Feature

Power dressing takes on new meaning

Take a last look at your laptop, mobile phone and handheld computer because they will look totally different before the decade is out, writes Eric Doyle.

Developing technologies for screens and chips are contributing to new design ideas that could mean the concept of hardware will soften and devices will become haute couture rather than high-tech. Flexible, low-power, miniaturised - even wearable - devices will be brought out to test the market.

A major advance in memory chip design, being worked on by IBM and its German partner Infineon, uses magnetic, rather than electronic, charges to store data.

The main advantage is that the data stored on the processor remains when the power is switched off. This would enable applications to stay in memory even though the device is not running. Because the data remains intact, an instant-on computer avoids the power-off and power-up delays at the beginning and end of a session. It also has the potential to minimise the time taken to power up downed servers with in-memory databases.

The basic concepts of Magnetic Ram (MRam) started in 1974 when IBM devised a miniature component called the magnetic tunnel junction. But the feasibility of a marketable product was only investigated in 1998. Now the development team feels that the project can leave the lab and be developed as a product.

Viable MRam chips are expected to appear in 2002 and could be commercially available in 2004. There are still many unanswered questions such as whether the chips will be price competitive with electronic Ram and how easily they can be manufactured in volume. Even IBM admits that it could be 10 years before the chips are commonplace.

Canon recently announced a screen technology based on toners rather than liquid crystal which the company hopes will result in paper-thin, colour screens by 2007. If the company succeeds in its aims, the screen could be an ideal companion for MRam.

The screens are made from flexible plastic plates with toner in-between and has distinct similarities to laser printer principles based on electrostatic charges. The thinness of the screens means that they could be rolled up or fitted to contoured surfaces.

In operation, the displayed image "freezes" when the electricity source is disconnected, but the image will persist and still be viewable. This does away with the need to refresh the screen many times in a second, as dictated by current technologies, and savings in power consumption could double or treble battery life for any mobile device.

The technology is of particular interest to developers of electronic book (e-book) hardware and for other applications where the screen does not change for long periods of time - even the idea of having wall-hanging pictures that can change to suit your mood or the time of day have been mooted.

In the world of fashion, textiles are playing their part in changing hardware into daywear with several companies working on ways to weave electronic wires into fabric. The designs being shown are ultra-modern fashions but the actual products that result are likely to be work clothes, particularly for hands-free operations in unfriendly or enclosed environments such as space exploration or deep-sea diving.

Wires are becoming less relevant with the appearance of Bluetooth and other wireless standards. This has opened the way for wristwatches, rings, brooches and earrings to act as networked devices. Visitors to the Hollywood Bowl in California will be met by ushers wearing a scanning ring that checks the ticket and validates it. Earrings seem to be proving popular to replace in-ear headsets - though most designs are bulky.

You may already be able to tell something about a person by the way they dress but soon you may be asking yourself what are their clothes telling them about me?


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This was first published in January 2001

 

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