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IBM Sees Visions of Holographic Cellphones Within 5 Years

IBM Sees Visions of Holographic Cellphones Within 5 Years

IBM predicts that holographic cellphone conversations, in which users will view one another's image via 3D projector, will be a reality in five years. While the possibility has fired up imaginations, it's also raised some practical questions, including how power-efficient such a technology would be. But IBM has something to say about the future of battery power as well.

By Richard Adhikari
12/28/10 5:00 AM PT

Remember that holographic message from Princess Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars"? In five years' time, mobile phone users will be able to interact with three-dimensional (3D) holograms of people they're talking to, just like in the movie, according to an IBM prediction.

It's one of several future technologies IBM has predicted in its latest "Next Five in Five" report, which lists innovations that can change our lives over the following five years.

Other technologies listed in this year's report include IBM's Cold Battery technology, which recycles heat given off by computers in a building. The report also touches on batteries that recharge by "breathing" the ambient air.

Help Me, Obi-Wan Kenobi!

Video chat will evolve into holographic communications, IBM forecasts. Scientists are working to make this happen. The technology will use light beams scattered from objects and reconstruct them into a picture of that object, similar to the method the human eye uses to visualize its surroundings.

Scientists at IBM Research are working on new ways to visualize 3D data. They're developing technology that lets engineers to step inside designs of everything from buildings to software programs (hey, didn't we already see that in the "Matrix" series of movies?).

"A lot of the interest there would be around work and enterprise apps," Will Stofega, a program director at IDC, told TechNewsWorld. "If you're doing some complex maintenance work on a jet plane, for example, it might be useful to have a 3D app show you how to connect a wiring harness."

Several problems have to be solved before the technology could be used in the real world, though.

"You have to resolve the device's power consumption, the amount of compute power it has, how to contain the technology in a device that works -- where do you put the pico projector, for example?" Stofega pointed out.

However, the idea isn't too far-fetched.

"Qualcomm has been doing a lot of work around augmented reality and 3D in a small compute flow factor," Stofega said. "The notion that this stuff is 'Star Trek'-like isn't accepted anymore. It's around the corner, within reach, and we're going to see its commercialization."

Money: It's a Hit

The need to recoup the technology's cost could be why IBM is gunning for the mobile phone market.

"The technology is expensive to develop," Stofega said. If it's released to the consumer market first, it might gain traction. Then, as enterprises continue accepting consumer-driven technology, it might find its way into businesses, Stofega speculated.

Whether or not consumers would take up holographic communications is open to question. Apart from the issues surrounding the devices themselves, there's the question of bandwidth, which is going to become increasingly expensive as wireless carriers bill customers based on their bandwidth consumption.

"I'm not quite sure what sort of benefit we could derive from communications using holographic images," Charles King, principal at Pund-IT, remarked.

"I could think of a few business applications, for example using a holographic image to demonstrate a medical procedure or to demonstrate mechanical repair tasks, but that's not the sort of app that would drive broad acceptance of the technology," King told TechNewsWorld. "This seems more like a solution in search of a problem to me."

Hot Air Isn't Just for Politicians

IBM is also researching ways to recycle the heat generated by enterprise data centers.

Up to 50 percent of the energy consumed by data centers goes toward cooling. However, IBM has developed on-chip water cooling systems that let users recycle thermal energy from a cluster of computer processors and use it elsewhere.

The principle is simple -- pump water through a heat source to drain away the heat, then use a heat exchanger to remove that energy from the water and deliver the heat elsewhere.

In this case, a heat sink is fitted with a network of microfluidic capillaries attached to the surface of each processor in a computer cluster. This carries water to within microns of the semiconductor material to absorb heat. When the temperature of the water reaches 60 degrees, it's passed through a heat exchanger.

"IBM has a data center in Raleigh, N.C., that serves both its internal computing system and external customers, and that can deliver cold air to a spot in the data center that needs it," Joe Clabby, president of Clabby Analytics, told TechNewsWorld. "The data center has sensors in place so operators know where it's getting warm, and it has management software where they can see what's being heavily used, and they focus clouds of cold air on those areas."

All I Need Is the Air That I Breathe

IBM is also working on a lithium battery that gets recharged by "breathing" air. This would last 10 times longer than current batteries, the computer giant claims.

This battery can be used in cellphones, cars and even in the electrical grid.

It will be made of an energy-dense metal that reacts with ambient air to recharge itself.

In addition, IBM foresees cellphones that can be powered by static and kinetic energy -- rubbing against the user's clothing to generate static electricity or converting the user's movements into power the way self-winding wristwatches do.

"Anything that advances battery technology is really important," IDC's Stofega said. "When you have a mass population that's slanted towards the countryside like India or China, where over 70 percent of the population lives in the rural areas, power availability is a really big deal."

Tomorrow's Another Day

The technologies IBM discussed will begin to become realities in the next five years ... or maybe not.

"It's good to say you may have some samples working in a lab somewhere, but it's a whole different story to put technologies like these into production," Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, told TechNewsWorld.

"It takes three to five years for a technology to become mainstream from the first time it gets introduced into the market," McGregor explained.

"These technologies IBM's talking about are cool stuff, but I'd look more at 2025 as the date they get to the mass market," McGregor added. "The market never moves as fast as we'd like it to."

However, we do need to look at the future.

"It's great that IBM and Intel and HP are thinking this far out, because it gives the market something to shoot for," McGregor stated.


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