VR suits, car phones' comeback and insect brains: 8 tech predictions from Qualcomm (Q&A)

Chairman Paul Jacobs spends his time nowadays thinking about the future. He shares some of his ideas with CNET.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
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Qualcomm Chairman Paul Jacobs (right) listens to an Invent-Off team (from left, Ian Ingram, Mike Ogrinz and Hannah Sarver) talk about what smart device they've created to save a life.

Shara Tibken/CNET

I meet Paul Jacobs in a studio in San Francisco's warehouse-filled Dogpatch neighborhood. We're there to watch the filming of Qualcomm's Invent-Off competition.

Two teams are competing to create a smart device -- in only three days -- that can save lives. They're doing it all in a warehouse studio that's packed with power tools and high-tech electronics components. One product wants to accelerate the delivery of medical treatment to people in remote areas. The other is for extreme sports enthusiasts, or even someone going for a hike alone. (Later this summer, Qualcomm will broadcast the series online and will reveal the winner of a $25,000 prize.)

"As we look at the evolution of wireless technologies, one thing we're really focused on is mission critical technologies," the Qualcomm chairman tells me after chatting with the inventors. "If it's about saving a life, you don't want a call to drop."

Jacobs may not be a household name, but it's likely someone in your home has technology his company created. Jacobs was the long-serving CEO of Qualcomm, whose processors are used in countless mobile devices from Apple, Samsung and others. He turned over the top job to Steve Mollenkopf in early 2014 but remains chairman.

Instead of worrying about Qualcomm's stock price and financial results, Jacobs now spends his time figuring out the future. Here is an edited transcript of some of his predictions.

Phones of the future could be made by big fashion brands and other non-tech companies

Jacobs: We see a broad range of watches that are all different brands, why is a phone not more of a fashion item like that? If you look at the phone industry, there's one brand that stands out as the fashion brand. But it seems conceivable they could be even more fashion-like.

Kind of like what happens today, we provide the chips, but people build their own boards and integrate other components. It's true for a simple phone, we can provide all the guts in a very integrated way. The question is can we build a more complex phone that way? How cool of a product can you build if you're building it in this modular fashion? How can we lower the burden on people trying to do that?

If we make it simple enough, do you get those other brands involved [like fashion labels]? ... It could be a pretty cool model. We've got to make it work and lower the burden to get into the market. They would have much lower volumes, so they can't have high fixed costs.

You may carry multiple phones. Or even have phones dedicated to certain parts of your life, like ... car phones

Jacobs: There may be a phone more tailored to your car or to a sport you're doing. There's a trend already that smartwatches are going to be more full phones. Right there you've got another phone. This was the thing we theorized a long time ago -- that people would have multiple devices. We're seeing a sense of that with the phone, tablet and watch connected. The question is whether it happens inside a segment, having multiple phones that are different.

There will still be [regular] phones. But there will be others that look more like glasses, watches, something hanging on your neck, belt, wallet. Then if the flexible screen guys do their job, you may just have a thing that looks like a pen, and you unroll it.

I've always liked flip phones. If there's a flexible display, you can fold it in half and open it when you need it.

In VR, you'll not only see things but physically feel them too

Jacobs: Think about watching a football game. There's no sense of what it's like to be a running back going through huge guys wanting to crush you. In the future we should be able to [make you feel] that.

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The first time I saw the HTC Vive, I was in a small room that had a window with sun coming in. After putting on goggles and walking through the virtual environment, every so often, my back was getting hot. It was so weird. Then I'd pop out and realize I was walking by a window. If we can correlate [real world] sensations with what's going on in virtual environments [that would be interesting]. Is it a suit you wear? All of that stuff seems really, really feasible. You can build stuff that's relatively inexpensive that augments VR with more cyber physical activities. I love that idea. You could have a suit with sensors, heaters, things that can squish you.

There will be digital stylists to dress your avatar

Jacobs: There's the social aspect [of VR]. Will we create avatars of ourselves so when I look over at you, I see your avatar, monitoring what your eyes are doing, what your face is doing? Or there [could be] really realistic looking digital puppets of people [like Brad Pitt's character in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"].

Tech has come a long way now. I think we probably can solve that social problem. It brings a lot of interesting questions. If you're willing to use a digital puppet of yourself, what will you be? How will you represent yourself? There could be a whole job that's a digital stylist.

Small satellites will fly all over to provide better cell signals

Jacobs: We have an investment in a company called OneWeb. Over 700 satellites are going to get launched. They're smaller and lighter and will end up providing backhaul connectivity from a cell site to the rest of the network.

It locally redistributes cellular coverage and Wi-Fi coverage. If we want to cover some area that's remote, this is a really inexpensive way to do it. There's the whole NIMBY [not in my backyard] issue. This can solve that too. It looks more like a dish you have to receive satellite TV.

It's going to launch a test satellite soon and fully launch in 2019/2020.

Tech will help you figure out you're going to get sick -- before it happens

Jacobs: Right now you're either well or sick because you don't notice the transition between the two. It's not about noticing, 'Oh, I just started to get a cancer.' You kind of always have something going on. Can you notice it? That's feasible in the not-too-distant future.


One of the Qualcomm Invent-Off teams -- with members Trey German, Claire Griffin and Mike Senese -- works on its smart device.

Shara Tibken/CNET

It doesn't matter where you are in the world. If you don't have your health, that's the most important thing in your life. We have to figure out how to do that better.

AI could let us put human-like machines where people can't go

Jacobs: A lot of people talk about using machine intelligence to do things human beings already do. I'm interested in that, but I'm also interested in putting something ... where a person can't go, like security in a phone. You could have a little machine intelligence sitting and watching what the machine is doing. It can see if you go to an IP address you didn't go to before or if you access the memory in a different way. What the machine's doing internally gives me an indication there's malware or something else I might want to watch.

It's a nontrivial undertaking. Can you have human-like pattern recognition and categorization?

Internet of things devices may think like insects

Jacobs: I visited a guy who was the world expert on insect brains. He was telling me how few neurons the insect brains have. They're pretty simple, but they can do sophisticated things.

Will that make sense [for electronics]? [Internet of things] sensors that need to have really low power, can they be insect-like things? They'll be all around you, doing simple computing. Then when there's something they can't handle, they flag it and communicate it to a bigger network that helps with analysis. Small amounts of computation can help you do amazing things.