Holograms on Cell Phones Due in 5 Years, IBM Says

In five years, cell phones will be able to produce holograms of friends and colleagues talking and moving in real time, IBM researchers say.

In the mock-up photo provided by IBM, 3D video technology is used to create a hologram on a speakerphone.

"We see 3D [video] technology moving into the cell phone, which will have the ability to transmit information off the cell phone to create a 3D hologram, projecting the hologram on any surface in life size," said Paul Bloom, IBM's CTO for telecommunications research, in a recent interview.

With a cell phone hologram, a user would be able to walk next to a hologram of a friend, or a worker could project an enlarged 3D image of a product needing repair to walk inside it and detect problems, Bloom said. "The repair person could go inside the device instead of looking it up in a manual," he said. "It has lots of implications."

IBM is already working on the cell phone hologram concept in its labs, and Bloom predicted that a prototype should be ready in five years. The cameras that are being used to create early versions of holograms still need to be miniaturized, and software needs to be written to for receiving input from those cameras, he added.

The cell phone hologram concept is one technology listed on the fifth annual "IBM Next Five in Five" list, which highlights five innovations that the company predicts will change people's lives over the next five years.

IBM has featured its latest forecast list, including the cell phone holograms, in a YouTube video . The others are lithium batteries that breathe air to power devices; computers that help share energy resources over entire cities; personalized GPS navigation derived from inputs from many devices; and cell phones used as sensors to track seismic events or other Earth-based phenomena.

Bloom said IBM is already in the early stages of these project and has a good record at making past Five in Five predictions into reality. One prediction from five years ago envisioned telemedicine, where data on patients is transmitted hundreds of miles to a specialist. In a related fashion, doctors are in IBM trials using 3D video images inside monitors to make diagnoses and even remote surgery, Bloom said.

Many of the innovations on IBM's list focus on cell phones and other mobile devices. For example, IBM predicts that commuters will get personalized commuting information, possibly on a cell phone or desktop computer, that combines a person's calendar for a given day with recent traffic reports from multiple sources. The information could come from tracking the speed of cars on a freeway, based on the time it takes for a cell phone to move from one cell tower to the next one, Bloom said.

Another cell-phone-related innovation is IBM's concept of developing a lithium battery that gets recharged by "breathing" air and lasts 10 times longer than current batteries.

"It would allow a battery to last days, if not weeks," rather than just hours, Bloom said. Such batteries could be used in cell phones, cars and even the electrical grid. IBM is also researching the application of static and kinetic energy to power a cell phone -- by rubbing the device against one's shirt, for example.

Another innovation on IBM's list involves using cell phones as sensors, along with other miniaturized sensors mounted inside a car or worn on a person's clothing. With such sensors, hundreds or even millions of people could collect data that could be used to detect patterns related to climate change or seismic activity.

A desktop computer could be equipped with a seismic sensor, transmitting constant readings on even the subtlest earthquake activity, Bloom said. "Lots of sensors are being developed and can be used in virtually any asset, such as a car or computer, and could be placed on your body," he said. "The cell phone could be a gateway."

IBM outlined one scenario where people's tweets or other messages could be used to track the start of a storm or learn that a riverbed is drying up unexpectedly. Scientists could analyze that large data sample to predict climate patterns.

IBM's final prediction envisions taking the heat given off from computers, including big data centers, and using that energy to heat buildings. With about half of the energy consumed in a large data center going toward air cooling, IBM said that heat energy could be collected and used elsewhere. The process would require water cooling of data centers, and IBM has already conducted a test in Zurich that demonstrated that such heat energy can be transferred to different areas of a data center building, Bloom said.

"From a technology perspective, it can be done," Bloom said. "From an organizational and political perspective, if we contain it within a city, then we can do it."

Bloom acknowledges that he's an optimist. Developing new technologies and creating lists of potential innovations takes a person "who is willing to look beyond the boundaries of today's technology and business models and what people do today," he said. "It requires someone who has insight and vision and creativity for what can be done and what improves society, not what limits us."

Bloom said that based on how much 3D video has caught on in recent months in gaming and other areas, he expects people will want holograms on their cell phones. "I definitely want a hologram on my cell phone, to be able to say, 'Beam me up, Scotty,' even though it would be a virtual and not a real person," he said.

Speaking of people, Bloom predicted that someday scientists will be able to transmit human cells over the Internet. "I think that can happen," he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

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