Debate

Debate: will innovation in wireless technology be driven by hardware or software?

For

David Wood

David Wood is chair at London Futurists and a former CTO at Accenture Mobility.

David Wood

Against

Ray Anderson

Ray Anderson is CEO of mobile Internet company Bango PLC and was awarded 2006 Technology Entrepreneur of the Year.

Ray Anderson

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I don’t want to say that hardware is more important than software because what you need is an integration of both skillsets. The future clearly isn’t just about hardware innovation, because important developments any of the fields ahead will come via breakthroughs in software algorithms, just as there will be breakthroughs in plastics, nano-conductors and sensors.

The big change we are seeing is in wearable technology, where innovations that were once restricted to the smartphone space are migrating into the wearable space. A good example is in optics that will allow people to simultaneously see the real world and superimposed information. Something like Google Glass is dependent on physical things such as optics, which is a non-trivial science, by any degree. This means a lot of physics and engineering at that level, rather than just figuring out algorithms.

One of the reasons we will increasingly want to wear our electronics is convenience. To have the information displayed permanently in our vision - and ‘glanceable’ - is better for us in so many ways than hunching over a smartphone screen.

Why would people want a wearable device - whether it is a device in your watch, clothing or spectacles? Firstly, for easier notifications: when a message arrives it is immediately there, as opposed to being on a phone, which may not be physically on our bodies. Secondly, there is the augmentation of what we see, so when we look at something we get information in our field of view telling us more about that object. Then there is the ability to issue commands to the outside world - a bit like waving your arms at an Xbox Kinect - by wearing a wristband or a ring that can change the whole way we connect with the world.

There is also the fashion element, where things such as jewellery can light up to reflect the environment. We’re only just beginning to touch the surface of what is possible here. Now, business people may not fancy having clothing that changes colour in the course of our daily interactions, but newer generations will always be looking for amazing things they can do with their clothing.

We can wear sensors to give us health-monitoring feedback via skin conductivity, so that we know how many calories we are consuming, for instance. Then there is the killer app - or rather the anti-killer app - that will tell us when we are about to have a heart attack.

There are plenty of other applications that are extending smartphone technology and capabilities. The next thing after ‘wearables’ will be ‘embeddables’, which are items that will actually go inside the body. There is also the field of synthetic biology, which is the creation of new life-forms, just as synthetic chemistry, which is the creation of new chemicals. If we think back to what effect synthetic chemistry had on society - the development of plastics and compounds - then synthetic biology will revolutionise the way we live to a similar extent.

So, overall, I would say that here are many reasons why the hardware field is set to explode. Of course, there is software involved, but our future innovation does rely on physical world enhancements to take it to a new level.

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Real innovation will happen in the services delivered through the wireless connection with humans, while hardware will fade out to become as unimportant as the clothes we wear. Of course, there is innovation in technology in fashion terms, but most developments of note will come from the virtual software world. It will be in the services delivered to objects and not in the objects themselves.The company I’ve been working with for the past 15 years, Bango, is about enabling people to pay for things easily. Our focus is in areas such as music and entertainment, and I think that’s a perfect example of the value shifting to services where the hardware is a means to an end.

For example, when tickets for the BBC Proms recently came online you may well have booked to go to the Albert Hall, and researched the concert you were going to see by downloading versions of the music in advance. You will have spent your money using an online service. When you think about it, even if your laptop has the latest retina display allowing you to enjoy video previews of the Proms, where you can see the sweat on the brow of the cellist, it’s still a means to an end. For the vast majority of people booking online, you’ve just enjoyed a service in the virtual world. You can turn around and say that having spent all that money you ended up with no physical things to show for it. But that’s “yesterday thinking”.

It’s no longer the olden days where you need “things”, as in the way we used to buy photographs. You’d take the film out of the camera, take it to be developed and you’d eventually pick up an envelope of prints and negatives. Today, when you take pictures, what you get is information, which you can share on Facebook or Twitter, for example, via your smartphone. The innovations that allow us to share, change and tag have taken place in the virtual world and have nothing to do with developments in light-sensitive silver bromide crystals. Today, in the digital world we can stitch together panoramas and enjoy a whole host of technical innovations in photography, all of which are virtual and none of which are hardware centred. Autofocus lenses aren’t really interesting anymore.

Do you remember when you used to watch ‘Star Trek’? A lot of the innovations in the story came from the computer allowing people to talk to each other by Starfleet communicator badges. But you never saw the computer. They foresaw that the technology itself wasn’t very important compared with the use of that technology.

In the course of the past generation, we have gone from being migrants to the digital world to being native and we are living on the cusp between two worlds at the moment. The things that you create and you do in your virtual lives can be left behind as a digital legacy.

Just in the way that we are spreading our DNA we are also on the track to creating the kind of memories that were not possible before. But, more interestingly, because we currently access the virtual world via hardware there are all kinds of privacy and security concerns. As we start to create our virtual selves, these will fade away.

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