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Terrafugia plans to see its flying car, which runs on regular gas, in 2011.

Twenty-five years ago, making a call away from home meant finding a pay phone. The cell phone was virtually unknown. So was the Internet. Now life would be unthinkable without them.

And that’s what makes futurism so intriguing. What will spur the next big thing, the staggering new technology not yet within our grasp?

 

Take something as apparently imperishable as the book. It seems Kindle and other e-readers have been putting a sci-fi spin on all print. Then there’s Intel’s Reader for the blind. That’s the future for you. It’s just around the next curve, looming into view, even right in front of your face.

The biggest surprise may be the thought that we all play a role in finding that new thing. Sheryl Connelly, global consumer trends and futuring manager at Ford Motor Co., analyzes consumer behavioral trends to help Ford’s designers plot their research. It seems the parents of invention are both necessity and desire.

“We don’t try to predict the future,” Connelly says. “No one has that ability. To move forward, you just need to have a pretty good idea of where we’re heading. The hope is to come up with a range of solutions that work.”

Here’s a look at four categories of evolving technology central to our lives, and how futurists see us moving forward.

VIDEO GAMES

We have seen the future of electronic gaming, and it is immersive, physical and radically social.

The writing on the wall at Microsoft, maker of the Xbox 360, promises a kinetic new world of full-body gaming control that builds on the Wii model of motional interactivity. But Microsoft’s research team is pushing the envelope by trying to eliminate the controller altogether. Your entire body becomes the controller for some pretty wild action play.

Instead of using your thumbs to guide a sports car through turns on a screen, you become the driver, manipulating an imaginary steering wheel. It’s like playing air-guitar. Just put your hands in a steering position and the on-screen car you’re driving responds to your movements.

Or how about a workout with a skateboard — your own. Hold your board up to the TV to have it scanned into the game, then zoom yourself and your skateboard into “action.” As an obstacle looms up on the screen course, you jump and the screen version of you on your board replicates your maneuver. You clear the object and push on down the “street.”

“The use of motion-sensing technologies is really going to increase gamers’ involvement,” says Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va. “This is going to take us far beyond gaming as entertainment to unprecedented levels of fitness training and competitive sports.”

Central to the immersive nature of future gaming is what Koenig calls “augmented reality,” in which you’re surrounded by computer-generated images, perhaps a holographic environment. Think of the programmable break room for the crew on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

But there’s another component of augmented reality that’s a bit creepy.

“In a shooting game with several friends, instead of just pulling the trigger and seeing the result onscreen, you’ll feel the thump of impact when you’re hit,” says Koenig. “Or if you playing football or baseball — in 3-D, of course — you’ll feel the weight of a ball in your hands. It’s going to make for a much more realistic experience.”

All of those examples fit the model of Microsoft’s new gaming world.

The other trend that’s likely to explode in the coming years, says Koenig, is “massive multiplayer online” (MMO) gaming.

“The promise of MMO is congruent with the increasing popularity of social networking,” he says. “Even 10 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine playing a game with 50 different people from all around the world, but now it happens every day. We’re going to see a huge development in social gaming.”

Koenig sees the gaming industry shifting its focus from hardware to “cloud” applications — pay as you play, with more games residing on the Internet, not on your shelf at home. And the device you play on will probably be your phone, not your laptop.

TRAVEL

How will we get around town, or across the country, in a decade or two? Will we strap on a jetpack, hop into our flying automobile or just beam ourselves over?

First, let’s rev up the flying car — or aerocar, as its visionaries prefer to call it. That technology will be available relatively soon.

Dick Knapinski, spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association, says each summer’s EAA air show in Oshkosh, Wis., brings a more promising version of the aerocar. “An airplane you could drive on the road has been a dream ever since there were cars and airplanes,” says Knapinski. “The early designs, back in the late 1940s and ’50s, looked like a VW with wings.”

But that would hardly describe the flying sport craft from Terrafugia in Woburn, Mass. When its wings are unfolded, which takes about 60 seconds, the road-worthy vehicle dubbed the Transition turns into a flying machine with an airborne range of 450 miles at a top speed of 115 mph.

The sleek flying car that the makers call a street-legal airplane uses regular gasoline in either driving or flying mode. Terrafugia actually expects to offer a consumer model for sale sometime in 2011 at price of $194,000 — just a few thousand dollars less than a Lamborghini. Of course, along with the cash you’ll also need a runway. Then there is the matter of licensing and training. In such a hybrid future, the goal of driver’s education may be a pilot’s license.

As for the jet pack, Knapinski says the “Jetsons” cartoon concept of zooming around town may not be that far from achieving reality. “We’re seeing personal flight systems that can keep a 200-pound person aloft for 20-25 minutes at a speed of 25 miles an hour,” he says.

But don’t expect to zip about like Iron Man at supersonic speeds. “The torque would be too great for the human body,” says Knapinski.

Last year, Martin Aircraft Co. in New Zealand boasted it would have a viable, 200-horsepower, gasoline-fueled jet pack, called Martin Jetpack, hit the market sometime in late 2009 or early 2010 for about $100,000. Makers have said it personal aircraft can go 60 miles per hour at an altitude of 8,000 feet for about 30 minutes.

HEALTH CARE

The future of medical care will be writ in sub-molecular language, researchers say.

Nanotechnology, which deals in infinitesimally small structures and pathways, will provide the maps and means for treatment in the decades ahead. And central to such minimalism will be finding the least invasive methods of treating diseases.

Dr. Hans Stricker, a urologist and chief of surgery at Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield, says microscopic research is already well along in gene therapy for treating prostate cancer. At the core of that investigation is gene therapy — a super high-tech method of designing viruses that can be injected into a patient to attack rogue cells.

“When I lie awake at night and think about how I would want my own treatment to go in 20 years,” says Stricker, 47, “I see a guy who gets a cancer diagnosis, comes in, we inject him with the virus and he’s on his way. He has flulike symptoms for a couple of days and that’s it. The cancer is killed.”

Stricker says his scenario is not a mere dream. “Is it really possible? A couple of years ago, I would have said no,” he says. “But today, I can see a combination of radiation and gene therapy 10 years from now — and five years after that, gene therapy alone.”

The ideal of minimal invasiveness extends to general screenings, says Stricker. He sees a day when you can just have a body scan to check for health problems instead of submitting to a lot of annoying probes. “The real upside is that we’d have a lot more people signing up,” says Stricker. “The problem is cost. One of the key challenges will be to figure out how to do noninvasive screening that is inexpensive.”

Another goal of nanotechnology is the development of “intelligent biomaterials,” artificial tissue that can be inserted where damaged tissue needs to be restored. A prime application would be the repair of damaged organs.

The hurdle, and researchers acknowledge it’s a fairly high one, is a better understanding of how the body activates cells to begin natural repairs.

Researchers hope to discover the codes that spur tissue growth, then come up with schemes to mimic those signals.

TV-NET CONVERGENCE

If industry prognosticators are correct, home entertainment soon is headed for a radical makeover that will redefine the word cool. Cable companies might not love it — they may be out of the picture — but consumers will have it all, everything from YouTube videos to any movie on demand in a grand convergence of the Internet and their television sets.

There’s nothing really wild about the long-discussed merger of the Internet and TV. It’s just a matter of figuring out just what translates from the laptop to the living room screen, and what’s better left small. Do we really need eBay items displayed on a 60-inch television?

According to the Yankee Group, which specializes in market analysis, 50 million U.S. households will acquire Internet-connected HDTVs by 2013 — a significantly greater number than the 30 million expected to purchase Blu-ray players in the same period.

“The television is the modern-day family hearth,” says Peter Fannon, vice president of corporate and government affairs for Panasonic Corp. of North America. “At the same time, the Internet is a powerful potential source of video information and entertainment, so it’s just natural to assume that television will ultimately become a versatile medium for displaying everything on the Internet from personal messages to entertainment of all kinds.”

The clincher in television viewing, says Fannon, will be the proliferation of 3-D TV and its ability to bring every kind of video experience right into your lap.

Sony plans to make its 3-D film “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” available on Internet-enabled TVs before it’s released on DVD.

Via Detroit News