There's probably nothing you can do to impress a time traveler from the year 1950 more than showing him your cell phone. They're so ubiquitous that we take the little technological marvels for granted.
And, we bet if you could travel into the future just five or 10 years, it would be the evolution of the cell phone that would blow your mind the most. Some of the stuff that's in the works right now:
Let's be honest: Despite all the advances in phone technology and the slew of cool applications currently available, we're all still waiting for the day when our Blackberry Storms can play holographic 3D messages for us like R2D2.
"This is Sue from Blockbuster calling to remind you that The Mummy Returns is now 27 days overdue."
Well, cell phone manufactures apparently feel the same way. Already we have phones capable of 3D displays in Japan (to at least give the illusion of a holographic image reaching out from the screen) though so far it's mostly just a gimmick, because there aren't a lot of applications that take advantage of it and it's not practical for anything that involves a lot of text.
Regardless, companies seem to be taking the idea seriously, because prototypes continue to be developed that emphasize the 3D display instead of just using it as a novelty. The real problem is finding an application for it that would make money. Uh, have you considered a little thing called porn? Hello?
So what about our full-on Princess Leia hologram? Well, companies like Samsung and Infosys have already filed patents on the related technology, so they're working on it. India-based Infosys says their device would display the images using "...a projector with a laser source and micro holographic optical elements lenses." Though they also claimed it version would be available by 2010, so they better get busy.
Meanwhile Samsung's patent would work sort of like a tiny version of the rear-projection TV's that were popular before plasma came along. In their words, "...source images emitted by the optical unit are three-dimensionally displayed on a plane spaced from the hologram screen by a predetermined distance."
Hurry up with that shit, Samsung! We have a series of practical jokes we want to play that involve convincing Grandpa his house is haunted by tiny ghosts.
One of the several thousand ways real life isn't as good as video games is the lack of a Heads-Up Display. In games you have a data overlay that shows you a map, your life bar, your money and how much gas is left in your giant arm-mounted drill. Wouldn't it be cool if in your everyday life you had an overlay that, at any moment, told you exactly where you were, how much money you had in your pocket (or bank) and which nearby convenience store had the cheapest gas?
They're working on it. That technology is called augmented reality, and you'll have it on your phone within a few years.
The first steps will be software like Layar, which utilizes the camera that's become pretty much standard in every cell phone and can interface with GPS and Internet connections to tell you where you are and give you information about the locations around you, if for some reason you are completely unaware of either thing.
"WHERE THE HELL AM I, YOU DIGITAL BASTARD?"
It's still pretty basic, but if you point your phone at your surroundings it can bring you little tidbits such as whether that apartment is for rent or if that store is having a sale. Which already is less trouble than asking Guy Fieri which Waffle House will give you the least painful diarrhea.
"The one on 40th and Grand. Tell 'em Guy sent you!"
So what's between us and an application that will let you snap a photo of somebody in a bar, and immediately bring up their Facebook, Twitter and OK Cupid profile? And, possibly more helpful, scanning for them in the Sex Offender registry? Just waiting for somebody to write the software.
"Hey, all these people just Tweeted about some creepy weirdo on an escalator..."
Then you can point toward the shelf at Best Buy and immediately find out if somebody else has that TV for less, and get the customer reviews. Then, at some inevitable point in the future, somebody else will come up with a reliable voice analysis that will work as a real-time lie detector. And society will quickly collapse.
A lot of science fiction movies feature different species from across the galaxy easily overcoming the language barrier (that is, they all speak perfectly understandable English). The shows that bother to plug this plot hole usually credit a universal translator device.
"Just talk into the barrel."
We're guessing approximately every single person reading this has had at least one occasion in their life where they would have killed for such a device. Though it was less likely a sexy alien than an angry Mexican police officer.
Well, already a company from Massachusetts has developed software that will let your phone translate foreign text into audible speech. They have a prototype that can read text from seven different languages and translate it into English, and they estimate a commercial version will be available within two to three years.
From there, speech to speech translation is the next logical step and numerous designs are already in the works. The last real hurdle in the way of them reaching the market is that cell phones just aren't powerful enough to handle them yet.
But they will be, and sooner rather than later. So be prepared to turn your Nokia into your own personal Babel Fish sometime in the near future, opening up a world of travel, multicultural togetherness and annoying tourists at Disneyland harassing you to take their picture because you're no longer be able to pretend you can't understand them.
Cell phones have come a long way from those hilariously clunky models that 90s era action movie villains carried around, but they've pretty much hit a plateau as far as how small they can be made without the constant threat of accidentally eating them. And current alternatives like Bluetooth earpieces don't do anything to make the user look less like a douchebag.
Really, the difference is negligible.
The solution appears to be to throw that "traditional design" crap to the wind and go with futuristic, flexible materials. Nokia, for example, has a pair of concept phones that embrace this idea. One, the 888, can be rolled or folded up so you can wrap it around your wrist, clip it to your belt, and in all likelihood break it right the fuck in half.
It's like a snap bracelet, only way more impractical and expensive.
The Morph concept takes it a step further. The idea behind this one is to not only be flexible but stretchable as well, so you can fold your phone up to put in your pocket but then stretch it out to take a call or use its touch keyboard. We'd like to think you can keep stretching it to make a hat or a Frisbee or something, but the details are vague.
Also, the phones of the future will be lime green for some reason.
These designs are mostly theoretical at the moment, but it gives us a good idea of where cell phone design might be heading. The concept videos (here and here) also imply that only hip 20-somethings will be able to use the phones of the future, but that's how Apple markets the iPhone so in many ways the future is already upon us.
Imagine feeling your left arm go all tingly and your chest start cramping up, but rather than having to drive all the way to the hospital, you can just whip out your cell phone and do a quick self diagnosis, ignoring the fact that your unwillingness to actually get up and go anywhere is probably what got you into this situation in the first place.
There are already dozens of medical apps available that can help you do just that, although they're generally intended for studying purposes rather than researching "tracheotomy" while your sister is choking on a peanut. But there are some practical ones as well, such as apps that monitor your blood pressure, give basic eye exams and analyze symptoms to determine what you could be suffering from. There are even apps to track your menstrual and ovulation cycles, though we kind of doubt those ones will be featured in any iPhone commercials.
Then we have prototype phones from Japanese companies like Nokia and NTT that can monitor your heart rate, calculate your body fat, test you to see if you're stressed and keep an eye on CO2 gas and UV ray levels. Plus, all of this information could be sent back to a hospital or clinic, so your doctor can call and tell you you're about to have a heart attack.
"Gee, still no answer at Mr. Johnson's. Guess I'll just leave another message about his imminent heart failure."
And if you want to get a little fancier you can turn your cell phone into a fairly sophisticated medical scanner. Just plug a portable unit into your phone and its data will be sent to a remote computer that will return images of whatever grotesque tumor you have to your screen. It's designed for doctors in low income and rural areas, but as the technology becomes cheaper it may not be long before you can give yourself an ultrasound.
Another standard of science fiction that now seems inevitable is that everybody's personal information from--birth certificate to bank account--is stored on a single card, so if it gets stolen it's like you never existed. Well your cell phone might be fulfilling that prophecy pretty soon, hopefully without the "never existing" part unless everyone you know is an idiot.
"Well, you don't look like my daughter... but your ID checks out."
It's been suggested that in about five years your cell phone will be able to make payments, function as a door key, serve as a transit pass and be used for identification, among other things. Some of these services are already available in Japan, where you can use your phone to make purchases at stores sort of like an oversized credit card, which suddenly makes passing the waitress at Max and Erma's your phone number a way more personally damaging faux pas.
Some hotels have experimented with a technology that lets guests use their phone as a room key. And that's just the start, because there's not much stopping your cell phone from replacing everything you keep in your wallet, saving you from the hassle of counting out cash or fumbling for your keys while simultaneously providing you with the convenience of being completely fucked if you accidentally drop your phone in a urinal.
Of course, with so much information being kept on your phone you would risk a lot more if it were lost or stolen. Not to worry; security features are being put in place, such as retinal and fingerprint scans, that ensure no one but you can operate it, sort of like Judge Dredd's handgun.
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To see how the future is already here (in the weakest way possible), check out 8 Badass Sci-Fi Predictions That Came True In Lame-Ass Ways. Or find out about how the future will make our judicial system a lot crazier, in 6 Insane Laws We'll Need in the Future.
And stop by our Top Picks (Updated 2.26.2010) to see what the Cracked of the future will looks like (it'll feature more boobs).