When future historians look back on 2011, they’ll certainly conclude that we were a society obsessed with video games, minicomputers masquerading as phones and an endless supply of online distraction. But in a few years, many technologies developed in service of these functions may be repurposed in extraordinarily sensible ways.

Motion control, for example, is driving a revolution in video gaming, but may soon help doctors diagnose patients via video conference. Augmented reality, used on smartphones to track down bars, might soon make police officers smarter and safer. In two decades, unmanned aerial vehicles plying the skies might be mundane. The following five emerging technologies are poised to go from amazing to ordinary — and the change will most certainly benefit us.

1. Motion Control

Whether you play video games or not, you’ve no doubt heard of the Nintendo Wii. Launched in 2006, the video game console sparked a revolution in interactive entertainment. Now Sony, Microsoft and others have leapt into the motion control market with more powerful and accurate motion controllers. In Microsoft’s case, the premise of the Xbox 360 maker’s new Kinect peripheral is that you are the controller. The technology not only opens the door for innovative video games, but also can transform how people work in the classroom, the operating room or even on the battlefield.

“Right off the bat, areas outside of gaming that have sparked the most interest for the use of Kinect and our natural user interfaces are health care and education,” said Chris Niehaus, director of innovation for Microsoft Public Sector. Kinect uses a 3-D image viewer and a highly sensitive microphone to isolate a user’s movements and voice. This allows Kinect to respond to both gestures and verbal commands.

“I think public safety would be one you would think about right away for that sort of biometric recognition ability,” he said. “In the next few months, you’ll be seeing more announcements and pieces of our technology coming forward around speech recognition.”

Niehaus said Microsoft is refining the Kinect technology’s sensitivity to pick up subtle movements like hand tremors and fluttering eyelids — a capability that will make Kinect technology a tool for doctors conducting telemedicine.

“If [a doctor] is doing a video conference with someone in the living room, the Kinect sensor is not only providing a video link so that you’re seeing and talking to the other person, but it’s also watching different movements to determine if those movements are indicative of pain or side effects,” Niehaus said. “That’s going to assist with early diagnosis and evaluation.” Microsoft, he says, has talked with the U.S. Department of Defense about using the technology for rehabilitation therapy for wounded veterans.

On the education front, Niehaus said there’s interest from schools to create interactive curriculum using Kinect. “There is a big trend toward gamification [adding game mechanics to otherwise traditional activities] and personalized learning,” he said. “There are some education-based games already available for the Xbox — and a lot of them are really STEM (science, technology, education and math) focused.”

For example, 20 Chicago-area public school districts are experimenting with Xbox and Kinect in their classrooms and after-school programs, Niehaus said. “We’re getting a lot of support from organizations like Get up and Move, Play 60 and different nonprofit programs that are focusing on getting kids up and moving, active and keeping them engaged. When you combine that with education, it is really taking off.” 

2. Balloon Radio

A common problem on the front lines — be it in war, a disaster or any other emergency — is a lack of communication. In the years since walkie-talkies made their debut, technology has evolved, making it easier for soldiers and first responders to communicate. But most communications improvements have hinged on fixed, physical infrastructure to transmit voice and data over distance. In remote areas, this usually requires personnel to erect radio repeater towers atop geographical high points to facilitate communication over a wide area. In a battle, such personnel are vulnerable to the enemy. In a forest fire, crews risk getting caught behind fire lines.

What if that troublesome tower could be replaced with a balloon? You’d have what Chandler, Ariz.-based Space Data calls a balloon-borne repeater platform — a floating communications hub that can be deployed in minutes by personnel miles from danger. The company offers what are essentially weather balloons loaded with radio repeater gear. The StarFighter model, already used by troops in Afghanistan, facilitates two-way radio communication up to 500 miles while floating at 80,000 feet, safely away from enemy fire. The StarFighter soon may be used by emergency responders.

“It’s a platform that you really can put any type of communication on,” said Gerald Knoblach, CEO of Space Data. “It takes 15 to 20 minutes to prepare it for launch, and the platform rises at about 1,000 feet per minute, so it gets to 90,000 feet in an hour and a half, and then it levels off there and starts relaying voice and data traffic across this big footprint.”

Knoblach said the balloons suspend for about 12 hours and operate at one-tenth the cost of communications aircraft. The range, responsiveness and interoperability of the balloons might make them ideal for emergency responders who suddenly find gaps in their communication networks after a disaster.

“This is tailored for wide communications and really complex terrain,” Knoblach said. “We all see how fast phones are becoming smaller and more capable; we can take all that kind of consumer technology and put it inside this, and every year get more capacity.”

3. Augmented Reality

Augmented reality apps are popular for iPhones and Androids. Generally such apps ask users to point their in-phone camera at a horizon, and the software then overlays the image with restaurant and bar information, or it provides walking directions and other details. A few apps use augmented reality to make a video game of the real world, using large smartphone screens to place digital bad guys on an otherwise normal cityscape. It’s one of those nascent technologies that gets many people excited about future possibilities.

Public safety officials say augmented reality can make public safety personnel more effective while keeping them safer, something Motorola is exploring.

“We spend a lot of time trying to understand the needs of public safety officers and folks in the federal government police and security forces. And it is just not understanding what their needs are today, but also understanding what they are tomorrow,” said Curt Croley, Motorola’s senior director of Innovation and Design. “What piqued our curiosity, and what we are very much watching, is the augmented reality space.”

The confluence of data analytics, high-speed wireless data and sophisticated end-user devices is enabling significant developments in augmented reality, a lot of which is being developed in the consumer world, said Craig Siddoway, Motorola’s director of Advanced Radio Concepts, Innovation and Design. “And we can learn a lot from that. The challenge here is to really allow [a police officer] to focus on what he is trying to do, and that obviously changes under certain conditions.”

An approach might be to provide officers with lightweight glasses that flash different colors in the officer’s peripheral vision indicating danger, or display simple data gleaned from a license plate. The trick is to provide data via augmented reality that improves situational awareness without overwhelming or distracting an officer.

“The context always has to be, first and foremost, the safety of the officer,” Siddoway said. “If he is at a traffic stop, there might be a covert alert that is either a vibration, audible via earpiece or something visual by glasses that suggests, ‘Heads up. Something is going on.’”

Other public safety applications for augmented reality include speech or facial recognition to find suspects in a crowd. Building inspectors could be equipped with 3-D maps of a structure. These capabilities could all be made available in a smart handheld device or even a heads-up display. But there’s only so much data a human can process at once.

“There are variables that we have to understand,” said Motorola CTO Paul Steinberg. “How much information can you present before users shift their focus from something that is more important?”

While no amount of augmented reality is going to lead to a real-life Robocop, the future of augmented reality is so bright you’ve got to wear data-analyzing, situationally aware shades.


Photo: Augmented reality technology may safeguard officers while making them more effective. Photo courtesy of Motorola


4. Intelligent Streetlights

Smart infrastructure, intelligent transportation systems, even the so-called “Internet of things” — all add up to an environment that’s more than meets the eye. But there’s at least one common fixture few of us give a second thought to, yet it’s uniquely positioned to deliver an array of high-tech services — the humble streetlight.

A company called Illuminating Concepts transforms typical streetlights into highly intelligent network nodes that do more than fend off darkness. The Farmington Hills, Mich., company launched a product called Intellistreets that adds lighting control, wireless communication, audio, video and digital signage to any standard streetlight.

Ron Harwood, president and founder of Illuminating Concepts, said Intellistreets can help cities save energy and enhance citizen safety, while even turning a small profit. For instance, restaurants could pay to run advertising messages on downtown intersections equipped with digital signage. Cities also could use visual or audio messages for emergency communications or to guide citizens to emergency evacuation routes.

It’s unbelievable how much more the cities can communicate with pedestrians,” Harwood said. The wireless mesh network capability of Intellistreets also means the streetlights could display — or tell — people bus or train schedules, information on Amber Alerts, that an emergency vehicle is approaching, or help reroute drivers during road closures. 

Outfitting a streetlight with Intellistreets costs about $500, according to Harwood. Each fixture operates individually and includes a microprocessor, a dual-band radio system, audio amplifier, digital sound processor, video output and HD video card.

He said the technology is an affordable option to implement smarter streetlights. “Los Angeles and Seattle are spending a lot of money in retrofitting streetlights, and departments of transportation in all 50 states are experimenting with LED fixtures,” Harwood said. “There is a lot of awareness in the cities around retrofitting, but for many, there’s just too little money available for it to happen.”

5. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Most of us are familiar with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — at least the variety used by American military forces to wage war in the air without risking pilots’ lives. But some might wonder why UAVs aren’t being used for mundane activities.

It’s because UAVs have been federally regulated since their inception, meaning the marketplace hasn’t had the freedom to conjure up new ideas for these revolutionary machines, said James Grimsley, president and CEO of Norman, Okla.-based Design Intelligence Inc., a company that develops technology for unmanned aerial systems.

“We call them unmanned aircraft, and we’re not describing them in terms of potential, we’re describing them in terms of what we see is missing, which is the man,” Grimsley said. “But that’s going to be changing in the next two to five years.”

That change will be possible thanks to an evolution in how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates UAVs. The FAA’s website states, “To address the increasing civil market and the desire by civilian operators to fly UASs [unmanned aircraft systems], the FAA is developing new policies, procedures, and approval processes.” But the agency says these changes aren’t anticipated until at least 2015.

There are many potential uses for UAVs, Grimsley said, including package delivery. Think for a moment about sending a package overnight. It often means the package is put aboard a piloted airplane. It might then be loaded onto a truck and driven miles to a remote destination.

“UPS charges you $15 to deliver a package, and they have to deliver it overnight regardless of the cost for them,” Grimsley said. “If we had planes that could handle 10 or 20 pounds of cargo that would fly to these small areas and regional hubs, we could move mail and very small cargo and packages. Small vehicles don’t require big airports, they don’t require the infrastructure planes do, and they’re cheaper and safer.”

Grimsley points out all the problems that accompany manned flight just to deliver packages: safety devices, life-support systems, and the destruction that can occur if a large plane crashes. By using UAVS, this could be circumvented and things like organ delivery could be more streamlined.

UAVs may also soon be used as communications relays. Instead of incurring the high cost of launching a satellite, solar-powered UAVs could stay aloft for years and serve the same function as orbit satellites.

Another practical use for UAVs, Grimsley said, would be monitoring municipal assets.

“Cities often buy large amounts of equipment that are all over the place, like tractors and trucks. Those things can be stolen, and it can take quite a while before the government will even realize they’re gone,” he said. “They can be implanted with RFID tags, and you could have a UAV flying around mapping all of these vehicles, and when one shows that it’s no longer within the map, you can go looking for it.”

In the end, the development of the next generation of UAVs will primarily be driven by safety. Just as NASA came to accept robots as far superior for exploration in terms of safety, cost and efficiency, so too will the coming era of everyday UAVs.

“We typically think of the sexy and exciting things first, but they don’t necessarily turn into big financial opportunities,” Grimsley said. “What turns into big opportunities are mundane things like delivering mail, cargo, packages — almost a sort of railroad-in-the-sky type thing. That’s what will really turn into major drivers and economic opportunities.”

Chad Vander Veen  |  Editor, FutureStructure

Chad Vander Veen is the editor of FutureStructure.com