How mobiles of the future will get under our skin

From clunky cellphones to  Apple's Siri assistant, mobile gadgets are evolving rapidly.

Story highlights

  • Futurologist says future mobile phones will be broken into separate components
  • Experts say gadgets will act as assistants to protect us from information overload
  • Smarter technology will mean users spend less time glued to their devices, experts say

Ask an expert what the mobile phone industry of the future looks like and you'll get what seems to be a dystopian vision straight from the dark imagination of sci-fi.

With the power to buy, sell and make decisions on our behalf, phones will come to dominate our lives, invading our privacy and, via under-skin implants, our bodies.

It isn't all bad. As they become more sophisticated, phones will completely unshackle us from our desktops, will use up less time and money -- and could even save our lives.

"The fact that the word 'phone' is in the title of these devices is misleading," says Ray Hammond, a so-called futurologist who has carved a career out of accurately forecasting technological leaps.

Hammond envisages the candy bar-sized phones and shiny tablets of today being broken into separate components. Fashionable spectacles will provide the visual display, earring studs the audio. A third device will provide touch input.

"What we're talking about is a complete physical interface to the digital and virtual worlds," he said.

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Most experts agree that plotting a future for mobile devices is a challenge, given the recent rapid evolution of simple cell phones into powerful computers replete with talking personal assistants like Apple's Siri.

What is known is that, as they are plugged directly into an ever-swelling torrent of data, tomorrow's smartphones must be smarter than ever -- capable of protecting us from information overload.

"Siri is the first of what will become a slew of what are essentially software assistants controlled by voice," says Hammond. "The voice side is going to become much better very rapidly."

As well as organizing our diaries and answering pop quizzes, these assistants will become our data guardians, using artificial intelligence to learn our personal preferences as they tailor and streamline the flow of data we are bombarded with.

"When we have a large screen, we can browse through large amounts of text, but that's not possible on a mobile device," says Lars Hard, CEO of artificial intelligence software firm Expertmaker.

"So we need to bring more brains onto the device, so we can provide more relevant information when needed... based on artificial intelligence. Because that's the kind of technology that brings the device closer our own reasoning capabilities."

But in order to do this, we must give these gadgets even more license to snoop on our every move, allowing them to build up dossiers of data that marketers in the exploding mobile advertising sector will be itching to get their hands on.

"A mobile device is mobile in nature, so as that device moves around with the individual it is possible, with users' consent, to build up a very rich profile of how that device moves and how that user behaves," says Rob Jonas of mobile advertising network InMobi.

"All sorts of interesting patterns can be detected and of course that becomes very valuable for advertisers looking to reach those consumers."

Jonas concedes that privacy is a "hot topic," but says in future users will become more comfortable trading it in return for an enhanced online experience. "The research we've got on our network globally has shown that consumers are willing to trade that consent as long as they get value," he adds.

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Advertising is key to the future of mobile, say experts, not least because it will become a major driving force in the development of software apps at a time when these begin to eclipse the importance of the gadgets themselves.

Micah Adler, CEO of app promotion firm Fiksu forecasts that annual app downloads in excess of 100 billion by 2015 will create a software-driven market in which dominant operating players Apple and Android will thrive at the expense of all others.

But, he says, this swamped but increasingly competitive marketplace will encourage the evolution of apps that will not simply replicate what we can do on our computers, but will also enhance our existence.

"That's not to say there won't be a thriving market of things that are imported from the desktop, but the piece I'm most excited about is the piece that makes a difference to people's lives," he says.

Cloud computing technology that offloads storage and processing into cyberspace should also result in more durable gadgets replacing the quickly outmoded handsets of today, according to Morten Warren of industrial design agency Native Design.

"This will enable more manufacturers to sidestep the technology arms race, allowing them to refocus on more sustainable, longer lasting products and propositions," he says.

And far from turning us into gadget-junkies with aching wrists and thumbs, the enhanced data-handling efficiencies of these devices should, in theory, liberate us and improve our wellbeing, says Lars Hard.

"Today the young generation are almost forced to be glued to a screen to catch up with everything on Facebook because all their friends are putting this pressure on them.

"But by having more personalization and personal agents that act as proxies for you, you can reduce the time you need to spend on the machine."

Hard predicts that currently available medical diagnostic hardware could become standard, offering real time biometrics that will detect health problems, alert physicians and prevent serious illness.

Hammond goes even further, suggesting mobile devices will become so in-tune with our bodies that miniature components will be implanted under our skin. This, he admits, pushes deeply into the disturbing realm of science fiction.

"It won't be everyone's cup of tea," he adds.