The Global Social Network
Let's get this out of the way first -- in the next 10 years, no one will travel to work by jet pack or have robot maids that serve dinner. But technology will continue to transform the rituals of everyday life -- sometimes in startling ways.
Imagine televisions that project 3-D images into the middle of the living room, for a theater-in-the-round experience. And while we won't get those robot maids, our appliances might start "talking" to us through email alerts, letting us know when a part is getting worn down and needs to be replaced.
Many other changes will be more subtle, as technology finds new ways into our daily routine. Commuters will still carry newspapers to work but will likely download them to a pocket-size computer that can also show TV news broadcasts. Shoppers will still be greeted at Wal-Mart, but a computer may be the one saying hello -- and reminding them of what they bought on their last visit. Friends will still send each other birth and wedding announcements, but the process will be virtually automated, thanks to alerts on social-networking sites.
Most of these changes will spring from a couple of rapidly improving technologies. Mobile devices will get smaller and more powerful, and will connect to the Internet through high-speed links. The result: People will be able to do anything on a hand-held that they can now do on a desktop computer.
In fact, they'll be able to do even more, as mobile gadgets increasingly come equipped with global-positioning-system gear that can track your every move. As you drive around, for instance, you might get reviews of nearby restaurants automatically delivered to a screen in your car -- maybe even projected onto the windshield.
The spread of GPS hints at another big change on the horizon. We're going to be under a lot more pressure to make our personal information public -- everything from where we surf online to where we're standing at a particular moment. Companies will offer us special deals and other incentives so that we'll let them track our activity. That information, in turn, will let the companies present us with a steady stream of intensely focused marketing whenever we go online, turn on our cellphone or even walk into a store. (Think of that computerized greeter at Wal-Mart.)
Privacy will come under further strain as social-networking sites and blogs become more pervasive. People will post ever more details of their lives online -- and let hosts of people know about them with automatic updates.
Now, let's get one more thing out of the way: Making predictions is a hazardous business. There will, no doubt, be technologies emerging that none of us can even imagine right now. And how much any technology changes people's lives depends on the quirks of personal behavior. The usual early adopters will eagerly take up some innovations, and youngsters -- as ever -- may latch on to them before their parents. Some new inventions will slip into our routines almost without our knowledge.
With that huge caveat in mind, here's a best-guess look at some of the ways our common activities will be transformed in the coming decade.
HOW WE SHOP
Over the next decade, shopping will become much more personalized -- and promotional.
Some sites, like Google and Amazon, already show you targeted ads based on what you've bought before or where you surf. And companies already let you sign up for online sales alerts and other information.
But companies will take those practices to a new level of precision as they learn more about what their customers like. More businesses will offer people incentives to hand over detailed personal information, whether by filling in a form or allowing the companies to track their online activity. Companies may also make deals to collect user information from popular sites, perhaps e-commerce sites like Netflix or social networks like Facebook.
This will mean big changes in real-world shopping as well as online. Let's say you order some digital photos from an online service and go to the store to pick them up. The clerk may have access to your online profile and shopping history. So, he might mention that the store is having a special on a camera you looked at on a retail site. What's more, he'll mention that your friend Jerry bought it and recommends it.
Wireless technology will also change commerce. You'll get sales alerts sent to your mobile gadget, for one thing. But that device -- whether a cellphone, BlackBerry or digital-music player -- may also come with features that make shopping easier. For one thing, it might allow you to make purchases with the touch of a button instead of pulling out your wallet.
Currently, for instance, servers at baseball games can order food for spectators by using specialized hand-held gadgets. The order goes to the concession stand, and when it's done somebody brings the food to the person's seat. In a few years, spectators may be able to do the ordering themselves, using regular cellular phones, says Dan Wright, chief executive of mPoria Inc., a Seattle-based company that provides mobile-commerce technology.
Wireless communication will work its way into our life in other ways. A host of devices may be able to broadcast messages using radio-frequency identification and other tracking technologies. Printers running low on ink will be able to send messages to suppliers requesting refills. Household appliances will send alerts to their owners' computers if, say, a belt connecting the motor to the pump wears thin and needs a replacement.
Finally, we may see some smaller technical advances that make shopping easier. More computers and mobile devices will feature touch screens, similar to those on Apple Inc.'s iPhone. Instead of clicking links when you're shopping for clothes online, you actually reach out and touch 3-D pictures of the outfits you want, says David Fry, chief executive of Fry Inc., an Ann Arbor, Mich., company that helps retailers set up and manage Web sites.
HOW WE PLAY GAMES
Within a decade, videogames will greatly narrow the gap with movies, as consoles and PCs get more computing horsepower and let game companies conjure more-lifelike characters.
Right now, for instance, faces on game characters often look lifeless and unnatural. Companies like Mova LLC of San Francisco are coming up with ways to translate the facial expressions of human actors into photorealistic digital replicas. Mova's method involves covering the actors' faces in phosphorescent makeup and photographing them using specially designed lights and cameras.
Initially, this technology will be practical only for movies, since it's much easier to render realistic expressions in a structured story than in an unpredictable, constantly changing game. But within a decade, game hardware will improve enough to make photorealistic characters possible, predicts Steve Perlman, the founder and president of Mova. And that change, he says, will increasingly blur the lines between games, motion pictures and television.
Mr. Perlman predicts that some movies will have interactive elements in them so that users can switch out of the linear story to play against other characters. If you're watching a "Harry Potter" movie, for example, you might switch out of the story to play a Quidditch match between broom-riding wizards. Games already do something like this today, with cruder graphics, by interspersing cinematic scenes between game play.
The way people play games is likely to change as much as the look of the medium. Nintendo Co. has already abandoned traditional videogame controllers with its Wii console, which uses a motion-sensing wand instead of the familiar buttons and joysticks. But researchers and game companies want to go even further -- and possibly abandon hand-held controls altogether.
For instance, companies like Israel's 3DV Systems Inc. are developing video cameras to precisely measure the movement of players as they stand in front of their television sets. Combined with more-powerful game systems, this technology will soon allow users to control the on-screen action of athletes, superheroes and soldiers with body movements -- no need for a controller at all. Even better: Players may eventually be able to place realistic replicas of their own faces on the characters.
HOW WE WATCH MOVIES AND TV
The Internet has multiplied the ways we can watch movies and television. For instance, you can see "Lost" on anything from a three-inch iPod screen to a giant high-definition monitor, and you can stream the show whenever you want instead of waiting for it to show up on the air.
Next, the Web promises to change the kinds of shows we watch.
The Net is opening up new methods of distributing short, low-budget independent productions. In the next decade, viewers will be able to go online and see work by a much broader variety of filmmakers. Studios are also likely to get in on the act with low-budget online features of their own. These short movies will carry production budgets of $10 million or less, compared with an average of about $70 million for typical Hollywood fare, and many will go straight to the Web without showing in theaters first.
With studio backing, these films will be much better quality than typical Web programming, and they may offer variety that people can't get on regular television. For an idea of what these movies may look like, consider the latest installment in the "Jackass" franchise. "Jackass 2.5" isn't being released in theaters. Instead, Paramount Pictures is trying a smorgasbord of distribution strategies, from free online streaming supported by ads to paid downloads to DVDs. Relying heavily on leftover clips from previous "Jackass" movies, the film comes in at a total cost of less than $2 million.
Part of Hollywood's goal with such movies is to build a social network among fans. In essence, these networks would be official versions of the fan sites that populate the Internet -- online destinations where fans could meet up with other fans. The studios could then get valuable information about the audience, and reach them more easily with targeted marketing pitches.
Of course, studios are thinking much bigger than "Jackass." "Imagine the 'Star Wars' series or the 'Indiana Jones' series," says Todd Dagres, a partner who handles entertainment investments at venture-capital firm Spark Capital LLC. Over time, social networks devoted to such popular series "could be worth more than the film" if studios got involved from the start.
But don't expect the Internet to cause the extinction of the movie theater, or the disappearance of the blockbuster. In fact, "tentpole" movies, like the "Spider-Man" franchise, will become even more eye-popping because of advances in special effects, particularly 3-D technology. Consider "Avatar," a science-fiction movie coming out in 2009 from James Cameron, who directed "Titanic." He is filming the live-action parts entirely with new 3-D cameras that can deliver a much sharper picture than the old, blurry 3-D of B-movie fame.
Moviegoers also can expect digital projection of their movies in super-high resolution, exceeding anything they could get at home, either online or through high-definition DVDs.
Currently, the sharpest resolution starting to trickle into theaters is a technology called 4K, meaning about 4,000 lines of horizontal resolution on the screen. In Japan, engineers are already working on 8K, which promises twice the resolution (though some question whether it's really any better than 4K). The higher resolution means that screens can be bigger and still keep the image's sharpness, allowing for a much more immersive experience.
With the advances in picture quality, plus the evolving distribution methods and creative opportunities they offer, "we're going to look back in history and say this was as big a revolution as was [the invention of] television," says Jerry Pierce, a former studio executive and a technology consultant to the motion-picture industry.
Even bigger technology shifts are coming to television. Devices that can deliver Internet video directly to television sets have been promised for some time, but even with the latest gizmos, the experience is still somewhat clunky. Still, in a few years, one box will probably deliver programs seamlessly to most homes from either the local cable or satellite provider or the Net.
One technology, still in the laboratory, will take the viewing experience a step further: holographic images in our homes. (Think of the hologram of Princess Leia in "Star Wars.")
"Our TV may be a projection toward the center of the room," says Dan Silverberg, vice president for high-definition media development at Warner Bros. "Actors will be almost on a stage."
HOW WE MAKE AND KEEP FRIENDS
Technologies like text messaging and social networking have made it possible to keep track of a much larger group of people than ever before. With built-in alerts, you can get a constant stream of information about your friends and what they're doing. In the future, more information will end up in your social network -- and you'll be able to send that information automatically to your friends, wherever they are.
And not just big announcements like babies and weddings. When you buy an airline ticket, you'll have the option to send a text message to people in your network to let them know you're taking a trip -- in case any old friends will be in the area and want to meet up. Or you might let friends know you just bought a movie ticket, in case someone has a review to share or wants to join you.
"The opportunities to keep in touch with people are going to abound," says Fred Stutzman, a researcher at the University of North Carolina.
And as GPS hardware becomes more widespread, that information will follow wherever you go -- literally. You'll be able to keep track of the physical whereabouts of your friends, so if you're stuck on a layover in Dallas, your phone might tell you that you have a friend stuck in the same airport.
It will also get simpler to use all these services. Today, you have to sign up for MySpace to reach MySpace users, sign up for Facebook to reach Facebook users, and so on. Futurists predict that in 10 years, you'll be able to reach anyone using any service on your computer or cellphone.
HOW WE SEARCH ONLINE
Today, search involves looking for Web pages from your personal computer. Over the next decade, searching from mobile devices will take center stage, with new troves of information at your fingertips.
Along with that, search engines will do a better job of anticipating what users are looking for. In part, that's because the services will track people's Web activity more closely and then target their interests more precisely.
The engines might even analyze data from people's real-world movements if they agreed to it, speculates Google software engineer Matt Cutts. For instance, a search engine might tap into GPS devices in someone's car and match that information with the driver's surfing history to provide more-relevant results. So, when it's lunchtime, the service might provide a personalized list of places to stop for food, along with directions.
GPS technology will also let people interact more easily with resources such as Google Inc.'s Google Earth and Microsoft Corp.'s Live Search Maps. With these services, people overlay all sorts of data -- such as descriptions of buildings and environmental information -- onto detailed aerial maps. Let's say you're at a historic site and want to read or view travelogues by other visitors. The GPS in your phone might pinpoint your location automatically and let you access data about that location from a map site at the touch of a button.
Search will also change our lives in a less obvious way. Major Internet companies have been ramping up services that allow users to store personal data online, everything from word-processing documents to home movies. As the cost of storage keeps falling, users will be able to store more information with such services. And that may spur people to accumulate ever greater troves of information.
"There's no reason 10 years from now that you won't record every meeting you've been in, maybe record all of the audio or have a little video camera on your glasses," says Mr. Cutts.
How does search fit in? Taking advantage of the Internet companies' computing horsepower, people will be able to search through that stored data much more quickly and effectively. For instance, they might be able to search for the exact spots in their home-video collection where family members speak certain phrases. And they'll be able to do so from home, work or their mobile phone, since the data will be accessible over the Internet.
--Kevin J. Delaney
HOW WE GET NEWS
In the future, news may not be free -- but it will be untethered.
Technology forecasters and journalism researchers predict that over the next decade we won't use newspapers or television news programs to decide what stories we see each day. The big news organizations will probably still be around, but we won't, say, scan the front page of the local paper (or its Web site), looking for articles that catch our eye. We'll be more likely to find a news story through a link emailed from a friend, in a blog post or from a syndicated news feed.
In essence, people will become their own editors, with friends and bloggers helping them put together their own daily news menu. Already, about a quarter of the traffic to stories on newspaper Web sites comes from search engines alone, according to a report last year by Hitwise, an online-media research firm.
"The idea that someone has a primary news source they rely on is already vanishing," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an industry research organization. "We all dine at the news smorgasbord every day, and that will continue to expand."
To some extent, technology will help automate the process. Personalization technology that now recommends books from Amazon.com Inc. will recommend news stories based on your past viewing. News could also be delivered based on where you live.
The upshot: Technology "will allow you to control the information you want, and to get it where you want it and when you want it," says Randy Bennett, responsible for electronic-media initiatives at the Newspaper Association of America, an industry trade group in Arlington, Va.
The next decade will also see the spread of powerful portable devices as easy to read and navigate as a print newspaper, making downloading an entire newspaper or news broadcast as easy as getting email alerts on a BlackBerry.
Two developments in the last year point the way: the iPhone and the Kindle e-book reader from Amazon.com. The Kindle uses a new "electronic ink" technology that is easier to read than text on a computer monitor. More important, the Kindle has an easy-to-use connection to the Net that makes it possible to easily download newspapers or blog posts for reading anywhere. It also lets papers charge for the downloads, something that's increasingly difficult to do on the Web.
The current Kindle still is limited: It can display only in black and white, and it can't show video -- features that will have to be improved before it becomes a fully functional news reader. (That's where the iPhone, which can display vivid color graphics and video, comes in.)
Once a gadget combines all those features, "billions of people will be carrying that device," says Peter Schwartz, co-founder and chairman of Global Business Network, a San Francisco consulting firm. "That will be the most significant source of news."
HOW WE PROTECT OUR PRIVACY
All of the innovations mentioned above come with one tremendous caveat: Untold amounts of our private information could become public.
"It is going to be a very bumpy decade," says Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil-liberties group.
As social-networking sites become a daily diary and blogging grows more popular, some people are likely to feel their privacy compromised by their own friends, who are constantly publishing casual information about them without their permission. Mr. Bankston calls the phenomenon "Little Brother surveillance."
Meanwhile, the spread of tracking tools like GPS will encroach on people's privacy by making their whereabouts instantly knowable. Users could potentially broadcast their location around the clock -- inadvertently letting observers know they went to the doctor's office or snuck off on a romantic getaway weekend.
Mobile advertising is another potential threat to individual privacy. While many consumers are accustomed to receiving targeted ads based on the Web sites they browse, mobile ads targeted to a user's physical location feel more invasive, particularly when consumers might be confused about which companies have access to the location information, says Dominique Bonte, principal analyst, telematics and navigation, at ABI Research. Consumers could face a steady stream of unwanted ads leveraging intimate details such as where they live or shop.
Even if you leave your mobile device at home, you may not be able to escape targeted ads. Jennifer Albornoz Mulligan, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., says that within the next decade we are likely to see tracking chips embedded in consumer items like clothes. So you could walk into a store and be greeted by a computer that reads the chip in your shirt and tries to sell you matching items.
Of course, some consumers will see these potential privacy losses as an acceptable trade-off for using cool and useful new technologies. But others are likely to be hit with a heightened sense that their privacy is eroding. As concerns swell, legislatures are likely to allay some fears by drafting laws limiting how companies can use information about their customers. Technology companies are likely to design their products with detailed privacy settings so, for instance, consumers could have great control over who sees what part of their social-networking profile. Most services already include such protections, and they are likely to become more widespread. Encryption technology is also likely to improve, to ensure that private information stays safe.
But even if personal information is closely guarded, consumers who use these services will find it difficult to escape the sense that they're giving up their ability to move about the world anonymously.
--Jessica E. Vascellaro