A peek into the future

Wireless electricity, touchable holograms, grown-up slot cars, elevators to space and more: Who knows whether they'll pan out, but they're in the works.

September 06, 2009|David Colker

Of all the predictions made during the future-happy 1950s -- when it was declared we'd soon have flying cars, robot butlers, rocket-delivered mail and food made from wood pulp -- there was one forward-looking statement that was completely validated.

It was delivered by Criswell, a self-described soothsayer and TV personality, who said, "We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives."

Otherwise, predicting the future, certainly in the realm of technology, is a risky endeavor.

Still, billions of dollars are spent every year in trying to do just that: predict which products will spark new businesses or even whole new industries.

Here's a look at proposed technological wonders that are under development in the fields of energy, transportation, television and medicine. Some are far enough along to be aimed at the near term, others are more in the pipe-dream category, but all are serious enough to be funded by corporate, government or academic dollars.

Keep in mind, however, that the most important new technologies for the coming decades might not even have been thought of yet. After all, 1950s futurists didn't foresee the biggest game changer of our era -- the Internet. It's where so many of us are spending much of our lives.



* Smart meters: Global warming and volatile energy prices have spurred development of digital meters that provide real-time reports of energy usage. They're already in use in some parts of the country.

This year, Southern California Edison Co. will begin installing 5.3 million of them for all its residential and small-business customers. The cost: $1.63 billion, to be offset by a 1.5% rate increase until implementation is complete in 2012.

Once they're in place, consumers will be able to monitor their electricity use via the Internet.

Next up: remote-controlled thermostats and appliances. That can happen as soon as manufacturers agree to a single standard for the control chips, according to Paul Moreno of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which is installing 9.8 million smart meters in Northern California.

* Wireless electricity: Electricity that travels through the air to power lights, computers and other devices sounds like one of those 1950s-style fantasies. But WiTricity Corp., a company spun off from research at MIT, says it's time to cut the cord. Wireless electricity products using its technology will be available by 2011.

Funded by $5 million from Stata Venture Partners and Argonaut Private Equity, the company has developed a system based on a technology already used in transformers (such as the block-shaped thing on your cellphone charger).

In transformers, power jumps across a tiny gap between two coils. The scientists increased that distance between coils to as much as 7 feet by having them both resonate at the same frequency.

The energy that travels between them is in the form of a magnetic resonance that's harmless to living beings, WiTricity Chief Executive Eric Giler said.

"To the magnetic field," Giler said, "you look like air."

One of the main obstacles will be skepticism about safety. When a post about WiTricity appeared on the technology blog, a reader who wears a pacemaker said she'd never get close to one, and a man writing from Japan wondered whether the system might "nuke someone by mistake."



* Ground: Cars are getting smarter. We drivers remain, well, about as smart as we ever were.

Researchers are pushing to provide drivers with better, faster information to avoid crashes and speed traffic flow.

One major effort is dubbed IntelliDrive. Funded by the federal government and major automobile manufacturers, and overseen by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the program will begin tests of a traffic warning system in San Francisco next month.

Participating drivers will receive signals on their cellphones alerting them to bottlenecks approximately 60 seconds ahead. The phone will say, "Slow traffic ahead" through its speaker phone or headset, and a message will appear on its screen.

"We call it situational awareness," said Jim Misener, executive director of California Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways. "It's not for braking hard but for warning you in advance."

The operators of the program will use traffic information from several existing sources, including Caltrans, and crunch it to provide the real-time warnings. Only cellphones using Windows-based operating systems will be able to download the software to take part in the test -- which leaves out iPhones and BlackBerrys, among others.

A video showing how it works is at www.intellidrive

The ultimate goal is a dashboard warning system, fed by sensors in cars and along highways, to alert drivers of potential hazards all around them, including blind spots.

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