Next-to-the-Best Technologies of 2000-2010

These innovations just barely missed the cut for our Top 11 list

7 min read
Illustration by MCKIBILLO
Illustration: MCKIBILLO

This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s special report: Top 11 Technologies of the Decade

e-paper illus

Illustration: MCKIBILLO

Paper or Plastic?
In 2020, newspapers will still be with us, but they won’t be paper

Despite the increasing sophistication of electronic displays, with their staggering color palettes and expanding contrast levels, Gutenberg’s 15th-century technology didn’t begin to give way until the 2000s. That was when electronic paper made its debut in digital book readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook.

E-paper exploits a phenomenon called electrophoresis, discovered in 1807 and revived at Xerox PARC in the 1970s but put to practical use at MIT’s Media Lab only in 1997. It uses a jolt of current to make the black dye inside thousands of microcapsules sandwiched between flexible polymer sheets rise to the top of the capsules so that the “ink” becomes visible through one of the sheets. A great advantage of this method is that it draws power only when updating the image on the screen. Recent models offer a contrast ratio similar to that of a newspaper.

Speaking of the dailies, they just may supplant books as the killer app for e-readers. Uploading a digital version of your hometown broadsheet on a plastic sheet that you can roll up and tuck in your bag would eliminate the cost of printing and distribution, and it’d also save a lot of trees.

—Willie D. Jones

tablets illus

Illustration: MCKIBILLO

The New Computing Covenant
Apple brings tablets down from the mountain

In his 1972 article “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages,” computer scientist Alan Kay imagined the DynaBook, then a computer of “science fiction,” around 2 centimeters thick, weighing less than 2 kilograms, and the size and shape of a paper notebook, with a power-charging connection for use at work or in libraries. Arguably, the first machines even to resemble Kay’s tablet device emerged in the 1980s, as digital clipboards for insurance adjusters and salespeople.

Then, in April 2010, Apple released the iPad. Only 1.34 cm thick, the Wi-Fi–enabled and 3G-capable model weighs just 0.73 kg. Apple sold some 2 million units in 60 days and 3 million in 80 days. Meanwhile, HP, Dell, Samsung, Notion Ink, Asus, and Lenovo, among others, all have similar tablet computers on the market or are planning them.

According to Jeff Hawkins, developer of the 1989 GridPad, an early tablet, and later of the Palm Pilot, the consumer versions had to wait for flat color displays, low-power CPUs, better batteries, and wireless networks. “The technology didn’t exist 20 years ago that was necessary for successful consumer tablets,” he says.

Still, Kay says, tablet computers haven’t yet reached his vision of the DynaBook. “What end users can make, and what it takes to make something, are both woefully inadequate on today’s machines,” he says. With a different approach, he adds, tablets such as the iPad could be “one of the greatest educational amplifiers for children ever made.”

—Joseph Calamia

mp3 illus

Illustration: MCKIBILLO

Compress Me a Song
A German researcher took us from albums to algorithms

When my children are my age, they will surely look back with bemusement at the crude means by which their elders entertained themselves. They’ll laugh at the thought of vinyl platters spinning like carousels, cartridges containing spools of magnetic tape, and even laser-etched metal sheets embedded in plastic discs. They’ll take for granted that you can carry every bit of music you own in your pocket.

And it’s no sweat now, because NAND flash memory sells for about a dollar per gigabyte. But back in 1989, when a German researcher introduced the idea behind the MP3 compression algorithm, flash memory cost several hundred dollars per megabyte. Several things happened at the close of the last decade that together marked the dividing line between B.C. (before compression) and A.D. (Apple domination). In 1997, the first MP3 player was introduced, with enough storage capacity for about six songs (paltry, it’s true, even by 8-track standards). Two years later, Shawn Fanning rolled out Napster, providing an easy way for people with MP3 files to share the songs in their collections. Around that same time, the first USB flash memory key drives arrived, further stoking demand for nonvolatile memory.

In 2001, when Apple introduced the first iPod, consumers’ expectations were irrevocably changed. (Pay for music online? Perhaps. Buy a whole LP? Fuhgeddaboutit.) By 2006, digital music had unseated its predecessors: Five billion digital music files were swapped on peer-to-peer networks that year, and the ubiquitous iPod, aided by Apple’s iTunes online music store, was fast approaching 100 million units a year in sales.

Think: When was the last time you even saw someone carrying a portable CD or cassette player or found yourself browsing the shelves in a record store?

—Willie D. Jones

dvd illus

Illustration: MCKIBILLO

Time to Eject
The rise and fall of the optical disc

This year Star Wars fans will have the chance to buy yet another version of the films, this time on high-definition Blu-ray. Although the new disc may shoulder aside the DVD, it cannot equal it as a game changer.

Take for example Netflix, the movie rental company. It owes its existence to the DVD, because this disc, unlike the VHS tape, was not too expensive to ship. Now, Netflix typically mails 2 million DVDs a day, says Steve Swasey, vice president of corporate communications. When cofounder Reed Hastings first imagined movies by mail in the 1990s, DVDs were so new that he didn’t own any. He tested the system by mailing CDs to himself.

Blu-ray required lasers capable of creating and reading smaller marks—stamped pits, dye discolorations, or quenched metal coatings—on the surface of a disc. A DVD uses the red beam of a 650-nanometer laser; a Blu-ray uses a blue 405-nm beam. Shuji Nakamura developed the laser diode required for Blu-ray while working at Nichia Corp., in Tokushima, Japan. He says he chose to study the “poor” semiconductor gallium nitride to make laser diodes in the 1980s because he wanted opportunities to publish. “The major companies were using zinc selenide. There were too many papers,” Nakamura says.

Making more marks in even more layers might lead to future generations of optical discs, says Barry Schechtman, executive director emeritus at the Information Storage Industry Consortium. But he wonders whether the disc is already coming to the end of its momentous life, given external hard drives, flash drives, and streaming. “When we will need another generation beyond Blu-ray—and even if we would need it—is still a big question,” he says.

—Joseph Calamia

hd radio illus

Illustration: MCKIBILLO

HD Radio
The End of Analog
AM and FM go HD

In 2002, HD Radio promised Americans FM-quality sound on AM channels and CD-quality sound on FM channels—with no subscription charge. In 2006, retailers sold 28 000 HD Radio receivers for nightstands and dashboards, reports iBiquity Digital Corp., the Columbia, Md., company that developed the system. In the first three quarters of 2010, sales hit 1.2 million. Radio was finally going digital.

Well, almost digital. Called IBOC for in-band on-channel, today’s “hybrid” setup requires broadcasters to continue transmitting the old analog signal. Upgrading to the iBiquity system allows them also to transmit a digital signal, centered on the analog channel and in the frequencies slightly above and below. For FM channels, that’s about 101 to 200 kilohertz from the analog center. To avoid interference, broadcasters transmit these digital signals at a lower power than their analog neighbors.

The IBOC system appeals to many broadcasters because it keeps intact their established territories and frequencies, says Dave Wilson of the Consumer Electronics Association, which cosponsors the National Radio Systems Committee, one of the organizations that tested the system. It also takes up no more of the radio spectrum than did the old analog system.

The original point of going digital was to get improved sound quality, but ambitions grew along with the technology. Because today’s compression programs can stuff far more information into a given bandwidth than had been dreamed possible, new things are being found to stuff: captioning for the deaf, iTunes song “tagging,” album art, and even “multicasting”—different broadcasts layered into one station, found by tuning a bit above and below the center FM channel. The system is also more efficient than streaming Internet or satellite services, says Robert J. Struble, president and CEO of iBiquity. It takes only one tower on the top of the Empire State Building, he notes, to dole out HD Radio to all of New York City.

To upgrade, broadcasters must buy new transmitting equipment and pay a fee to iBiquity, but the company reports that over 2000 U.S. stations have made the switch. “They feel this is a question of survival,” says Ann Gallagher at the Federal Communications Commission, audio division, regarding a 2010 broadcasters’ panel discussion. “Radio doesn’t want to be the last analog medium.”

—Joseph Calamia

flat panel tv illus

Illustration: MCKIBILLO

Flat-panel TVs
Underdog LCD went from desktop to wall mount

Engineers have known for decades that getting the cathode ray tube out of the picture would allow TV sets to have bigger screens while making them as wispy as runway models. But plasma displays were too expensive and power hungry to break out of the high end of the TV market, while LCDs, despite their success in desktop computing, were even further out in the cold.

LCDs suffered from blurred images, ghosting, low contrast ratios, and colors that varied dramatically at different viewing angles. The game changed with several key innovations, notably NEC Corp.’s Overdrive technique, which doubled the standard voltage supplied to a pixel while using half the pulse width (speeding up response times from around 20 milliseconds to about 2 ms today).

Meanwhile, the success of LCDs in the desktop market created economies of scale, lowering the cost per unit. Together these developments induced electronics manufacturers to invest heavily in large-screen LCD technology for television. Energy efficiency and contrast ratio were dramatically improved when LED backlights began to replace fluorescent tubes. By the 2007 holiday season, cheap, svelte LCD TVs had elbowed aside plasma and CRT.

Now children under 15 will give bulky CRTs the same quizzical look they give manual typewriters and pay phones.

—Willie D. Jones

digital 3d illus

Illustration: MCKIBILLO

Digital 3-D
Better, Bit by Bit
With digital cinematography, 3-D finally makes sense

Thirty years ago, Buzz Hays started his 3-D career with a lesson from Alfred Hitchcock, by helping to restore the master’s 1954 Dial M for Murder to its original paper-glasses glory. Now he’s the chief instructor at the Sony 3D Technology Center, in Culver City, Calif., where he teaches other filmmakers newly learned subtleties of stereoscopic storytelling.

Stereoscopic systems—which present a different perspective to each eye—failed in the ’50s. But to critics who say, “Been there, done that,” Hays responds that stereoscopy is in a “constant state of refinement,” incorporating new projection technologies, brighter images, and better ways to capture footage.

Digitization was the key, says Bruno Sargeant, who manages television work at Autodesk, a computer graphics company. He says that a completely digital “pipeline” from camera to presentation has finally made 3-D filmmaking financially viable.

Joshua Greer, president and cofounder of RealD, in Beverly Hills, Calif., agrees. Theaters equipped with his company’s digital projection equipment account for about 80 percent of the market share, measured in terms of 3-D films’ box office receipts. His company’s 3-D cinema system uses a liquid crystal filter to circularly polarize light. When combined with today’s polarized shades, that means different images for the left and right eyes. Such high-quality systems, Greer says, were “just not possible before digital came along.” Now business is booming: In June of 2009, RealD’s light shows jumped out of 2600 theater screens; this past summer, 7500. There were 6 such films in 2008; this year, the company expects there to be 35.

Although some now point to glasses-free systems and even “holography” (which requires projecting images on mist or smoke), Hays says the next big thing will be when “mere mortals” can record and then watch their own films—including those of baby’s first step—in 3-D.

—Joseph Calamia

For all of IEEE Spectrum’s Top 11 Technologies of the Decade, visit the special report.

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