2001: A Tech Odyssey

Flying cars. Humanoid robots. Interplanetary travel. The year 2001 is just around the corner, and the myriad technologies that science-fiction writers have promised us have yet to materialize; if these prognosticators were baseball players, they'd be batting a perfect .000. To avoid getting sent down to the minor leagues, we decided to take a look at five emerging technologies that are closer to hand--and that may still change your life. Note: that's life with a lowercase "l"; nothing here is on the order of virtual reality or human cloning. But even without pie in the sky, there are five good reasons to be psyched that you've lived to see the new millennium. Bluetooth As we add more devices to our daily lives--mobile phones, handheld computers, two-way pagers, MP3 players, digital cameras--we need more and more wires to connect them all. But what if you could take a picture on your digital camera, zap it over to your Palm Pilot to erase the red eye, then e-mail it to your friends via your mobile phone--all without any cables? A wireless technology called Bluetooth (named after the 10th-century Danish king who united Denmark and Norway) promises to free us from this tangled web by enabling multiple devices within a 10-meter radius to communicate over the air.

Bluetooth began in 1994, when Ericsson started looking into the feasibility of a low-cost, low- power radio interface that would connect mobile phones to various accessories. Four years later IBM, Toshiba, Nokia and Intel joined Ericsson; since then more than 1,300 companies have signed on, including industry powerhouses Microsoft, Lucent and 3Com. They've pledged to make Bluetooth gadgets work together seamlessly, regardless of the manufacturer.

The first Bluetooth-enabled devices should hit store shelves early next year. Motorola is already showing a mobile phone that can double as a wireless modem for your laptop, while Ericsson will offer a wireless earpiece. Future applications include Bluetooth-powered LANs that will let you connect to the Net whether you're in your office, at the airport or in your hotel room. By 2002, analysts say, millions of these devices will include this technology at a cost not much higher than their counterparts without Bluetooth. Browser-Based Videogames With the well-publicized flameouts of companies like DEN and Pop.com, the emerging CW holds that entertainment doesn't work on the Internet. Tell that to the millions of people who play Scrabble, hearts, poker, bridge and other parlor games on the Web. They may not have a PlayStation 2 at home--or at the office, where a lot of these games are played--but all they need is a PC with a Net connection to join in. That's why the demographics for browser-based games are so broad: men, women, kids and seniors all play.

A couple of companies are trying to leverage the ever-increasing power of personal computers to push browser-based videogames beyond mere parlor games by improving the graphics. Groove Alliance and WildTangent have built software tools that will let developers make videogames that require only 500K to 2MB, yet look as good as or better than the games on a PlayStation or Nintendo 64. Electronic Arts and AOL, which joined forces to create the world's largest gaming portal at EA.com, are using WildTangent to make soccer and golf games that you can play using Internet Explorer. Groove Alliance's Real Pool is already two years old, yet it's still played 3 million times a month; other Groove games include a Doom knockoff called Alien X and a tank-warfare simulator. The point, according to Groove Alliance founder Chris Kantrowitz, is to democratize videogames. "We make games that everyone can play," he says, "and we make them well."

You might think that game designers would rather make games for the latest and greatest PCs and consoles, but as development timetables and budgets increase wildly, some creative types are looking for alternatives. "Our game Meteor Madness was written by a 19-year-old kid," says WildTangent CEO Alex St. John. "He had some help on the art, and did the rest himself--in three months." But WildTangent isn't just for kids. To promote its new line of remote-controlled cars, Radio Shack had WildTangent make a game using 3-D reproductions of its vehicles. Fox.com plans to use WildTangent's tools to make an "X-Files" role-playing game that will be updated monthly. As Mulder might say, the games are out there. Transmeta Anyone who's tried to use a laptop on a transcontinental flight with just one battery knows the prayer: please, God, let it last until we touch down. Transmeta is changing that with its Crusoe processor, a Pentium-compatible chip that requires just a fraction of the power. That's because the Crusoe chip is a combination of hardware and software. By emulating some of the Pentium's functionality through software, it reduces the number of transistors required; that translates into lower power consumption. Transmeta estimates that some laptops will soon be able to run for a full day on a single charge. And that means that the sophisticated capabilities of PCs can be brought to devices from handheld computers and mobile phones to tablet computers.

Sony was the first to market with a Crusoe-powered laptop this fall: the 2.2-pound PictureBook sports a built-in camera and double the battery life it would have had with an Intel chip. "Because of our focus on audio and video, we tax processors more than other laptops do," says Mark Hanson, a product- marketing veep at Sony Electronics. "With a quad-battery pack, we can get 18 hours of battery life. That's enough to go to Tokyo and back. Other processors would have required us to increase the size and weight, and they would also have taxed the longevity of the battery on a single charge." Other laptop manufacturers, including NEC and Toshiba, are following suit. But Intel isn't standing idly by. The company's recent announcement that a more powerful yet efficient Pentium processor would be available next year helped persuade IBM to stay away from Crusoe. Streaming Napster If you've used the infamous file-sharing program Napster, you know that while it's very cool, you still have to wait for the song to download before you can listen to it. A new Silicon Valley start-up called Friskit has come up with something way cooler than file-sharing: stream-sharing. Go to Friskit.com, type in the name of the artist, genre or song that you want to hear, and a few seconds later your chosen music starts playing. How? Friskit searches the Internet for Web sites that stream music (in RealAudio, Windows Media or MP3 formats), then serves them up to you one after the other with very little wait (and no hard-drive clutter, since there's no downloading). Even better, the interface is so simple and elegant that anyone can use it--something the major record labels with their billion-dollar revenues haven't been able to manage.

During a limited beta period last summer, Friskit users averaged more than an hour per listening session. "If Napster were streaming and had a business model, it would be Friskit," says cofounder George Aposporos, whose partner Aviv Eyal dreamed up the idea. Considering that Friskit plays other Web sites' streams through its own interface, without any of the banner ads that the host site likely uses to defray its costs, isn't Friskit inviting some Napster-size legal problems? Aposporos denies the stream-stealing charge, because Friskit always includes a link to the sites from which songs come (and for broadband users, it automatically opens up a new window to display the host sites). In fact, he thinks that Friskit will increase traffic at streaming sites because it will connect users to music that they might not otherwise know is available. "There's a ton of media on the Web, we connect to it better than anyone, and we have ways to take down content that we've been notified is illegal," says Aposporos. To woo record labels and retailers, Friskit will launch its public beta this week with links to BestBuy.com, MySimon, Yahoo, and TowerRecords.com in an effort to demonstrate that it can spur music purchases. And if Aposporos can convince the music industry, Friskit's instant-gratification technology might prove to be yet another headache for the boys at Napster. Digital Video Recorders Think of DVRS as VCRS on steroids: giant hard drives that digitally record shows via an easy-to-use on-screen channel guide. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. DVRs automatically record the last half hour of whatever you're watching, which means that you can pause a live broadcast (think bathroom break) or rewind it (to see that great triple play again). DVRs can record shows by keyword, letting you create your own channel of "X-Files" episodes or Lena Horne movies. Some models even have a 30-second skip-forward button (think no more ads) that has advertisers running scared--and rushing to join forces with DVR makers to create eye-catching interactive ads that will hold viewers' attention.

Until this year you could get a DVR only from two start-ups, TiVo and ReplayTV. But they've since licensed their technology to the likes of Sony and Panasonic, and Microsoft's floundering WebTV division has refocused on the DVR concept. Recording capacity has shot from 10 hours to 30 or more, and features are being added all the time. If you're away from home, for example, ReplayTV will now let you program your unit through the company's Web site. And if you're loath to place yet another black box atop your TV set, fear not: manufacturers are exploring how DVR technology can be embedded in other products. "ReplayTV should be integrated in TVs, VCRs, set-top boxes," says the company's Jim Hollingsworth. "We're looking at all these areas."

As manufacturers put bigger hard drives into DVRs, viewing habits are likely to change. Says Rob Schoeben, director of strategic marketing for WebTV, "At 12 hours [of recording time] or less, people use it like a digital VCR--they record things that they really want to watch. At 35 hours, they start to do just-in-case recording--things that pique their interest but that they may or may not watch. When they get up to 100 hours, more people will start letting the box find things for them to watch."

But you won't have to wait for that 100-hour hard drive for things to get very cool. This month Microsoft's WebTV group unleashes the modestly titled UltimateTV. Used in conjunction with the DirecTV satellite dish, it will let you record two shows simultaneously, even while you're watching something that you've already saved on the hard drive. That's why sales are expected to shoot up industrywide from just 18,000 units last year to 300,000 in 2001. And as word of mouth spreads, 2001 will be the year that DVRs--and these other technologies--will really start to change your life.