by Michael Fitzgerald

Bringing Sci-Fi Tech Into the Enterprise

Oct 01, 20068 mins
Data Center

Today’s science fiction often becomes tomorrow’s reality. Science fiction writers presaged flight, nuclear weapons, cyberspace and computer viruses, among other changes. “It’s good for CIOs to read science fiction,” says Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology forecaster. Read what your new hires are reading, he says, “and you’ll get a sense of what they’ll want to build when they’re middle managers. You’ll also relate to them better,” he says. Thinking a little more tactically, should any sci-fi technology ideas be on your radar now? Check out these five visions that are moving into the real world.

Roll-Up Displays

Why they’re cool: Resize at will.

What CIOs could love: Reduced eye strain, saved desk space.

Displays offer fertile ground for imagination: Just envision miniature flat panels that you could slap on objects as if they were stickers, for instant displays. On a more practical level, wouldn’t it be nice to have a way to instantly make your cell phone display bigger?

This would probably involve building a display that could bend or even roll up. That last concept might seem completely outlandish—displays consist of glass and other substances no more inclined to bend than the typical CEO. Yet such displays have been demonstrated by the likes of Philips and Xerox and might not be far away from market.

A typical flat-panel display features several layers, including a glass substrate with a transistor backplane that includes semiconductor, insulating and metal layers. A liquid crystal is sandwiched between this and a color filter layer. To make a display bend, you need more flexible materials, such as plastic in place of glass, and in some cases, organic semiconductors.

Such materials form the basis of prototype 2- to 4-inch displays that have been built for the U.S. military by Universal Display, L3 and Xerox’s PARC subsidiary. These displays—made on stainless steel foil—curve around the wrist for improved mobility.

Meanwhile, Philips and PARC have both demonstrated flexible displays, some made using printer-style jet arrays, for use with cell phones and other handhelds. Robert Street, a PARC senior research fellow, says that the company’s jet-printed arrays and rollable displays are in early prototype stages—mostly because of manufacturing challenges and the need to develop manufacturing equipment.

Cognitive Radio

Why it’s cool: Makes smarter use of wireless spectrum.

What CIOs could love: Faster and more reliable wireless networks.

There’s plenty of unused wireless spectrum out there that corporate nomads would love to utilize. Yet it isn’t available to clogged parts of the spectrum. Cognitive radio—using software algorithms that help it immediately find an open spectrum anytime the normal frequency is filled—could solve the problem. Cognitive radio could produce a faster and more reliable wireless network than today’s, creating higher bandwidth by adapting to spectrum conditions.

For instance, the cellular network sees heavy usage during commuting hours, and more calls might be completed if cell phones could just jump outside the allotted spectrum at those times.

Spread-spectrum technologies already exist in wireless communications, routing packets in novel ways. Triband cellular phones that automatically switch to new network technologies show how cognitive radios might function, as do phones that automatically switch from a cellular network to a Wi-Fi network.

“The basic core technology exists to do cognitive radio—we know what the algorithms are and how to implement them,” says Krishnamurthy Soumyanath, director of Intel’s Communications Circuits Laboratory.

But real cognitive radio is not yet ready for the real world. A practical problem is power consumption—hopping between spectra requires more power than mobile devices have to spare. Soumyanath thinks the power problem will keep full-fledged cognitive radio from reaching the market before 2010.

Magnetic Memory

Why it’s cool: Uses the spin state of electrons to store data.

What CIOs could love: Fast speed, low power requirements.

Quantum computing—the idea that PCs could use quantum mechanics to move beyond today’s system, where every bit of data holds a 0 or 1 value, to a system where bits could hold an unlimited number of values—is still far, far in the future. But elements of it are emerging now. MRAM, or magnetoresistance random-access memory, is the newest example.

MRAM works by using the spin state of electrons to store data. Instead of Os and 1s, MRAM stores data by writing to the up or down state of the electrons. MRAM could become a kind of supermemory, one with the density to hold a great deal of data, and one with no moving parts, ¿a flash memory. What’s more, MRAM has the blazing speed of random-access memory but doesn’t lose its data when power fails.

It sounds fantastic, but elements of magnetoresistance have been in hard drives for years, and Freescale Semiconductor recently began shipping a commercial version of a 4-megabit MRAM chip.

That’s a tiny amount of memory compared with the latest flash memory, but producing a commercial MRAM device is still a milestone. MRAM will probably hold appeal right now for markets that use embedded memory, like smart cards. As capacity grows, you’ll see more products using MRAM.

Separately, IBM researchers recently said they have successfully stored data on a single molecule by taking advantage of spin—a step toward computing at a molecular level. It won’t be an overnight sensation, but researchers say the work will prove quite useful 15 years from now: That’s when many believe conventional memory techniques will run out of gas.

Holographic Hard Drives

Why it’s cool: Holographs. Need we say more?

What CIOs could love: Huge capacity. Blazing data transfer rates.

Photographs contain huge amounts of data: That’s the starting point for thinking about holographic storage. Light on photopolymers (in effect, film) creates three-dimensional patterns that allow for data storage below the surface of a medium—allowing tremendous amounts of data to be stored in a fixed amount of space. And, because it can write to perhaps a million bits of data at once, a holographic hard drive works much faster than today’s mainstay drives.

Thought implausible as recently as five years ago, holographic storage now looks to debut by late this year.

InPhase says it will ship a storage system based on holographic technology before the end of 2006, primarily for archival storage uses. This would feature holographic versatile discs (HVDs) that hold 300GB of data, or roughly 35 hours of broadcast-quality TV (or 25 minutes of HDTV), according to InPhase. That’s 64 times what a DVD can store.

If holographic storage, first proposed more than 40 years ago, finally becomes mainstream, it may eventually replace DVDs as the preferred disc type. But before that can happen, costs will have to drop sharply: The InPhase system looks to cost $15,000, plus more than $120 for a disc.

But by 2010, one disc could hold 1.6 tera¿bytes. A consortium called the HVD Alliance says it expects data transfer rates to equal 1Gbps, far faster than current DVD rates.

While initial HVDs will be writable only once, researchers expect holographic storage will eventually gain the same read/write ability as CDs and DVDs.

Neural Interfaces

Why it’s cool: You are now entering the Matrix.

What CIOs could love: No more carpal tunnel syndrome. And no more wondering what the boss really thinks.

CIOs had better hope for the success of holographic data storage: It might be the only way to store the mountain of data produced when you can connect your brain directly to the network.

With neural interface technology, which connects the human brain to the computer, people will be gathering, managing and storing a vast amount of information, says Brock Hinzmann, technology navigator at SRI Consulting in Menlo Park, Calif.

If that sounds way too much like jacking into the Matrix (or like the original cyberspace novel, Neuromancer), then brace yourself—because it’s already happening. As was first published in research this year, a paralyzed man used “BrainGate” to control a mouse cursor, play a video game, change channels on a television and perform other functions. BrainGate is an implanted neural sensor, a 4-by-4-millimeter chip with 100 electrodes that sits on the surface of the brain in the area of the motor cortex, interpreting brain signals. Developed by Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology in Foxborough, Mass., it’s currently in early clinical trials.

Plenty of work remains for neural interface technology, but more basic kinds of neural interfaces—such as cochlear implants, which improve hearing beyond normal human capacity—have already become available.