In 1964, The year IEEE Spectrum published its first issue, Texas Instruments received a patent on the integrated circuit, RCA developed the videotape cartridge, Sharp introduced the all-transistor electronic calculator, Digital Equipment Corp. shipped the PDP-8 minicomputer, and IBM coined the phrase "word processing." All those companies were pretty big, even then--it isn't easy to find a 1964 start-up that was betting its all on a technology that has since paid off.
Four decades later, venture capital has worked a sea change in the way industrial innovations are made. If in the days of Hewlett and Packard the garage start-up was the exception, today it is the rule. We have therefore tried to divine the future from a collection of today's most daring tech start-ups. We narrowed the field by considering technological innovations in conjunction with the people who have bet on them; people, unlike new ideas, have track records that can be vetted. The board of editors of Spectrumdid the vetting, aided by many IEEE fellows.
Another constraint was to allow only one company per category. That way, software and telecom would not overwhelm everything else, and the predictions would not boil down to one or two ideas which, if proved wrong, future list makers would find laughable. Of course, the categories were shaped in part by the available candidates for the list, like the bull's-eyes of a marksman who shoots first and draws the targets afterward.
Displays: Microvision Inc.
Display devices have a few weak points--they're bulky, hot, conspicuous, and power-hungry. Ugly, too. Microvision proposes to solve all these problems at a stroke by using solid-state lasers and LEDs to paint fine-grained pictures directly onto your retina. As John R. Lewis, a research fellow at the company, wrote in these pages ("In the Eye of the Beholder," Spectrum, May 2004), "Short of tapping into the optic nerve, there is no more efficient way to get an image into your brain."
It's a bit like the head-up display, which floats meter readings and other aeronautical data somewhere in the middle distance in front of a pilot's face. Even better, though, Microvision's system can superimpose graphical information on the real world, much as Walt Disney Co. animators had Mickey Mouse shake hands with conductor Leopold Stokowski in Fantasia in 1940. A surgeon (or a combat medic trying to act as one) might use superimposed anatomical information to guide a scalpel; an auto mechanic might use data positioned in this way to guide a wrench. The latter application is already in use, in Microvision's Nomad Expert Technician System.
The company uses microelectromechanical system (MEMS) devices to scan the beams back and forth and, where appropriate, to mix different colors to produce white light. Because the beam sweeps over the retina instead of dotting it, lines need not be serrated and images need not be grainy. Bright as the picture will seem to the naked eye, it will consume barely a microwatt, potentially saving hugely on battery power. And, by sending light only where it's needed, the system can keep nosy neighbors in adjacent airline seats from snooping on your work (or play). With a sufficiently inconspicuous eyepiece, one might even feign attention to a speech or lecture while, in fact, watching television.