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The Next Big Thing
Image recognition: Making your gear see the way you do (The Next Big Thing, Episode 9)The new wave of cameras is changing how you use your phone and tablet; why are batteries so far behind the advancement of other technology? And are tablets already hitting their plateau?
The Next Big Thing is brought to you by T-Mobile, now covering 96% of Americans. Making technology see. It recognizes you. Where's my battery breakthrough? And have tablets speak. Let's get a look at the next big thing. [MUSIC] [MUSIC] Hello. I'm Brian Cooley and welcome to our relentless search for the next big thing. I wanna start off this show with something that is really a look at what's next. Could you take a picture for me? I [UNKNOWN] this is a rhodesian ridgeback. Verified. It recognizes you. Firefly can recognize art. If you're gonna connect smartphones and tablets to everyday objects, and even things that don't have any computing or connectivity capabilities themselves, bar codes, QR codes, short links, even URLs themselves are all, in some ways. Crutches for computing devices that have cameras yet don't know what they're looking at. Enter image recognition. Shut up. Enough. We haven't just recognized episode, we've recognized the scene. If you point the camera at a package of soap, why you can get a link to buy that soap on Amazon. Place Ernie into a room. And Ernie comes to life. Tag the dog's eyes and nose, and then the photo's analyzed and uploaded. If someone finds your dog, face recognition software will match it to the picture on file. It responses to your gestures and it listens to your voice. Now image recognition is of course a close cousin of facial recognition. Which most of us got very familiar with right after 911 when certain major sporting events began using cameras to see who's coming in and figure out their identities. But image recognition more broadly doesn't just focus on faces it'll look at just about any object or at least in the future, especially objects in the retail environment. And bring you information or abilities to act on that product. But humans have been incredibly good at doing image recognition and pattern recognition for millenia. So why are we teaching dumb devices to do something that we do supremely well. Well, because the gadget will bring some additional technologies to the table that we don't have. First of all they have access to more information than you could ever stick in your head. A larger database if you will of possible matches for what they're looking at. More than you could ever memorize or would ever want to. Next up is discrimination, a tool that machines can use very well. They can tell two very similar things apart in a way that humans often can't. If you hear a song on the radio and you wanna tell me about it so maybe I can identify it for you. What are you gonna do hum a few bars? That's not gonna help me a lot. But a machine can very readily check it's database, a very similar sounding song, and find the right one. Then there's automation. We've talked a lot on this show about how we're starting to use camera on devices to map the interior world. Airports, stadiums, malls, what have you. To do that with actual human eyes, making notes into a database? That's too tedious, impractical. To have devices do it in an automated way is actually quite possible. Now, how do those attributes add up into functions that you'll care about as a user? Especially in the retail space? First of all, it's product information. QR codes, shelf tags, quicky little URLs. Any of those things try to get us closer to product information. But they still stand between us. And that information, if you've got a device that can look natively at the product and inform you about the the way that our eyes want to do, you're getting much closer. Then there are hard to search or fuzzy search items, try Googling a shirt you saw someone wear that you'd like to buy one of. I'll wait. Then there's identification and personalization, but this is of the user. It's kind of the reverse of looking at the product. It's now a device looking at the user of the product or the service, to allow them to log in, to personalize, or even to limit what they're able to access. Now where image recognition technology makes it into your hands will be interesting. The obvious and current darling is in our mobiles. In phones and tablets, because they're always with us, they're typically always connected, and they have very good cameras, of course. Next up, look for it propagating in smart glasses. Those that have cameras, of course, have most of the attributes of a mobile device, but they also have this sort of innate gaze match. They're pointed where we're pointed. They're very sort of intuitive that way. And finally there will be a class with fixed image cameras, many of these will be doing the reverse piece, identifying the consumer who's regarding the product. That could be something like a Kinect technology, it could be Brick Stream's live device, or it could be cameras already mounted in store for security taking on a new role of also figuring out who is doing what. Now image recognition is still at a nascent phase, certainly for consumer use. Got a lot more misses than hits in my experience. However, it's got a huge, wide lane of potential to make a lot of product interactions a lot less friction-filled. And that gives it a pretty good chance at being a next big thing. Back in pursuit of the next big thing. I'm Brian Cooley. Let's talk about batteries for a moment. Doesn't it seem as it we're still charging things as often and for as long as we did a few years ago? As researchers come up with a new technology that looks promising. That's not going to make an impact until it can be manufactured, very inexpensively, with great quantity. Researchers continue to advance, not necessarily at the rate that you see with processors. We've all become very used to just about every core component of the technology we use getting much better much faster every year. This has led to all kinds of bastardizations of Moore's Law. Which stated that the amount of transistors on a piece of silicon would double roughly every two years. We've turned that into a meme that everything gets even better than the year before even faster. And then there are batteries. They clearly have not followed a Moore's Law exponential curve. Battery startup Envia Systems surveyed the market's history. And found the amount of charge in a given battery back in 1995. Took 13 years to double. So much for Moore's law. And it won't double again, they predict, until 2020. And because batteries are so widespread from small devices to very large ones, the benchmarks at which we measure them are pretty broad as well. First of all, you've got charge time. How long does it take to get it back to recharged from when it's depleted? This is a big one in everyday use. Related to that is energy density. How much energy can you put into a battery of a given size and weight? Then there is specifically the size and weight, leaving density out, can you make the battery smaller, more malleable, way less, so it can make the phone lighter, make it package better into the electric car. Then there's cycle life. This is generally seen as how many times you can recharge a battery from mostly empty to mostly full before it drops below 80% of its ability to hold a charge. That's kind of a ballpark at where most people say a battery is getting depleted. And of course, there's cost. If any of the above have breakthroughs but they make the battery unaffordable in its application, doesn't matter. There also some ancillary benchmarks around how easily a battery can be kept within its temperature range. Especially in electric cars, keeping that battery from being too hot or too cold, adds a lot of complexity, and cost to the vehicle. You've also got concerns about toxicity and chemical formula, and recycleability. Now, we can't begin, in a few minutes, to catalog all the breakthroughs that are being pursued in labs around the world. But here are a couple of buckets of where they tend to group. First there's chemistry, the exact chemicals and materials that are being used are always being fiddled with, beyond the current, very common, lithium ion. The dual carbon battery being developed in Japan is said to have no heat generation when being charged or discharged. IBM's lithium air battery is said to have much greater energy density then current lithium ions. Lithium silicon is said to be expandable at the molecular level to allow for faster charging. And the recent buzz from Stanford is around a pure lithium battery. That researchers hope will triple the energy density while quartering the cost of today's lithium ion battery applications. MIT and University of Texas are taking one more pass through the periodic table, trying new brews of silicon, sulfur and sodium. But even if they strike gold, these are many years to market. Then that brings us to nanotechnology. You could go on for days about the number of projects that are exploring using graphene in future batteries. It's a new nano material that could address both charge cycle, and energy density, it's believed. And you may have heard about the so-called 30-second charge phone battery. A prediction bases on some research released lately by StoreDot, a company that is working with nanocrystalline structures. And related to all of this watch the non-batteries trying to make incursions on batteries territory. One the biggest categories and an older one is capacitors. These charge and discharge much more quickly than most batteries but they also hold less energy, have a lower energy density. But they're already being used by Mazda and Lamborghini an automotive for example, to power a break energy regeneration system and a start stop system respectively. And then of course, there are hydrogen fuel cells that basically take hydrogen and create current and water vapor from it. It's a very elegant solution, but of course, facing a lot of hurdles right now. One of the most interesting and telling developments is how Tesla and Toyota have sort of quietly gotten divorced on what was a very big effort between them, to make battery electric vehicles. But now Toyota is pushing hard on fuel cell electric vehicles. Perhaps the most exciting part to watch about battery technology is if these core breakthroughs, when and if they happen will effect devices from the smallest to the largest. Very likely. Anything from your phone, to your laptop, to you electric car. Even to storing excess power coming off the solar panels on the roof of your home. When there's a breakthrough in the battery area, a real breakthrough, it's going to touch a lot of people. Finally, tablets, we haven't talked about them in a while, and there's a reason for that. You don't need any research to know that tablets lag behind smart phones substantially. Just look at the people around you. You. IDC predicts we'll end 2014 with 1.2 billion smartphones shipped. Almost 20% more than the year before. Compare those numbers to tablets. Slated only to move 250 million units in the year. About a fifth of the smartphone sales. And declining 2014 for the first time. Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly recently said that tablet sales at his stores were "...collapsing". And you hear anecdotaly from many consumers that they find that the older tablet that they bought a number of years ago, it's still good enough. I almost never hear them say that about their smart phone. So in light of all this, manufacturers, are of course doing all they can to spike a market, a large market but one that seems to have crested. Here's some what you should watch for. Depending on the size and who's counting, these little big screen devices can count as tablets or phones. Either way they are hottest thing going right now, at least related to tablets. Convertibility, a lot of users have realized in the last couple of years having a smartphone, a notebook and a tablet is a device too many. The phone is supremely portable and applicable. The notebook is the most powerful. So convertible tablets seem to have found some traction being the most positionable. Pretty tough road. This was a big gotcha for a lot of early tablet buyers who realized no, a tablet is not a thinner, skinnier laptop. Its got less power, it has less applicability, it runs less powerful software. So now we're finding that there's a one-off out there with Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 which is the only one that's really trying to say a tablet can be a full PC replacement. They're alone in this one and having a pretty tough road. Display quality. This one tends to have good traction in the tablet market. Because it's a big enough screen where you can really show off and be wowed by and appreciate. The improvement in the display technology, brighter, better color, a finer dot pitch, more than HD resolution. These really pop on a tablet. It's kind of hard to appreciate them on a phone. And, finally, there's the very pedestrian sounding keyboard quality. But go to a big conference or a huge classroom today where you used to see a sea of notebooks a few years ago. You're likely seeing a sea of tablets today with keyboards attached. [INAUDIBLE] If you really want to get into your tablet and do some kind of work. Having a excellent quality keyboard is the essential. Thanks for watching this episode of the next big thing. We really enjoy having you along, as we look for what's next. If you want to find our past episodes go to cnet.com/nextbigthing. A lot of good topics will wait you there, or send me ideals you like to explore at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Brian Cooley, I'll see you next time we go check out the future. [MUSIC]