And The Incredible Shrinking Phone is certainly one vision for form factor changes. "So one thing you can imagine is tiny little devices that are nothing but multi-network stacks and a kind of personal identifying fob that lets you make a phone call from a Bluetooth device in your ear, or embedded in your ear, or embedded in your hand, as my daughter would say," he said.
But Shirky presented an alternative, too, that is equally striking.
"And then the parallel or competitive future is the slab of glass gets unbelievably awesome. Rollable and Retina display is the normal case," he said. "Everyone has this rollable piece of plastic, something that works like an iPad but can work like a phone when it's rolled up."
Look at the recent trend in phone design. All the screens are getting better. More unexpected is that many are also getting *bigger*. Sure, the iPhone 5 just got bigger, but the Samsung Galaxy Note II is 5.5 inches long! (One sad consequence of this future would be the permanent dominance of cargo pants.) I've only seen one of these in the wild, at Incheon Airport in Seoul. It seemed like a joke. This ultra-long iPhone 20 actually is a joke. And yet ... Unlike Steve Jobs' vision of Two Sizes Fitting All, it seems like all the screen sizes from 4 to 9 inches (and beyond?) are going to be filled with better-than-print resolution devices.
The other ubiquitous referent for the phone form of the future is Google Glasses. I have to give kudos to Google for creating such an inescapable piece of technology. No one can seriously discuss what things might look like in 10 years without at least namechecking something that looks like this:
Google Glass -- or its successors -- will allow you to have a kind of heads-up display (maybe?) and life-logging recorder right on your face at all times. They are one vision of a phone that pushes hard on merging digital and physical information ("augmented reality"). In some sense, they are Shirky or Buckland's tiny fob plus a transparent screen that sits directly in front of your eye.
THREE VERY OUT-THERE SCENARIOS
So far, we've run through ideas that fit most of the trends and visions of the past few years. But what if there is a far more radical departure from our current paradigm?
It's obvious that the future will be full of devices that connect to your phone wirelessly. Playing music through Bluetooth on a JamBox or printing from your phone is just the beginning. Last night, my friend and writer Andy Isaacson described a Burning Man camp in which 3D printed objects were delivered by helicopter drone to people who'd ordered them on the Playa and agreed to carry a GPS tracker so the drone could find them.
This is really happening today.
Already you can get a tiny helicopter and control it with your iPhone. Wired's Chris Anderson is working on bringing the cost of full-capability drones -- DIY Drones -- down to consumer levels. Already you can have cameras installed in your home and monitor them from your device. Already you can unlock a ZipCar with your phone. Already you can control a Roomba with your phone. And none of this mentions all the actual work you can do with tiny motors and actuators hooked through the open-source Arduino platform. Add it all up and your phone could become the information hub that allows you to monitor and control your fleet of robot data scavengers, messengers, and servants.
We tend to think of disruptions as coming out of ever more capable technology, but what if the communication devices we actually use in the future are ultra low-cost, close-to-disposable devices. Already, according to wireless-industry trade group CTIA, there are more than 70 million pay-as-you-go subscriptions in the United States. The capabilities and prices of these phones will continue to decline. Perhaps in 10 years you will be able to buy an iPhone 5's worth of capability for $10.
One can imagine that a possible response of blanket digital- and physical-data collection by individuals, corporations, and governments would be to go lower tech and to change phones more often. While some people may run around with a fob that makes sure their data is with them all the time, others might elect to carry the dumbest, cheapest phone possible. Imagine if the 2022 equivalent of "clearing your cookies" is buying a new phone so that you'll no longer be followed around by targeted advertisements.
In China, having two or even three phones is not uncommon. One survey found that a good 35-45 percent of Chinese mobile users use two or more phones! IDEO's Stillion imagined a less dystopian version of the ubiquitous, low-cost phone model. He imagined we might just leave phones acting as video cameras so that we could visit places we missed. You could check in on the redwood forest from your desk. "You can visit these things when you like, especially when there is some mechanism for enhanced solar power," he said.
So, that's the low-tech scenario. But it's certainly possible that we have a disruptive high-tech scenario. My bet would be on some kind of brain-computer interface. As we wrote earlier this year, we are just now beginning to create devices that allow you to control machines with thought alone. A landmark paper was published in May showing quadriplegic patients controlling a robotic arm. "We now show that people with longstanding, profound paralysis can move complex real-world machines like robotic arms, and not just virtual devices, like a dot on a computer," said one of the lead researchers, Brown University neuroscientist John Donoghue. Despite the success, our David Ewing Duncan explained that the technology wasn't quite ready for prime time.
[Donoghue] and colleagues at Brown are working to eliminate the wires and to create a wireless system. They are conducting work on monkeys, he said, but still need FDA approval for human testing.
The work is still years away from being ready for routine use, said Leigh Hochberg, a neurologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and another principal of the Braingate project. "It has to make a difference in people's lives, and be affordable," he said. The scientists also need to replicate the data on more people over a longer period of time.
But hey, 10 years is a long time, DARPA has long been interested, and a brain-computer interface would provide a nice route around the difficult problems of computers communicating in our complex, ever-evolving languages. Plus, we wouldn't have to listen to everyone talk to his or her mobile concierge.