As expected, the recently completed Custom Integrated Circuits Conference (CICC), held May 12-15 in Orlando, Florida, was noteworthy for a variety of technical-information sourceseducational sessions, technical papers, panel discussions, and noteworthy speakers. One of the conference highlights was a panel on which I participated, Will the Next Great Killer Technology Application Please Stand Up! The panelists, representing industry, academia, and the technical press, offered their opinions on what the next near- and far-term technologies, and applications for these technologies, will be.
Although opinions differed among the five panelists, as well as between panelists and audience, two common themes emerged representing what the panel felt would shape tomorrow's "killer" applications and associated technologiesomni-communications and enhanced quality of life.
Omni-communications is a term I chose to represent the ability to communicate with anyone and anything at any time. Such communication will, of course, comprise data, voice, and videothe electronics convergence of the new millennium (the convergence of the 90s represented a confluence of communications, computer, and consumer technologies).
How Killer Applications Appear
As has been the case over the past few decades, several global forces will drive future technological applications that achieve "superstar" status. Prevalent among these drivers are:
- A growing and aging population with shifting demographics
- Technology availability
- Need (real or perceived).
The world's population continues to grow rapidly, particularly among less economically advantaged people. This creates tremendous market opportunities for technology and devices that help bring these people the resources they need to become more comfortable. In addition, an aging world's population increases the importance of technologies that enhance and/or lower the cost of health care.
Our panel moderator, Rakesh Kumar, President of Technology Connexions, put together the graph shown below illustrating some of the most significant electronics applications of the past five decades along with a few of the enabling technologies (transistor, IC, and microcontroller) that made these applications possible. Noteworthy on the graph is the fact that, over time, platforms deploying killer applications have changed from one used by a large group of people (mainframe computers) to one person using many (personal Internet products). Naturally, this shift results in a faster rise to a large usage for a particular application. The shift also helps explain how improved technology, resulting in ever-higher chip complexity and functionality, continues to find use in evolving products.
Rakesh also described the availability of superior technology and applications as a "chicken and egg" scenario, implying that it is unclear which one drives the other. On the other hand, I believe that enabling technologies must already exist for "killer applications" to develop. For example, mainframe computers would not have evolved without the availability of transistors. The people responsible for successfully developing super applications are those who can bring together the necessary technologies to make these applications viable, both technologically and economically.
Killer applications continue to be "consumer-driven", which means that they have to offer platforms (systems, devices, and so on) which support these applications at an acceptable price. Such prices vary depending on the associated application, but history shows us that new consumer devices often show stagnant growth until prices drop below some "consumer-tolerable" level.
A "need" for a particular piece of equipment can be actual or superficial. A perceived need for a certain item, technology-based or otherwise, can make or break the success of that item. For example, great marketing convinces many people that every one from a second-grader on up has to have a cell phone. This psychological need will not change as new technologies and applications for these technologies become available.
Where We Will See Killer Applications
Having discussed some of the overall global forces will steer future technological applications, let's go back to the two applications identified by the CICC panelomni-communications and enhanced quality of life. Omni-communications, along with encompassing very comprehensive connectivity between people as well as between people and machines, also includes several "flavors" of these communications. Panelists and panel audience members agreed that an application supporting this type of communication should allow someone to access any desired type of information at any time. This application represents an extension of what Web surfers now do, to a large extent. However future devices supporting omni-connectivity would, of course, be wireless and would add, according to Robert Guernsey of IBM Microelectronics, natural speech recognition and interpretation. Another type of omni-communication involves man/machine connectivity, where a person can both gather information from a piece of hardware (camera, microphone, sensor, and so on) and also control a device (such as camera position, microwave oven turn-on time, or automobile route).
The "application-specific" driving force behind omni-communications is the (perceived or real) need to connect to everyone and everything. The supporting technologies for omni-communications include low-power design, RF, and system-on-a-chip (SoC). A couple of potential "killer applications" are implantable transceivers and self-adapting circuits. Implantable transceivers are particularly interesting (and a little scary), since they might entail connectivity directly to human sensory organs (auditory canals and retinas) and, down the road, even to a person's brain (effectively eliminating the "middle men"eyes and ears). Limiting factors for omni-communications devices are bandwidth, battery technology (for implantable and some critical portable devices), divergence of communications standards and, also for implantable devices, government regulations and ethical concerns.
Enhancing your quality of life encompasses both making your life better (richer, more fun, and healthier) and prolonging your life at a satisfactory quality level. All the features of an application supporting omni-communicationsanytime access to information, device control, and comprehensive person-to-person connectivityalso result in improved quality of life. However, enriching and improving quality of life also drives biomedical applications. The driving forces behind biomedical electronics are our exploding and aging population along with the spiraling cost of medical care. The technologies that will make future killer biomedical applications possible include microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), robotics, and SoC.
What can we expect when these technologies come together in the right ways? Well, look for several innovative devices. For example, implantable devices that monitor body chemistry and control curative and life-sustaining medications. We are not that far away from a device placed completely under the skin of a diabetic that continuously monitors blood-sugar level and dispenses the correct dose of insulin. Filling the device's insulin reservoir will be a simple matter of accessing the reservoir with a hypodermic needle.
Certain surgical procedures will be done by robots, which will also take over some medical-analysis tasks. Microfluidic-based SoCs, which move, control, and measure fluids on a micrometer-to-millimeter scale, will perform pharmaceutical research and analysis jobs faster and far less expensively than those tasks are done now. These "lab-on-a-chip" devices will also enhance gene-splicing and other cellular-level jobs. Robotic devices will team with implantable sensors, offering mobility and other assistance to the disabled, infirm, and elderly. Factors that will limit the progress of these medical-miracle applications include government regulations, religious beliefs, and cost, particularly as it relates to approval of new health devices and procedures.