FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Monday, January 30, 2006

Microsoft Offers Its Own Online Option for the Poor

The idea of being the Henry Ford of global computing -- that is, creating an online device that nearly anyone on the planet could afford -- is very appealing these days. Perhaps inspired by the MIT Media Laboratory's $100 computer concept, Microsoft's Bill Gates is pitching the idea of a "cellular PC," a cell phone that could be converted to a PC by hooking it to a keyboard and TV... and that would be running Windows software, of course.

Originally, the MIT Media Lab sought agreements with both Microsoft and Apple to run their software on its $100 laptops. But when talks fell through in both cases, the Media Lab turned to the open source Linux operating system.

Gates contends that a cell phone would be an even cheaper solution than the $100 laptop, though no prices have been announced.

Developing such a device and making it successful is more than just a nice, altruistic idea. Because Bill Gates was effectively the Henry Ford of American computing, Microsoft products are nearly ubiquitous in US homes and businesses. Bringing that power to a global audience would provide the dominant device maker with untold opportunity for growth and profits.

Source: New York Times

Outsourcing to India No Longer a Bargain

If you're an IT business owner looking to offshore some of your work to cut costs, India may no longer be the best place to look.

High staff turnover and rising wages in India are prompting US and European businesses to look elsewhere to outsource -- namely to China, despite concerns about protection of intellectual property rights there. Says SAP CEO Henning Kagermann, "India is slowly getting expensive... We have decided to hire a certain number there, and then start looking at other locations."

In addition to the fact that businesses are realizing that offshoring is not a panacea to cut costs, and that process improvements at home can often yield as much or greater savings, outsourcing hubs such as India and (eventually) China will invariably become more costly as the laws of supply and demand play out, and the talent pools becomes stretched. Other less-costly regions will likely emerge, but they will need to offer clients the right mix of low-cost talent, technical savvy, easy accessibility, and political stability. India, meanwhile, will likely remain a key outsourcing destination, but because of its tech-savvy, English speaking workforce rather than low costs.

Sources: Techdirt, Network World

Are RFID Credit Cards Secure?

JPMorgan Chase's new "Blink" and American Express' new ExpressPay credit cards, designed to give consumers greater speed and convenience when shopping, are a fraud and identity theft crisis waiting to happen, according to some critics.

The cards, which use RFID chips, speed the checkout process by eliminating signatures and PIN numbers. The shopper simply place the card near a reader, and they're done. However, the elimination of these forms of authentication is precisely what worries security experts.

"I consider what Chase is doing irresponsible on many levels," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego-based watchdog group. "The fact is they are adopting and promoting a technology that could actually exacerbate fraud." Adds Mark Ferullo of the Public Interest Research Group, "It's certainly a big concern when companies make it easier for thieves to use stolen credit cards... No matter how good a bank says its detection systems are, fraud still falls through the cracks."

Chase, however, contends that its technology, in addition to being virtually hack-proof, incorporates sophisticated fraud and theft detection systems. Says Chase senior vice president Tom O'Donnell, "More than 75 percent of the time, when a card is lost or stolen, we find out about it long before the customer does." And, as with ordinary credit cards, RFID cardholders are not accountable for fraudulent charges. Additionally, during a Blink transaction, no one involved (cashiers, other people in line, etc.) ever see an account number, meaning they can't record it for purposes of identity theft.

Chase also notes that a team of Johns Hopkins cybersecurity researchers that last year cracked the encryption in ExxonMobil's Speedpass payment system has thus far been unable to break the Blink encryption.

One other concern about RFID cards, as noted in Howstuffworks.com, is the range of the terminal that reads cards. The read range is supposed to be set at 4 inches, but a tampered or improperly positioned terminal might be able to read much farther, charging unsuspecting cardholder for others' purchases either by accident or on purpose. In response, Howstuffworks predicts the emergence of wallets and purses that have RFID-blocking capability.

As payment systems like Blink are rolled out across the country, cybersecurity experts will be watching carefully to see how quickly instances of fraud emerge, and under what circumstances. Crooks, after all, can be remarkably creative in ways that even experts can't anticipate. In the meantime, consumers interested in using Blink and similar technologies would be advised to wait until either the technologies prove to be as secure as their creators claim, or become more "battle hardened" under real-world use.

Sources: Orlando Sentinel, Engadget

Astronomers Discover Most Earth-Like Planet Yet Oustide Solar System

The most Earth-like planet known to date outside the solar system has been discovered, orbiting a star 20,000 light years away.

Artist's conception of OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb and its sun

Most all of the 160 "exoplanets" known are gas giants similar in size and composition to Jupiter, but this planet has an icy, rocky surface. "The new planet confirms that we can now find small cool planets down to the mass of the Earth," said Professor Keith Horne of the University of St Andrews.

The planet, bearing the catchy name OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, is a poor candidate for supporting life; with a distant orbit from its red-dwarf sun not unlike that of Pluto in our solar system, the planet's surface temperature is is a crisp -364 °F (-220 °C), far too cold to sustain even the most rugged life forms. The planet could have volcanic activity not unlike that of Jupiter's moon Europa that could generate internal heat, but that is pure speculation.

Nonetheless, the discovery of OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb has caused excitement in the space community, as it underscores our ability to spot Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars. Perhaps the next discovery will reveal a world much more friendly to life.

Source: Times Online (UK)

Nano Battery Could Power "Bionic Eye"

Researchers at New Mexico's Sandia National Laboratory are exploring the possibilities of a nano-sized battery that could power an artificial retina.

Being in its very early stages, the project first needs to develop a battery small enough to be implanted in the eye, perhaps using the human body's natural electrical current for a charge. The project would also leverage an artificial retina that has been developed by the Doheny Eye Institute at the University of Southern California. If successful, the project could yield a treatment for certain types of macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the US for those aged 50 or over.

Source: AiKnowledge

Friday, January 27, 2006

Investors Warn of Skyrocketing Oil Prices

If you think energy prices are steep now, you had better hope that two notable commodities investors are very, very wrong in their forecasts.

Hermitage Capital's Bill Browder and billionaire George Soros are warning that geopolitical events could send oil prices through the roof in the coming months, perhaps topping $200 per barrel.

The two used a technique known as regression analysis, which uses figures from past oil shocks to simulate a future shock, to create their forecasts. Through this method, they created six distinct scenarios for oil shortages.

Browder and Soros cite the escalating confrontation with Iran, the willingness of Russia to shut off supplies (as it did with natural gas to Ukraine), and a possible embargo by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez as factors that could send prices over $100 per barrel. Other variables include continuing unrest in Nigeria, Algeria and Iraq. The most unsettling (though unlikely) doomsday scenario the two offer involves an overthrow of the House of Saud, which they say could send oil to $262 per barrel.

In that event, Browser and Soros say, the West would be forced to implement crash conservation and alternative energy programs, and the political and economic ramifications would be severe. However, critics of the critics' forecasts say that OPEC would never allow such a level of disruption, if only to prevent global cuts in oil consumption that would hurt members' revenue.

Source: CNN/Money

DVDs: Mature Yet Still Disruptive

As a technology, DVDs have gone from bleeding-edge to ho-hum. Sales of players dropped in 2005 to 14.5 million units, down from 22 million in 2003, and DVD retail sales growth fell from 34% in 2004 to just 5% in 2005. This plateau is to be expected of a maturing technology, as most everyone who wants a DVD player can now afford one, and collectors have finished backfilling their video libraries.

Though the industry would like to see a hot new video technology take off, consumers are going to need a compelling reason to switch from a format that they already see as adequate and reasonably priced. Moreover, we've recently seen evidence that the true disruptive power of the DVD has yet to be felt.

This past week saw the release of a low-budget, no-star thriller titled Bubble, directed by Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brokovich, Sex Lies & Videotape). The release might be unremarkable other than the fact that it was released simultaneously in theatres, on DVD and on cable TV (HDNet).

Bubble's financiers Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner believe that this strategy represents a new age in film distribution, a way to make theatres relevant again while reducing piracy. The film's production company will give one percent of DVD revenues (each sold at a premium price of $30) to theatres that show the movie. However, theatres remain dubious. "We feel that day and date (for a DVD release) dilutes the theatrical release," said Terrell Falk, a Cinemark spokeswoman. "This wouldn't be something we would show." Other Hollywood power players have come out strongly against it, most notably directors M. Night Shamalylan and Tim Burton.

Soderbergh counters that simultaneous release is simply facing up to market reality. "Simultaneous release is already here," he said of recent movies that have recently been pirated and distributed over the Internet. "We're just trying to gain control over it." Says Cuban of the approach, "I don't think it will cannibalize sales any more than my ability to cook a steak keeps me from spending a lot of money at steak houses." Supporters of the strategy add that it could help lower marketing costs while stimulating interest in certain movies.

Soderbergh intends to simultaneously release more movies in the future, though his next major production -- The Good German, starring George Clooney -- won't be one of them. Meanwhile, Spike Lee is among other directors considering the approach.

Simultaneous release won't have a real financial impact on Hollywood until a major blockbuster is released that way. In the meantime, the film industry will be watching Bubble very carefully. Already, the uproar this little movie has caused may prove right the old adage, "when you propose an idea and everyone hates it, you know you're on to something." The one group who might love the idea is the one group that really counts -- the consumers who will pay to see movies and upgrade their home theatre systems. Or not.

UPDATE: If simultaneous release is the wave of the future, Bubble suggests that DVD sales will benefit far more than theatre box office. The movie website BoxOfficeMojo.com notes that this past weekend (1/28-29), Bubble earned a measly $70,664 in theatres, or $2,208 per theatre. However, its distributors claim that DVD sales were $5 million -- quite healthy, considering the movie's budget was only $1.6 million.

Sources: Ubercool, Ars Technica, USA Today, Business Week

Self-Healing Spacecraft

Imagine you're travelling through space, a billion miles from Earth, when your spacecraft, strained from constant exposure to extreme temperatures and micrometeroids, develops a critical crack. What do you do? Minutes count, while the nearest rescue craft is months if not years away...

To solve this problem, researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK are exploring the possibilities of "self-healing" spacecraft, using tiny glass tubes filled with resin to fill small cracks in a surface before they become more serious. Clearly this technology has many terrestrial applications as well, repairing fissures in structures that are in remote, hard-to-access areas.

Source: European Space Agency

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

15 Technologies You'll Need to Know in 2006

Popular Mechanics has posted a list of 15 "need to know" tech concepts for this year. Highlights include:

  • Drive monitoring systems for motor vehicles that make sure you're paying attention to the road, and automatically apply the brakes if necessary.
  • Body area networks (BANs) that wirelessly connect pacemakers, hearing aids and other personal devices to a base station monitored by a doctor, who could make adjustments and be alerted to malfunctions.
  • NAND flash memory, which can store as much as 16GB of data.
  • Nanoparticle batteries that can be fully charged within a couple of minutes, and last just as long as conventional batteries.
  • Coal gasification that converts plentiful, relatively inexpensive coal into clean-burning natural gas.

Source: Tomorrow's Trends

With Super Bowl Advertising, Funny is Money

Last year, in the wake of the infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe maufunction" of the year before, Super Bowl advertisers went with muted, more respectful commercials. There was just one problem: they weren't that effective.

This year, humor is back in Super Bowl ads, with brewer Anheuser-Busch leading the way. The stakes are high -- not just because of production costs and the $2.5 million price tag for a 30-second spot, but because the Super Bowl represents the last bastion of the mass TV audience (90 million strong) that advertisers crave:

"Water-cooler talk is really important. It's a measure of success," says [Marlene] Coulis, vice president for brand management at Anheuser. "If you can get the commercial to be part of pop culture, it makes the ad more memorable..."

The obsession over one telecast underscores how valuable the Super Bowl has become as a mass-market advertising arena, in an increasingly fragmented media world. The broadcast not only draws an audience roughly four times as big as most popular TV shows, but it also draws an audience that is very likely to be watching the ads and not using TiVo-like devices to skip through commercial breaks.

To be sure, Anheuser-Busch and other Super Bowl advertisers will be sweating every detail of their spots right up until game day. Moreover, the Super Bowl is unique in that its advertisers compete for top ranking in several national polls, such as that conducted by USA Today.

And if you have $2.5 million to drop on a 30-second spot, you're in luck. This year's game still has several available slots.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Video Sharing Online

Just as Flickr encouraged the sharing of still photos over the Web, new services are helping users share video clips online. The rise of digital video cameras (disposable video cameras are available at CVS drug stores), video-capable cell phones and the growing prevalence of broadband Internet access have combined to fuel the growth of sites such as YouTube, Vimeo and SnapFish.

Many users leverage these services to share videos with family and friends, creating the modern-day equivalent of home-movie night. Others simply upload funny or quirky clips for anyone to see. Some see great potential in such services (imagine the sales and advertising value in an especially popular clip!), as well as controversy (if a clip contains music, should the artist get a royalty?). And, of course, there will be the inevitable concerns about blackmail and pornography.

Source: AP (via Excite)

Bible Belt Embracing Islam?

As the fastest growing religion in the US, Islam is attracting converts in places one wouldn't expect. Namely, Texas, the heart of the Bible Belt and Bush Country.

Islam is particularly appealing to some ultra-conservative Christians who feel that Christianity -- even in its fundamentalist forms -- is too liberal.

Eric was a Baptist preacher before he became a Muslim 14 years ago. Now he prays five times a day – even in the middle of watching a football game. His wife, Karen, also a convert, is covered from head to toe in the traditional Muslim burka. Islam, says Eric, ‘is everything I wanted Christianity to be’...

Women are also becoming followers of Muhamed. Yasmine (previously Mindy) arranged a marriage for herself and has three children. Islam, she says is ‘the solution to a lot of the prevailing evils: drugs, adultery, fornication…’

Currently, Texas is home to 400,000 Muslims, many of whom are native-born and relatively recent converts.

Source: Channel4.com

Digital Cameras Keep Killing Traditional Film

The growing popularity of digital photography appears to be disrupting the traditional film-camera industry to death. Last week, Nikon announced that it will cease production of film cameras to go totally digital. And the other day, Konica-Minolta threw in the towel, getting out of the camera business entirely.

With production of film cameras by the major Japanese makers plunging from 30 million units in 2000 to fewer than 5 million in 2005, it's little wonder that even these venerable brands feel they are fighting a losing battle.

Source: Ubercool

Collecting Commom Sense Ideas

Since October, the website SinceSlicedBread.com has been collecting ideas about how to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, seeking the best ideas since, well...

As the site itself says:

Since Sliced Bread is a national call for fresh, common sense ideas. A call for ideas that will strengthen our economy and improve the day-to-day lives of working men and women and their families. It’s also a place where ordinary Americans and experts alike can discuss the important economic issues of our times.

The site, sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), lists many of the best ideas submitted, most of which will ring familiar to futurists. On February 1 -- the day after President Bush's State of the Union address -- the very best idea will be awarded $100,000. The reviewing and judging process, however, has drawn criticism by those who believe it's too restrictive (indeed, many of the "finalist" ideas are classic Democratic Party talking points). Zephyr Teachout, who employed social networking technology for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, offers both a critique and alternative approaches.

This day and age, any initiative that encourages people to think creatively about social and economic problems deserves encouragement. Visit the site and judge the merit of the ideas for yourself.

Sources: Smart Mobs, Many2Many

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Dutch Open High-Tech Prison

A new prison in Lelystad, the Netherlands, uses state-of-the-art technology to track inmates' every move and even to monitor to monitor their emotional states.

The so-called "Big Brother Prison" tracks inmates through RFID wristbands, ubiquitous cameras and microphones, facial recognition software, and touchscreens that inmates use to organize their daily schedules. In addition to helping guards intervene more quickly to diffuse violence, the technology saves the Dutch government money by allowing the prison to be run with fewer guards. The new prison's estimated cost per prisoner is about $120, versus $175 at conventional prisons.

Source: CNN.com

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Las Vegas Places Its Bets on the Future

Sin City is red hot... and developers are banking that it will stay that way.

This month, Boyd Gaming announced that it will demolish its Stardust hotel -- one of the last of Las Vegas' old-school casinos -- to make way for Echelon Place, a 5,300-room resort slated to open in 2010.

Echelon Place joins nearly 100 major construction projects in Vegas either underway or in the planning stage. Last year, 4,500 condos and townhouses were sold in the Las Vegas area, many for more than $500,000. Indeed, Las Vegas is one of America's fastest-growing cities, owing its appeal to job growth, agreeable climate (so long as you have air conditioning), plentiful real estate and appealing lifestyle. While the tourism and gaming industries keep Vegas humming, its economy is diversifying; Ford Motor Company is one company that has moved a regional distribution center to Vegas.

UPDATE: The Herman Group notes that Las Vegas is benefitting from a nationwide surge in the gambling business, being fueled by a generally strong economy and a willingness among consumers to take bigger risks with their money.

Source: Ubercool

Blogging, Google Invade Mainstream Media

Two signs that Internet media are steadily moving toward and becoming a driving force in mainstream media (MSM):

Not everyone in MSM, however, is enjoying such synergy with new media. Musicland, which operates the Sam Goody music stores and Suncoast video stores that are fixtures in malls across America, has filed for bankruptcy. The press release notes that "[t]he company attributes their financial difficulties to a diminishing music and movies marketplace, growing competition from big box retailers and the increase of music downloading." [emphasis added] Musicland properties will contine to operate under the terms of the bankruptcy.

Sources: Buzzmachine, USA Today, Long Tail

Space Probe to Visit Pluto and Beyond

Of all the planets in our solar system, distant Pluto remains the only one that has yet to be visited and studied by a man-made spacecraft. Hopefully, that will change in July 2015, when NASA's New Horizons probe is scheduled to make a fly-by of Pluto and its moon Charon.

The launch, scheduled for this afternoon, was scrubbed due to high winds, but has been rescheduled for 1:16 PM EST tomorrow. Once launched, the probe will leave Earth at 36,000 MPH -- the fastest a spacecraft has ever traveled -- and will reach Jupiter next year to get a "slingshot" boost that will propel it toward the edge of the solar system within eight more years.

At 3 billion miles away, Pluto is so small and so distant that virtually nothing is known about it. Not even the Hubble space telescope can produce a quality rendering of its surface (though Hubble did discover two additional moons in May 2005). "What we know about Pluto today could fit on the back of a postage stamp," said Colleen Hartman, a deputy associate administrator at NASA. "The textbooks will be rewritten after this mission is completed." One question that the $700 million New Horizons project might help settle is whether Pluto should rightfully be considered a planet at all, or something else, as some astronomers suggest.

After flying by Pluto-Charon, New Horizons will explore the Kuiper Belt, a zone of icy, rocky debris that could provide a glimpse of conditions in the primordial solar system, before the planets were formed.

UPDATE: After several weather-related delays, New Horizons launched successfully this afternoon (1/19) from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Source: AP (Excite)

Smartphone Shipments Grow by 75% in 2005

The global growth in "smart" mobile devices is on an uphill climb, with the number of devices shipped rising by 75% in 2005 over the previous year. Nokia was the runaway leader, growing its share of the market by over 20% and increasing its shipment by a whopping 141% over 2004. Overall, just over 13 million smartphones shipped worldwide in 2005.

Source: ZDNet

Teen Blogs Alarm Parents, Schools

The Internet, combined with the advent of cheap, easy-to-use blogging tools such as MySpace and Xanga, is allowing teenagers to post their innermost thoughts online. But unlike the diaries of old (which came complete with little padlocks), teens' blogs are open for the world to see. That -- along with the types of information teens are posting on their sites -- have parents, teachers and others who are concerned with the welfare of young people concerned.

Although many teens use these sites to make friends and to serve as a creative outlet, others have posted everything from risque photographs to brutally frank and disturbing confessionals to violent threats. In fact, kids have been known to exaggerate the wildness of their lifestyle, blogging about sex, drugs and drinking when in fact living very G-rated lives.

Advocates for teen online safety warn that not only is this content illegal in many cases, but can put the teens themselves in danger. A young person who posts provocative material, for instance, can find himself or herself the target of unwanted attention; the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that one in five children receives online sexual solicitations. These advocates also warn that such blogs can come back to haunt teens later, as college admissions offices and employers are "googling" candidates more frequently and taking note of what they find.

Schools are working to educate students on responsible online behavior, while parents are wrestling with the dilemma of respecting their kids' rights while protecting them. Just as the appearance of the automobile and telephone rewrote the rules on personal interaction, the Internet and blogging are causing us to rethink what's ethical, appropriate and safe when sharing information with others.

Source: Washington Post

Report Projects Nanotechnology Futures

A report compiled by the Interdisciplinary Center for Technology Analysis and Forecasting at Tel Aviv University surveyed nanotechnology experts worldwide for their thoughts on the future of the field. According to the report, the next decade will see dramatic growth in nanotech applications.

Among the estimated predictions made in the report:

  • Biodetection with smart nano surfaces by 2008

  • Smart probes and targeted drug delivery by 2013

  • Cells on chips replace testing on live animals by 2013

  • In vitro construction of human organs by 2018

  • Nanomachines inside the body by 2025

The full 39-page report is available for download in PDF format.

Source: KurzweilAI.net

Is Self-Service Changing Our Culture?

Because self-service technologies such as self-checkout aisles and automated phone trees save businesses huge amounts of money, they're undoubtedly here to stay. Plus, despite their flaws, kiosks and other self-service tools appear to be saving consumers time and aggravation:

A recent study found that 38 percent of airline passengers use check-in kiosks, waiting half as long for boarding passes as passengers who use an airline representative.

"I don't need to burn calories telling somebody who I am, where I am going and what seat I want," says Paul Schweer, a software developer who travels frequently. "And there's none of the ambiguity and inefficiency when you're trying to talk to somebody in a crowded airport."

By one estimate, by the end of the decade, half of our business interactions will be via some form of self-service.

But by sacrificing the human touch in our transactions, are we losing something more?

In a word, says Ulrike Schultze, "no."

Schultze, associate professor of information technology and operations management at Southern Methodist University, studies the effects of our growing reliance on self-serve technology. "In most cases, it's not as though you are sacrificing a valuable human experience," she says.

"Take the example of ordering a hamburger at McDonald's," Schultze says. "The person you are talking to is just rattling off information from a script: `Do you want a large Coke with that? Do you want this or that special?'

"An electronic interaction isn't going to be much different. When was the last time you had a conversation with somebody at a checkout line that changed your life?"

Source: Fort Wayne News-Sentinel

Friday, January 13, 2006

Car Companies Seek Bolder "Design DNA"

It's been said that car buyers don't buy cars so much as they buy status, sex appeal and freedom. And more than ever, car companies realize exactly what it is they're selling.

As with so many other industries struggling to attract fickle, jaded consumers, the auto industry is seeking out new ways to get its products noticed. Taking a cue from the groundbreaking designs of Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler, other automakers are taking chances with bolder designs that will make their cars clearly recognizable... and ultimately, more appealing.

Ford's new Edge SUV incorporates the "crossover" styling that melds the manageable size of a car with the functionality of a traditional SUV (and that was pioneered by Mercedes, Lexus and Nissan). The Edge's three-bar grill will be a signature feature in several other new Ford models.

The idea is to give cars a unique "design DNA" that equates the brand with fun, excitement, power and sophistication. What car companies fear most is a "vanilla" designation for a design that consumers will equate with blandness and conservatism. To that end, Toyota is redesigning its best-selling yet unremarkable Camry, giving it what it calls a more "athletic" look. Similarly, Honda has given its classic Civic an extreme makeover, making it look more futuristic and less like an economy compact. After all, you may love and admire your father -- and may even agree with his politics -- but you wouldn't be caught dead driving his car!

Exactly how distinctive these new cars will be remains to be seen. To some, the new generation of cars may simply be knock-offs of whatever model is the top seller at the moment. But in a market in which only one US car manufacturer -- the cutting-edge Chrysler -- increased share in 2005, automakers can't afford to do nothing.

Source: CNN/Money

Saving Babies with Portable Brain Scanners

UK researchers are developing a portable brain scanner that provides the beneficial results of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) without having to sedate tiny patients and move them to an MRI facility. Such a device would help pediatricians diagnose conditions such as brain hemorrhages and brain injuries quickly and easily, and would be particularly useful for doctors in rural and remote areas that are not close to MRI facilities.

The scanner should be available for commercial development by 2008.

Source: Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends

Catering to Female Business Travelers

Because more women are travelling alone for business, the travel industry is beginning to respond to their unique needs -- the utmost of these being safety concerns. Hotels and other facilities are stepping up background screening, and are creating female-specific amenities such as women-only guest floors and escort services.

The need for such services was sadly exacerbated recently when a housekeeper at the upscale W New York hotel was raped and left unconscious. Police do not yet have a suspect, though they believe the suspect is a hotel employee.

Source: MI Megasite

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Make Yourself at Home

Many of the hottest emerging consumer trends involve home improvement—a phenomenon borne of the long-term trend toward “cocooning,” post-9/11 anxiety, a demand for convenience, continued prosperity, a maturing consumer base, and the sheer availability of technology to make any home a castle.

Among the more exotic home amenities that may become more mainstream in the coming years:

  • “Extreme” home theaters, complete with theater-style seats and commercial popcorn poppers (and they wonder why theater box office figures are declining!).

  • Two-story elevators.

  • Soundproof “rooms within rooms” to serve as home offices, mini recreation rooms, or extra rooms in an apartment or other small abode.

  • A revival of in-home sales and services, as cosmetologists, masseuses and other service providers make house calls.

  • Commercial-grade wine refrigerators and beer taps.

Source: Trendwatching.com

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

More Americans are OK with Fat

Perhaps because two-thirds of Americans are now overweight, many of us are more accepting of heavy people than we used to be.  A survey by the NPD Group found that over a 20-year period, the percentage of Americans who said they find overweight people les attractive fell from 55% to 24%.  The study also found that fewer Americans are eating less or are choosing low-fat, low-calorie foods today than during the 1980s.

Yet while we might not be as obsessed with thinness as we were back then, the study found that we still favor thin people over their heavier counterparts.  When asked to make assumptions about a man photographed beside an obese woman and a woman of normal weight, the survey subjects judged the man more negatively when viewing the photo of him beside the obese woman.  Overweight teens, moreover, are only half as likely to date as their thinner peers.

Source:  AP Health (via Yahoo)

Shoppers Demand Self-Service Features in Stores

A survey of UK shoppers by NCR Corp. has found that two-thirds not only welcome, but expect, self-checkout asiles, kiosks for pre-ordering items and other self-service features, especially in convenience stores.  In fact, 42% of those polled said that self-service features determine their choice of stores.

Shoppers throughout the world are no different from Americans, it seems, in valuing speed and convenience in their shopping experience:

As people conduct more frequent shopping trips it will become increasingly important for them to get in and out of stores faster, especially during the busy shopping periods," said Alberto Camuri, NCR’s vice president for retail solutions in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. "Online shopping has given consumers more control, convenience and spontaneity in how they manage their shopping. So it is no surprise to see similar expectations for self-service technology in the store."

Source:  Self Service World

Levi's Makes Jeans for iPods

Further evidence of the iPod’s disruptive effect on our culture:  the venerable jean manufacturer Levi Strauss is developing a brand of jeans with a special pocket for holding an iPod.  The Levi’s RedWire DLX jeans, for both men and women, include a special iPod docking port, hip controls and a wire retractor.  The RedWire jeans will be available this fall.

Source:  MacDailyNews

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Rupert Murdoch Takes Internet Distribution Seriously

News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch is one media head who realizes both the threat and the opportunity Internet distribution poses to his empire, according to this article from Variety:

News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch is fretting about the hefty cost of making and marketing movies as the day nears when pics can be put together cheaply and reach wide auds directly on the Internet.


"It's an expensive game," he told investors at a media conference in Phoenix. "Especially if filmmakers can bypass studios for broadband."

As a result, "Our business models have to change and we're busy preparing ourselves for that," he said.

Murdoch said News Corp.'s MySpace.com will start offering free video downloads this week. "There will be millions of downloads a day probably," he said. He was likely referring to musicvideos, but it wasn't immediately clear.

He said he expects News Corp.'s newly acquired Net assets to hit revenue of $350 million-$400 million by 2007 if current trends continue...

Monday, January 09, 2006

Yahoo Go Gets Going

Not willing to be left in the dust by Google and MSN, Yahoo has launched a new virtual application called Yahoo Go. As with recent offerings from Google, data can be accessed through multiple devices, namely a PC/laptop, mobile device, and TV. Yahoo Go is a one-stop application that provides access to music, photos, movie listings, your address book, e-mail, blogs, communities and instant messaging.

Yahoo Go is still in its infancy, however. Many of the more advanced offerings are not yet available, and the mobile portion only works on Nokia Series 60 phones. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what the early adopters are able to do with the existing offerings over the next few months... and how Yahoo's competitors will respond.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Are You a "Yupster"?

You are if you're, shall we say, older than a teenager and like edgy music from independent bands. Yupsters (yuppie hipsters) are turning on to indie music with the help of -- what else? -- the Internet and music download sites, which make tracks from unsigned bands and once-obscure labels as easy to find as anything in the Top 40. Easy access to music from "small" bands is something yupsters appreciate, as many of them are old enough to remember plowing through bins at hole-in-the-wall record stores and flea markets.

As a result of its growing audience, independent music is showing up more frequently in mainstream media, as part of the soundtrack to an episode of NBC's comedy series The Office, for example. Major advertisers are also scrambling to buy ad space on the increasingly popular indie music download sites such as Pitchfork.

Source: Newsweek

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Wanted: Dangerous Ideas

The Edge Foundation's World Question Center has solicited essays on the world's most dangerous ideas. Some are futuristic, while others are simply provocative. All, however, make for fascinating reading and excellent starting points for spirited debate.

Study: Cell Phones Upset Work/Life Balance

Feeling more stressed at home as well as at work? Cell phones may be partly to blame, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

In yet another example of how technological development outpaces human adaptation to it, the study found that easier communication afforded by cell phones blurs the boundaries between home and the workplace. People are more likely to get work-related calls after hours (usually in connection with an emergency or a difficult project), and parents often take calls from their kids at work (again, usually to report some kind of a problem). Women bear the brunt of this stress, as they are more likely than men to receive family-related calls at work, yet just as likely to receive work-related calls at home.

The author of the study, Noelle Chesley of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, recommends that parents take "on call" shifts during which they'd be available to take calls from children and other family members, so that one parent won't be overwhelmed with calls. Of course, this can't control calls from work to home, in which case employees may need to negotiate on-call agreements with their supervisors.

Source: MSNBC

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Buying Pizza Through Vending Machines

Vending machines sell all kinds of products. But pizza?

Yes, pizza. A Massachusetts-based company called WonderPizza has introduced a vending machine that dispenses cooked 9-inch pizzas. The $18,000 Italian-built machines can vend three different types of pizza, cooking them in a toaster oven (not a microwave) and selling them for approximately $5-6 apiece. Total cooking time is about 90 seconds.

WonderPizza began rolling out the machines in 2003, and has installed some units on college campuses, including Boston's Brown University. Valuing low prices, 24-hour convenience and speed, college students would seem to be the ideal customers for vending-machine pizza.

Sources: Slice, Herman Trend Alert

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Ticket Buyers More Likely to be Online than In Line

Waiting in line to see the hottest concert, show or movie is part of the American experience. The best lines are parties in of themselves, with those waiting sometimes dressed in costume, and with lawn furniture and alcoholic beverages to keep them comfortable.

But for most of us who don't like waiting in line for anything, there's good news: the ticket line is gradually being upstaged by technology. According to comScore Media Metrix, websites that sell tickets online saw a 20% increase in traffic from November 2004 to November 2005. Ticketmaster is the leader (36% growth since '04), but Movietickets.com, Ticketsnow.com and Fandango had even more impressive growth (89%, 79% and 67% respectively).

Following the usual pattern of technology adoption, the majority of those purchasing tickets online were young and affluent. The typical online ticket customer is between the ages of 12 and 34, and many have annual incomes of $100,000+.

Source: eMarketer

At Consumer Electronics Show, the Word is "Portable"

The stars of the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, opening this week in Las Vegas, are portable media devices that make even the video iPod seem positively quaint.

Services from Microsoft and Vongo will allow users to download movies from the Internet, and view them either on their PCs or on portable devices (although such devices have been available for some time, sales have been poor, and vendors are banking on second-generation devices to build consumer interest). Similarly, RCA is launching a portable device that can download programming from TVs and service providers such as DirecTV for later viewing. Meanwhile, Intel will unveil its new dual core chip technology that will provide even greater horsepower to the latest video devices.

Allying themselves with the portability trend are Yahoo, Google and MSN, which are jockeying to become go-to portals for video content. Their ambitions are not lost on the television industry; 40% of TV executives surveyed by IBM expressed serious concern about competition from Internet portals by the end of the decade.

This year's Consumer Electronics Show -- the premier consumer technology trade show in the US -- is said to be the largest ever, with 2,500 exhibitors covering 28 football fields' worth of space.

UPDATE: An article in the New York Times speculates on what the future of Internet-based video distribution could look like for the major Internet players, cable carriers and broadcasters.

Source: USA Today

DIY Implantable RFID Chips

Hardcore geeks don't get tattoos or body piercings. They implant RFID tags under their own skin!

The idea is to both learn more about RFID while providing a convenient tool such as an authentication key that you are guaranteed never to leave home without. Mikey Sklar's Electric Clothing blog documents the process of implanting an RFID chip in one's hand, complete with photos and video clips that are not for the squeamish.

WARNING: Despite the precautions outlined, this is a potentially dangerous procedure, and anyone undertaking it without the help of a medical professional does so at their own risk.

Sources: unmediated

Yahoo Prepares Online Reality Show

Led by former movie studio head Terry Semel, Yahoo is preparing to launch an original online reality series that users can access at their convenience.

The show, called Wow House, follows two families whose homes are refurbished with $10,000 worth of electronics. The show has a modest budget ($100,000 for the pilot) and will earn revenue through in-line advertising. Unlike traditional television, this and other programming from Yahoo will be delivered in short clips.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

Tablet for "Power Showering"

Whether you're prone to flashes of brilliance in the shower or are simply a workaholic, the $16 Erasable Shower Note Tablet will help you capture those fleeting thoughts that come while showering. A useful yet relatively low-tech idea... even if you use it only to leave a note saying, "Somebody clean this shower!!"

Source: Boing Boing, eTravelerGear

2005 was "Year of the Digital Citizen"

An article from BBC News notes how this past year saw the rise of citizens who used their phone cams and blogs to capture and share breaking news... in many cases trumping the mainstream media.

It began with the devastating Southeast Asian tsunami, with most all of the important footage being shot by tourists and locals with their camcorders. The London bombings in July and the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina were also captured by eyewitnesses. Technology that is increasingly cheaper and easier to use, combined with tools for sharing digital content, will only nuture this trend.

The article quotes Boston city councillor John Tobin, who predicts that videoblogging will play a pivotal role in politics the way that text blogging did in 2004:

Regularly, Councillor Tobin reports and shows his voters the positive and negative about their community. He shows them the new mural or neighbourhood graffiti problems. He returns to areas for updates where action has been taken to make something better.

Councillor Tobin is convinced that by the 2008 presidential elections, most politicians in the US will vlog or die in the public eye.

"It's going to be mandatory. People are going to have to do it. Voters won't accept that they don't have it," he recently told the Boston Phoenix.

It is a cheap, accessible and locally relevant way in which to engage with and be visible to the very people who voted you in.

The subtext is that if politicians don't take the lead in digital media, voters -- and ultimately politicians' opponents -- will.

Blogger Dan Gillmor is also quoted, noting the need for a "media and journalism ecosystem" that supports both mainstream and grassroots reporting:

"We need what big institutions do so well, but we also need the bottom-up - or, more accurately, edge-in - knowledge and ideas of what I've called the 'former audience' that has become a vital part of the system.

"I'm also anxious to see that it's done honourably and in a way that helps foster a truly informed citizenry."

RELATED: Unmediated points us to two recent items on citizen journalism. One, a commentary from the Editors Weblog, acknowledges the contributions that citizen journalists make, but declares "the idea that there is an essence of citizen journalism - as replacing the so-called traditional journalism - is dead." The other notes the debut of the Chicago Daily News, an online-only "independent news source" (and the name of a storied Windy City paper that closed in 1978) that is paying for submitted digital content.

Sources: BBC.com, Smart Mobs

Hey, Small Spender!

For years, plenty of people have been looking for ways to make big money from the Internet. But many others are looking to make small money as well...

In 2005, the number of people spending $2 or less online nearly doubled, to about 20 million. Most of these purchases are downloadable songs and ringtones, but the development suggests the long-predicted rise of micropayments, which can allow content creators of all types sell small units (articles, pictures, video clips, etc.) for small amounts and make a profit.

P.S. As this is FutureWire's first post of 2006, here's wishing all our readers a happy, safe and prosperous new year!

Source: CNN/Money