) that it did in 2000, at the height of the dotcom boom (16 million sites). Additionally, Red Herring reports that angel investors in 2005 backed the highest number of startups since the halcyon days of 2000.

Much of the growth is being attributed to small businesses going online, tools that allow non-technical users to create sites easily, convergence of the Web and mobile devices, new Web technologies such as Ajax, the blogging phenomenon and countries such as China getting in the game. However, some of it is also being driven by spammers and those disingenuously using domain names to manipulate Google searches.

Nonetheless, the buzz from the recently concluded Web 2.0 Conference suggests that a new Web paradigm is emerging. As Nova Spivack, who attended the conference, enthuses:

There are so many new companies, so much VC interest, and it really feels like the Web industry has suddenly woken up from a 10-year slumber. In fact, it feels like 1995 all over again. There's a tangible sense that something Big and New is happening here -- that Web 2.0 is really changing the game -- and gaining momentum. And there are so many new funded startups here. But there is also a tangible difference between the Web business today and the biz in 1995: Today it's much more rational. People have learned from what worked and didn't work in the 90's. The startups are all run by experienced teams, and they've got a clear understanding of what they're doing. There's also a decade of case studies to draw on for how this business really works: the revenue models that actually work and how to implement them, the best-practices for funding, building and executing Web business models, and the relevant metrics for measuring progress and success.

Source: BBC News

Monday, October 10, 2005

Extreme MP3 Players

Looking to do some early holiday shopping (or starting to put together your own wish list) but are stumped for ideas? Everybody loves MP3 players... but knowing you, you're looking for a creative angle and something other than the garden-variety iPod. So check out the following MP3 players:

UPDATE: No matter which model of digital music player you choose, you'll be in good company. Sales of MP3 players are expected to rise steadily over the next few years, reaching sales of a billion units by 2009.

Retailers Still Dreaming of a Green Christmas

Rising fuel prices this winter have led to forecasts for a Scrooge-like holiday retail season this year. However, some analysts still believe that the 2005 season could be as good, or even better than, seasons past... even if sales patterns could shape up to be different.

A recent survey by the NPD Group has found that of the US consumers polled, 65% said that rising gas and oil prices will have little or no impact on their holiday spending plans. However, the survey also found indications that shoppers intended to be more aggressive in comparing prices and sniffing out bargains. Other surveys indicate that shoppers want to minimize their driving as much as possible to save gas.

This, of course, should be good news for both discount and online retailers. Online retail sales are expected continue growing, reaching $26 million for Q4 2005 and surpassing Q4 2004 sales by nearly 22%. For other retailers, though, it means earlier sales promotions, lower profits... and the prospect that anyone who is presently weak in the retail space might not survive the season.

The NPD survey was conducted while the weather was fairly warm, and before the true shock of rising energy prices had fully set in. Even so, it's likely that American consumers, if necessary, will cut back in other areas besides holiday shopping. What parent, after all, wants to tell the kids on Christmas morning that Santa couldn't make it this year?

Source: eMarketer

Anticipating Future Disasters

The Recovery 2.0 movement, which began as a way to use wiki technology to coordinate hurricane relief efforts, has evolved into a full-blown disaster management virtual workgroup.

In light of the recent hurricanes, as well as this past weekend's devastating earthquake in Pakistan, the question on everyone's mind is, what's next? An upcoming article in The Wave magazine suggests the following unpleasant scenarios:

  • An eruption of Mt. Rainier that devastates the Pacific Northwest

  • Tornadoes that strike metropolitan areas in Texas, namely the Dallas/Ft. Worth area

  • A tsunami that strikes the US eastern seaboard, triggered by landslides on the other side of the Atlantic

  • Flash flooding in Boulder, Colorado, among other places

  • An avian flu pandemic

This isn't to mention other, highly unpredictable events such as earthquakes and the remote but ever-possible meteor strike. But the next question beyond exploring what might happen is what do do about these potential catastrophes. We can't realistically prevent them, but we can take more proactive steps to mitigate losses and enact emergency plans when necessary.

Source: Future Salon

New Mindset List for the Class of 2008

Once again, Beloit College has released its annual Mindset List for its incoming freshmen, who for the most part were born in 1987. Their youth gives them an interesting perspective on life, especially when stack up against us oldsters.

Some of the more notable observations of the Class of 2009 are:
  • They don't remember when "cut and paste" involved scissors.
  • Heart-lung transplants have always been possible.
  • With little need to practice, most of them do not know how to tie a tie.
  • They never had the fun of being thrown into the back of a station wagon with six others.
  • Voice mail has always been available.
  • Condoms have always been advertised on television.
  • For daily caffeine emergencies, Starbucks has always been around the corner.
  • They have grown up in a single superpower world.
  • Digital cameras have always existed.
  • Lyme Disease has always been a ticking concern in the woods.

And the one thing that makes me glad I was born before 1987...
  • They never saw a Howard Johnson's with 28 ice cream flavors.

One in 13 Chinese Now Online

Like many countries around the world, China is embracing the Internet. Estimates are that 103 million Chinese -- one in 13 -- are online. Over 45 million computers have Internet connections, half of which are broadband. The number of computers online has increased by over 25% since last year.

Chinese netizens are going online for the same reasons as other users: for business, information and interaction. Of course, this invariably bleeds over to politics, which has made the Chinese government especially nervous. But even in China's restrictive political environment, the Net is playing a role. The city of Beijing is allowing citizens to go online to express their views and even vote on some issues.

That being said, the communist government is allowing e-democracy to only go so far. New laws are aimed at banning the use of the Internet for assemblies, and to assemble "illegal" civic groups. Organized demonstrations are apparently becoming a problem for the government, with 74,000 major protests organized against everything from pollution to official corruption to land seizures.

The government also keeps a close eye on Internet activities, watching for subversive activity of all types, though IM and SMS messaging are proving difficult to control.
The Chinese people are making it clear that they want freedom of information. How their government responds to their wishes will determine the country's role in the global information economy... and perhaps even the future of the government itself.

Sources: China Daily, Smart Mobs, MIT Technology Review

The New Arctic Land Rush

The Arctic ice cap has shrunk to its smallest size ever recorded. However, some entrepreneurs have found a silver lining in this melting by buying real estate long trapped under ice.

Denver businessman Pat Broe bought the port of Churchill, Manitoba from the Canadian government for a measly $7... yet believes the port's strategic position could bring in $100 million a year. Other economic boons include fishing, oil and natural gas; one quarter of the world's untapped oil and natural gas reserves lie under the Arctic.

However, one other consequence of Arctic ice melting is that, with the absence of ice, national borders become increasingly dicey. Where do the borders of Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark (via Greenland) and the US (via Alaska) begin and end? Will the North Pole be a neutral territory, or will it effectively be split down the middle somewhere?

Source: New York Times

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Foresight as Government Priority

Who needs ghosts and goblins this coming Halloween when the real world is scary enough?

After a summer dominated by growing unease over the war in Iraq, soaring energy prices, and culminating with hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Bush Administration has every reason to set aside its rose-colored glasses and begin exploring worst-case scenarios.

We got a taste of such foresight this past weekend when New York City tightened security in its subway system following reports of a possible terrorist strike there. Despite suggestions that the reaction was overblown, the city took the worst-case scenario seriously enough to take action -- possibly thwarting an attack and saving countless lives.

Meanwhile, still reeling from criticism surrounding federal response (or lack thereof) to Katrina, President Bush is trying to be proactive in countering a possible outbreak of avian flu this winter. Like the NYC situation, there's no guarantee that worst will happen. But like the Big Apple, the federal government is not taking chances... and deserves credit for it.

If the past few months have taught us anything, it's that leaders at all levels and in all areas must be prepared as possible for the unimaginable. To do this, ideology, agendas, biases and preconceptions need to be set aside, and creative thinking and future visioning need to be made a priority.

Jeffrey Shaffer of the Christian Science Monitor sums this up perfectly by saying:

"Thinking the unthinkable" may not be a helpful phrase anymore because of its association with Herman Kahn and nuclear holocaust, but the concept should be mandatory throughout all levels of government, from disaster planning to foreign policy. And if people would feel more comfortable with a less-frightening term, here's my suggestion: Category 5 Brainstorming.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Secret Lives of Fads

All trends are not created equal. In examining the recent Atkins diet phenomenon, Knowledge@Wharton dissects the nature of fads... and finds that there's much more to the latest craze than meets the eye.

Market researcher Ira Meyer has identified four distinct types of fads:

  • The "typical" fad, which is insanely popular but disappears completely within 18 months (the macarena, pet rocks, Live Strong rubber bracelets)

  • The "cyclical" fad that reappears in smaller form every few years

  • The "generational" fad that reappears every 15 years, appealing to a new audience (fashion trends, nostalgia movements)

  • The "fad-to-franchise," in which an initial craze becomes commercialized and, while not as popular as before, is permanently embedded in popular culture (entertainment icons such as Mickey Mouse, Snoopy and Star Wars)

To this list I'd propose a fifth: the "false" fad that's merely media and marketing hype.

Other variables in creating a fad are media interest, competition from cheaper knock-offs (Atkins controlled its name, but not low-carb foods in general), and even geography (fads starting on the US coasts spread much more quickly than those starting in the heartland).

A common characteristic of all fads is that there does not seem to be a logical driver behind them; they appear and disappear for no apparent reason. Meyer uses Atkins as an example of the fad-to-franchise, which is the most lucrative type of fad over the long term. The Atkins movement was supported by books, branded foods and other products, but it went belly-up nonetheless.

People abandon diet crazes when they don't deliver expected results, even if those expectations are unrealistic. But the Atkins emphasis on low-carb eating may have permanently altered the American diet by at least getting people to think about food in a different way. In other words, the business of making low-carb (and not always great-tasting) foods was weaker than the concept that watching what we eat is key to a healthier lifestyle.

Naturally, futurists strive to focus on long-term trends while disregarding fads. But because fads behave in unpredictable ways, understanding their nature (inasmuch as they can be understood) is a useful skill. Making fads even trickier to understand is how they are often misinterpreted and how they evolve/devolve over time. A celebrity who initially seems like the proverbial flash in the pan can become iconic (who in 1984 thought that Madonna would be part of music's old-school establishment in 2005?), while someone or something that seems like a harbinger of things to come vanishes almost overnight. In short, we don't understand fads because we're just beginning to understand group and swarm intelligence -- the true drivers of fads and social trends.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Drink All You Want... the Smart Coaster Will Order More

Depending on your point of view, it's either the year's most brilliant or most ridiculous innovation. Two German college students (who else?) have invented a "smart" beer coaster that can sense when your beer glass is getting empty, and automatically order you another round.

With the football and hockey seasons now underway, and the World Series pending, sports bars in particular should find such coasters especially useful. Indeed, North American beer vendors have been in touch with the German students to discuss manufacturing deals.

Perhaps by then, an upgraded version will be smart enough to automatically charge your credit or debit card, remember your preferred brew, flirt with the coaster at the next table, cut you off before you've had one too many, and call a cab to take you home.

Source: Reuters (MSNBC)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Can Vaccinating Kids Prevent Flu Outbreaks?

Evidence is growing that children under age 5 are not only the first ones to get sick during a flu outbreak, but that they are also carriers of viruses. Studies of children who go to emergency rooms for treatment suggest that major outbreaks occur approximately five weeks after children present with flu symptoms. The close confines of preschools and day care centers, combined with children's generally poor personal hygiene practices, makes this age group particularly vulnerable.

Studies in Michigan and Texas have found that vaccinating children can reduce flu outbreaks substantially. The current practice is not to vaccinate children older than 23 months unless they are medically fragile; however, with this new research in hand, health experts are rethinking those guidelines. Vaccinations, combined with greater emphasis on teaching hand washing and other hygiene techniques in school, may not only keep kids healthy, but also the general population.

Source: CNN.com

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Is Fat in Your Future?

Statistically, if you're an American, you're almost certain to become overweight at some point in your life.

A study conducted by Boston University has found that 9 out of 10 men and 7 out of 10 women will eventually become overweight -- even those who, as adults, are currently at a healthy weight. The study underscores a concern shared among many health professionals and futurists that obesity could become a future health crisis.

A "snapshot" of the general population, the researchers found, shows that 6 in 10 Americans are overweight, and one-third are obese.

Even though Americans are aware of the health risk factors associated with obesity (heart disease, some cancers, diabetes, arthritis, etc.), and many work very hard to lose weight, doing so is not easy. According to the study, we live in an “environment in which it’s hard not to become overweight or obese. Unless people actively work against that, that’s what’s most likely to happen to them.”

The Centers for Disease Control has clinical definitions of overweight and obesity here, along with tools to help you calculate your weight.

Source: AP (MSNBC)

Readers Loyal to their Local Online Newspapers

A new survey by Nielsen/NetRatings suggests that netizens who read online news are supporting the online versions of their local newspapers.

In all of the major metropolitan markets except for one (Philadelphia), readers cited their city's online newspaper as their top choice for news (Philly readers favored USAToday.com over their native Philly.com). However, only one online paper (WashingtonPost.com) was favored by more than 30% of its local market.

In the midst of sagging newspaper circulation and readership, the survey has some good news for newspapers... or for their online efforts at least. Revenues for online newspapers are forecast to rise steadily through 2008.

It would be interesting to see if online newspaper loyalty remains true in smaller markets, and where other local news sources online (such as TV news websites) fall into the mix. Also, is readership seasonal? Local news websites, for instance, are indispensable for checking on school snow closings in the winter.

Source: eMarketer

Digital Time Capsule

FutureMe offers a simple concept for sending e-mails to yourself or to others in the future. Just fill out the form with an e-mail address and message, and choose the date for the message to be sent. You can choose to have the message sent on any date ranging from today to Dec. 31, 2035, and select whether you want the message to appear on FutureMe's public message board.

FutureMe could be used for purpose as mundane as daily reminders, a digital time capsule of sorts, or, as Greg Burton of GeniusNow suggests, a performance management or brainstorming tool.

Dissolving Plastic

A persistent problem with plastic is its persistence. Conventional plastic can stay intact in a landfill for centuries... something that environmentalists and plastics manufacturers alike have tried to address.

One solution has been to make certain disposable plastics, such as grocery and garbage bags, out of corn starch to make them biodegradable. Australian plastics manufacturer Plantic has taken this idea a step further. With a compound containing 90% corn starch, Plantic's plastics dissolve literally within seconds after contact with water.

While the Plantic plastic obviously isn't suitable for pool toys and beverage containers, it does have applications in products that have a short shelf life, after which they become trash. Best of all, because its main ingredients are plant-based, the Plantic plastic uses very few petrochemicals and is largely immune to disruptions in oil supplies.

Source: we make money not art

Music Fans Vote with their Mouse-Clicks

The other day we noted how the latest Rolling Stones album is being distributed on SanDisk memory cards... and questioned whether this is a format music fans really want.

What fans do seem to want, though, are digital music downloads. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) says that digital music sales tripled worldwide in the first half of 2005 over the same period in 2004. Digital music now accounts for 6% of all music sales, while sales of physical music formats (like CDs) have fallen by 6.3%. IFPI credits the increase in broadband Internet access and the proliferation of portable MP3 players for the growing popularity of downloadable music.

However, overall music revenues are down by 1.9%, reflecting lower prices being charged for music, and suggesting that illegal music swapping is far from dead.

Online digital music is branching out to customers who might never have considered it before. MusicGiants is a new service that offers "high definition" music downloads... that is, tracks that aren't compressed. The service, which charges a $50 membership fee and $1.29 per track, is designed for audiophiles who want to play music on high-end sound systems, and who have until now shunned MP3s for what they say is inferior sound quality. Broadband and cheaper storage -- combined with the growing acceptance of the Internet as a music delivery mechanism -- make such services possible.

Finally, if Warner Music chairman Edgar Bronfman has his way, online music stores would employ variable pricing, charging more for downloads of popular songs than for those less popular. This is a radical proposal given the recording industry's traditional fixed-price model, in which all music, popular or not, is priced roughly the same. Internet technology, however, makes variable pricing practical. For those whose musical tastes steer clear of the Top 40, this is great news. But what would be the threshold that music would have to hit before fans stopped buying? Would dynamic pricing actually limit the popularity of some songs and artists? ("Hmmm... I think I'll wait to buy this band's songs until they're not so hot anymore...") Should prices be capped? After all, as Steve Jobs has noted, “If the price [of online music] goes up, [consumers] will go back to piracy and everybody loses.”

UPDATE: Digital music isn't the only dilemma facing the recording industry. Online video (via sites such as Google Video, now in beta) and satellite radio present new licensing challenges.

Sources: Techdirt, Technology Liberation Front

Monday, October 03, 2005

Wikibooks and the Disruptive Power of Wikis

A while ago we reported on how more schools are moving their texts online. Now, Wikibooks is taking that concept to the next level, providing educational text from elementary to college levels in wiki format. In true wiki form, anyone can edit the textbooks in Wikibooks.

Just as blogs are disrupting news media, could wikis have the same effect on the publishing industry? Not only can wikis be set up very easily and, in may cases, for free, but they create an entirely new paradigm by allowing for public editing of content. On the surface, wikis fly in the face of the fundamental principles of the written word: permanence, an historical record, a singular source of authority, and not the very least, copyright. Wikis are still in their infancy, but if they are embraced the way blogs have been, they could radically change the way we think about written material of all types.