Wallet, Cash, Phone, Keys – What Did I Forget?

OLED technology allows for flexible phone design. For more, click on the link to read a good article in TechWhiz.

OLED technology allows for flexible phone design. For more, click on the link to read a good article in TechWhiz.

It’s 2013. Why are we still asking that question? Why are we still messing around with credit cards and driver’s licenses, house keys and office keys, and so much more. No need. Not any more. It’s time for somebody to invent one slim, pocketable slab that takes care of everything. Here’s my plan. Feel free to patent it and make a fortune. As I’ve thought about this–a perfect thing to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon–I’ve come to realize that the elimination of my wallet may, in fact, provide the necessary tipping point for several large industries.

How big should it be? When cell phones became very popular, the coolest ones, like Motorola’s Razr, were about the size of a credit card, and maybe four times as thick. (I just checked Wikipedia: Razr was about 4 inches high, 2 inches wide, and about a half inch thick; a credit card is about 3 1/4 inches tall.) I think that’s a good basic size because it’s so pocketable.

On one side, I think I’d want a touch-senstive display that could also respond to my voice commands. The display probably uses OLED technology so that it is flexible, and easily expanded or reshaped. On the other, I want solar cells so that I can recharge the phone whenever I am near sunlight.

Pretty much, that’s the design. Add the usual extras: camera lens, flash, microphone (detachable for some advanced Bluetooth use and stow-able within the device so it doesn’t get lost, and can be charged with the unit), speaker, AC adapter of some sort.

Can I leave my wallet and other stuff at home? Or toss it all in the trash?

Yes, but not immediately.

Let me go through my wallet first. Just about everything is associated with data–credit card or debit card, both about to go the way of the drive-in movie theater and the men’s handkerchief. My AAA membership card, health care card, drug card, and public library card can all go away; they are nothing more than physical manifestations of an account number. Pictures of my dog, and, oh right, my family, all are printed versions of digital images.  Okay, fine, I no longer need the wallet. Except for the part that, so far, Google has not been able to build a viable digital wallet business–and neither has anyone else. (The reasons: lack of public acceptance for Near Field technology [NFC], and the control exercised by the credit card companies.)

How about cash? Really, I use it only at the local farmer’s market or for a quick slice of pizza. If everybody else is using data instead of cash, I will too. So let’s just make the decision, together: no more cash or coins!

Presumably, the phone is the easiest one to eliminate. Do I need a separate wallet and phone? Nope. If I can combine a phone and a camera and an email system and VPN access, I can certainly live without a standalone phone. Gone!

Keys! There’s the problem. Yes, I have a digital key to my office. It’s the smallest thing on my keychain. Car keys are already digital, but they still resemble keys. A truly reliable digital lock, sufficiently inexpensive to serve consumer needs, remains just a few steps in the future. Recently, Gizmodo reported on a company called SmartLocks: “August is the lock that requires no key, only an invitation…” The video, below, lays out the plan.

For those who travel often, the old concept of a Passport that’s the size of an old savings passbook needs some rethinking. It should be digital, but that probably introduces all sorts of opportunities for bad guys. (Though it’s difficult to imagine how a larger vs. smaller passport would matter much.)

So what are we missing? Real-world stuff, I suppose. A few weeks back, I wrote about the real world (fun to do that, from time to time, on a blog that’s called Digital Insider) and explored the usefulness of multi-tools. It turned out to be my most popular blog article of all time, so I’m pretty sure we’ll keep those around for awhile. Which means we will still require pockets, or belt loops, or some other way to carry stuff around.

Still, wouldn’t it be nice, just once, to leave the house without asking the dog, “do you have any idea where I put my keys?” Assuming the dog’s chip is working properly (let’s assume every dog would have one; many already do), he or she would simply cause your phone to ring, which would allow you to grab your keys and your money and your flashlight and your phone on the way to the veterinarian’s office. To which the dog might bark–“aren’t you forgetting something?”

Thoughts on Mobile, Part Two: Connecting Dots

Dot #1: Input. In order to operate any sort of computer, you need to provide it with the information floating around in your brain.

Dot #2: Display. In order to process the information that you’re pouring into the computer, you need to see, hear, or otherwise sense your work-in-progress.

Dot #3: Storage. Whatever you input and display, you need to be able to keep it, and, change it. Also, it would be best if there was a second copy, preferably somewhere safe.

Dot #4: Connection and Sharing. Seems as though every 21st century device needs to be able to send, receive, and share information, often in a collaborative way.

Dot #5: Output. In some ways, this concept is losing relevance. Once displayed, stored and shared, the need to generate anything beyond a screen image is beginning to seem very twentieth century. But it’s still around and it needs to be part of the package.

Dot #6: Portable. Truly portable devices must be sufficiently small and lightweight, serve the other needs in dots 1-5, and also, carry or collect their own power, preferably sufficient for a full day’s (or a full week’s use) between refueling stops.

Let’s take these ideas one at a time and see where the path leads.

Dot #1: Input. Basically, the “man-machine” interface can be achieved in about five different mays. Mostly, these days, we use our hands, and in particular, our fingertips, and to date, this has served us well both on keyboards (which require special skill and practice, but seem to keep pace with the speed of thinking in detail), and on touch screens (which are not yet perfect, but tend to be surprisingly good if the screen is large enough). ThinkGeek sells a tiny Bluetooth projector that displays a working keyboard on any surface.


There is the often under-rated Wacom tablets, which use a digital pen, but this, like a trackpad, requires abstract thinking–draw here, and the image appears there. It’s better, more efficient, and ultimately, probably more precise, to use a stylus directly on the display surface. So far, touch screens are the best we can do. Insofar as portable computing goes, this is probably a good thing because the combination of input (Dot #1) and display (Dot #2) reduce weight, and allow the user direct interaction with the work.


This combination is becoming popular not only on tablets (and phones), but on newer touch-screen laptops, such as the HP Envy x2 (visit Staples to try similar models). The combination is useful on a computer, but more successfully deployed on a tablet because the tablet can be more easily manipulated–brought closer to the eyes, handled at convenient angles, and so on.

Moving from the fingers to other body parts, speaking with a computer has always seemed like a good idea. In practice, Dragon’s voice recognition works, as does Siri, both based upon language pattern recognition developed by Ray Kurzweil. So far, there are limitations, and most are made more challenging by the needs of of a mobile user: a not-quiet environment, the need for a reliable microphone and digital processing with superior sensitivity and selectivity, artificial intelligence superior to the auto-correct feature on mobile systems–lots to consider, which makes me think voice will be a secondary approach.


Eyes are more promising. Some digital cameras read movement in the eye (retinal scanning), but it’s difficult to input words or images this way–the science has a ways to go. The intersection between Google Glass and eye movement is also promising, but early stage. Better still would be some form of direct brain output–thinking generates electrical impulses, but we’re not yet ready to transmit or decode those impulses into messages suitable for input into a digital device. This is coming, but probably not for a decade or two. Also, keep an eye on the glass industry–innovation will lead us to devices that are flexible, lightweight, and surprising in other ways.

So: the best solution, although still improving, is probably the combination tablet design with a touch-screen display, supported, as needed on an individual basis, by some sort of keyboard, mouse, stylus, or other device for convenience or precision.

(BTW: Wikipedia’s survey of input systems is excellent.)

As for display, projection is an interesting idea, but lumens (brightness) and the need for a proper surface are limiting factors. I have more confidence in a screen whose size can be adjusted. (If you’re still thinking in terms of an inflexible, rigid glass rectangle, you might reconsider and instead think about something thinner, perhaps foldable or rollable, if that’s a word.

Dot #3: Storage has already been transformed. For local storage, we’re moving away from spinning disks (however tiny) and into solid state storage. This is the secret behind the small size of the Apple MacBook Air, and all tablets. These devices demand less power, and they respond very, very quickly to every command. They are not easily swapped out for larger storage devices, but they can be easily enhanced with SD cards (size, speed, and storage capacity vary). Internal “SSD” (Solid State Device) storage will continue to increase in size and decrease in cost, so this path seems likely to be the one we follow for the foreseeable future. Add cloud storage, which is inexpensive, mostly reliable (we think), mostly private and secure (we think), the opportunity for low-cost storage for portable devices becomes that much richer. Of course, the latter requires a connection to Dot #4: Storage. Connecting these two dots is the core of Google’s Chrome strategy.

CES 2013: What Mattered and Why

Just after Christmas, the Consumer Electronics Show convenes in Las Vegas to showcase all that’s new for the coming year. Most of it is upgrades, retreads, and modest improvements over the past year’s stuff. Some of it suggests a new shape for the industry, and for the ways that we work, play, and communicate. Here’s a brief rundown on what might matter most:

  • The disk drive maker Seagate will soon offer a “local cloud” storage device that you can set up in your home or office. Local storage, easily reached via local wi-fi. IT professionals will recognize this as a NAS, short for Network Attached Storage. At about $250 for 4TB, the lesser configurations don’t save enough money to be worth your time.
  • Expanded uses for phones and tablets. One shining example is the new MOCET iPad Communicator. Phones and tablets are extremely versatile. Adding capabilities beyond, say, a clock radio or external speakers, will become increasingly commonplace. Remember: you’re carrying a fairly powerful computer. Why not put it to use?


    To go to the site, click on the picture.

  • OLED is a video technology that allows for very thin screens–and flexible ones. The price of manufacture is dropping, so we’ll begin to see OLED screens enter the race between plasma and LED screens. Eventually, this organic (!) technology will win out, and become commonplace. (The “O” in OLED stands for “organic.)
  • Previously, I wrote about the new 4K screens. They’re beginning to be shown as demos.
  • Touch screens and gestures will begin to replace keyboards and remote controls. As the technology allows for greater precision, older ways of interacting with computers (and tablets) and with videogames and TV sets will shift our conception of an interface into the modern age.
  • Smart phones seem to be getting larger–more screen real estate is better for mail, web, games, and movies. Tablets seems to be getting smaller (the line between a small tablet and a big phone is becoming difficult to discern). Tablets are also becoming larger–imagine what you could do with a 20-inch portable tablet! Here, we’re starting to blur the distinction between a computer monitor, a TV set and a tablet. It’s tough to forecast where these trends are heading.
  • Samsung has become the Sony of the 2010s–an exciting company with innovation in every direction. The quality is there, too. But there are still lessons to be learned about user interfaces and design.
  • Very small storage devices are continuing to expand their storage dimensions. Kingston, for example, showed off a 1TB flash drive–larger than the popular thumb drives, but still quite portable.
  • From DPReview's coverage, the latest Fujifilm digital camera. Click on the image to see their story.

    From DPReview’s coverage, the latest Fujifilm digital camera. Click on the image to see their story.

    It’s now a regular routine: cool new cameras introduced at CES. For a solid rundown, visit DPReview. I think my favorite stuff is the expansion of Fuji small-sensor line. These cameras look like the real think, shoot terrific images, and tend to be somewhat more intuitive in their interfaces. (More on these soon.)

  • Automotive electronics has always been a key aspect of CES. Sure, car stereos and car security systems remain center stage. Now that cars plug into wall sockets, the vehicles themselves are becoming digital devices. This time around, lots of cars as harbingers. Next time, I’ll bet we start seeing hybrid devices that confuse the definitions of bicycles, motorcycles, golf carts, and other short-range transportation devices.
  • Oculus Verge

    To read The Verge’s story about the Oculus Rift, click on the image.

  • Your smartphone and/or your tablet will become a monitoring control center and remote control. You know how we’re beginning to program a DVR from afar? Or read date/time stamps on the foods in the fridge? It won’t be long before we all have a remote dashboard to tell us about the fuel in the car, the meds in the bathroom, when the last time the dog was walked, body fat, etc. add some robotic controls and digital life becomes even more interesting.
  • I’ve wondered why immersive video game displays have taken so long to gain traction in the marketplace. Now, it looks like the (Kickstarter-funded) Oculus Rift will change the way gamers see and experience the experience of game play. There’s good multimedia coverage in The Verge.
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