While sipping a cup of organically farmed, artisan-brewed tea, I tap on my gigabit-wireless-connected tablet, to pull up a 3D movie on the razor-thin HDTV hanging on the wall. A media server streams the film via a superspeedy USB connection to a wireless HD transmitter, which then beams it to the TV.
That actor--who was he? My augmented-reality contact lenses pick up the unique eye motion I make when I have a query, which I then enter on a virtual keyboard that appears in the space in front of me. Suddenly my field of vision is covered with a Web page showing a list of the actor's movies, along with some embedded video clips.
These technologies will come to life in the distant future, right? Future, yes. Distant, no.
Speed and content (much of it video) will be paired consistently across mobile, laptop, desktop, and home-entertainment systems. New ways of using video--including adding 3D depth or artificial visual overlays--will require more speed, storage, and computational power.
In our preview of technologies that are well on their way to reality, we look at the connective tissue of USB 3.0, 802.11ac, and 802.11ad for moving media--especially video--faster; at HTML5 for displaying video and content of all kinds consistently across all our devices; at augmented reality to see how the digital world will stretch into our physical reality by overlaying what we see with graphics and text; and at 3D TV, which will add image depth and believability to the experience of watching TV.
Before you leave work, you need to back up your computer. You push a button, and 5 minutes later, while you're still packing up, your system has dumped 150GB of data onto an encrypted 512GB superfast solid-state drive, which you eject to take with you for offsite backup. On your way home, you stop at a movie kiosk outside a fast-food restaurant and buy a feature-length 3D video download on sale. You plug in your drive, the kiosk reads your credentials, and while you watch a 90-second preview of coming attractions, the 30GB video transfers onto your SSD. You pull out the drive and head home.
USB may be one of the least-sexy technologies built into present-day computers and mobile devices, but speed it up tenfold, and it begins to sizzle. Cut most of the other cables to your computer, and the standard ignites. Bring in the potential of uncompressed video transfer, and you have a raging fire.
Any task that involves transferring data between your PC and a peripheral device--scanning, printing, or transferring files, among others--will be far faster with USB 3.0. In many cases, the transfer will be complete before you realize it has started.
The 3.0 revision of USB, dubbed SuperSpeed by the folks who control testing and licensing at the USB Implementors Forum (USB-IF), is on track to deliver more than 3.2 gigabits per second (gbps) of actual throughput. That transfer rate will make USB 3.0 five to ten times faster than other standard desktop peripheral standards, except some flavors of DisplayPort and the increasingly out-of-favor eSATA.
In addition, USB 3.0 can shoot full-speed data in both directions at the same time, an upgrade from 2.0's "half duplex" (one direction at a time) rates. USB 3.0 jacks will accept 1.0 and 2.0 plug ends for backward compatibility, but 3.0 cables will work only with 3.0 jacks.
This technology could be a game-changer for device connectivity. A modern desktop computer today may include jacks to accommodate ethernet, USB 2.0, FireWire 400 or 800 (IEEE 1394a or 1394b) or both, DVI or DisplayPort or both, and--on some--eSATA. USB 3.0 could eliminate all of these except ethernet. In their place, a computer may have several USB 3.0 ports, delivering data to monitors, retrieving it from scanners, and exchanging it with hard drives. The improved speed comes at a good time, as much-faster flash memory drives are in the pipeline.
USB 3.0 is fast enough to allow uncompressed 1080p video (currently our highest-definition video format) at 60 frames per second, says Jeff Ravencraft, president and chair of the USB-IF. That would enable a camcorder to forgo video compression hardware and patent licensing fees for MPEG-4. The user could either stream video live from a simple camcorder (with no video processing required) or store it on an internal drive for later rapid transfer; neither of these methods is feasible today without heavy compression. Citing 3.0's versatility, some analysts see the standard as a possible complement--or even alternative--to the consumer HDMI connection found on today's Blu-ray players.
The new USB flavor could also turn computers into real charging stations. Whereas USB 2.0 can produce 100 milliamperes (mA) of trickle charge for each port, USB 3.0 ups that quantity to 150mA per device. USB 2.0 tops out at 500mA for a hub; the maximum for USB 3.0 is 900mA.
With mobile phones moving to support USB as the standard plug for charging and syncing (the movement is well underway in Europe and Asia), and with U.S. carriers having recently committed to doing the same, the increased amperage of USB 3.0 might let you do away with wall warts (AC adapters) of all kinds.
In light of the increased importance and use of USB in its 3.0 version, future desktop computers may very well have two internal hubs, with several ports easily accessible in the front to act as a charging station. Each hub could have up to six ports and support the full amperage. Meanwhile, laptop machines could multiply USB ports for better charging and access on the road. (Apple's Mac Mini already includes five USB 2.0 ports on its back.)
The higher speed of 3.0 will accelerate data transfers, of course, moving more than 20GB of data per minute. This will make performing backups (and maintaining offsite backups) of increasingly large collections of images, movies, and downloaded media a much easier job.
Possible new applications for the technology include on-the-fly syncs and downloads (as described in the case study above). The USB-IF's Ravencraft notes that customers could download movies at the gas pump at of a filling station. "With high-speed USB [2.0], you couldn't have people waiting in line at 15 minutes a crack to download a movie," Ravencraft says.
Manufacturers are poised to take advantage of USB 3.0, and analysts predict mass adoption of the standard on computers within a couple of years. The format will be popular in mobile devices and consumer electronics, as well. Ravencraft says that manufacturers currently sell more than 2 billion devices with built-in USB each year, so there's plenty of potential for getting the new standard out fast.