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Some Technologies Will Annoy

If you're waiting for the "home of the future," filled with talking appliances and complex networks that let all our devices communicate with each other, prepare to keep holding your breath. It's not that those things aren't technically possible. It's just that if we had them, they'd irritate us.

In this week's column, professional futurists weigh in on which talked-about technologies are likely either to flop, under-deliver or take longer to reach critical mass than we might expect. Top on their list are things that sound better suited for a Jetsons set than a real-life home or workspace. Additionally, there are a lot of technologies that sound neat, but probably won't inspire us to open our wallets.

The smart fridge: Technology publications trying to be hip periodically post stories about refrigerators that connect to the web. But don't expect even hard-core gadget lovers to be lining up to buy them.

"I don't believe the internet fridge is a flier," said Ian Pearson, futurist-in-residence at British Telecom.

First off, few people see much need for a refrigerator that does things like monitor groceries and self-create shopping lists. Second, even if they did, who's to guarantee that its operating system won't be obsolete long before the fridge's motor stops working?

"Why should I spend 1,500 pounds ($2,600) on a fridge when it's going to last 10 years?" asked Pearson. A better solution for info addicts, he suggested, is simply to attach a pad to the refrigerator door.

The networked home: Wouldn't it be nice to have every device you own connected to every other? Just think, you could use your cell phone to turn off the coffeepot, have your PC control the lights, and program your DVD player to show movies in whatever room you enter.

It all sounds good until you envision downloading the latest security patch and having to worry about whether a virus will simultaneously shut down your PC, stereo and toaster.

"If everything's all networked, if something goes wrong, everything can go down with it," said Pearson. He envisions scenarios in which people who thought they'd like a home network suddenly realize they hate it.

"When you've got three kids getting ready for school ... and the network isn't working because it needs an upgrade ... you're going to go straight to your garage and get your sledgehammer."

Mobile video phones: Another thing Pearson doesn't see taking off is video phones. His reasoning is straightforward: The technology has existed for quite some time, and few people have shown much interest. Thus, it's unlikely they'll show interest now. The fact that the technology can be widely bundled into mobile phones still doesn't make it very enticing, he said.

Light revolution: The lighting systems we use today aren't going away for some time, says Derek Woodgate, president of The Futures Lab in Austin, Texas. In the meantime, he'd rather not keep dwelling on the alternatives.

"I really do not want to hear another word about organic light-emitting devices, whether flexible, phosphorescent or transparent, until they are truly widely adopted," he wrote in an e-mail.

Organic light-emitting diode, or OLED, technology, which emits light through a thin layer of organic compounds, can be incorporated in cameras and other consumer devices that contain screens. Woodgate acknowledges that the technology has shown some promise for use in TV and cell-phone screens.

"But all the talk about the ability to replace lighting in homes and cars and data windshields are still some way off," he wrote.

RFID: Depending on whom you listen to, radio-frequency identification tags are poised to replace the bar code, create hyper-efficient supply chains, or lead to fulfillment of the Bible's Mark of the Beast prophecy.

Several futurists, however, say RFID probably won't be either as revolutionary or monstrous as fans and detractors predict. Even if the technology does eventually become ubiquitous, it will take much longer to reach that point than most people expect.

"We don't have the infrastructure in place to make it work," said Jennifer Jarratt, a partner at Leading Futurists who compares the state of RFID to the early days of the home computer, when too few programs existed to make them fun or practical to use.

Jarratt estimates it will take a decade before RFID is used universally.

Security: We'd all like to be safer. But just what, realistically, are we willing to do or spend in exchange for feeling secure?

That's the sort of question that Marsha Rhea, senior futurist at the Institute for Alternative Futures, says forward-thinking investors ought to consider when confronted with the latest can't-lose proposition.

"Sitting there and thinking about what could make this not the next big thing is usually a good thing to do," she said.

That sort of mental exercise prompts Andy Hines, a lecturer in futures studies at the University of Houston, Clear Lake, to question whether potential payoffs for investments in security technology are overstated.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the looming threat of additional terrorist assaults prompted the federal government to ramp up spending on security and related technologies. Americans, chilled by the vision of terrorists lurking in airport lounges and crossing borders undetected, largely accepted such expenditures as a rational response to an amplified threat.

But security spending is much like insurance. It only pays off when something goes wrong. So if no one attempts to board an aircraft with explosives on their shoes, people start to wonder if precautions against such an occurrence were necessary.

"One of the core questions we don't know the answer to," Hines said, "is, 'Are people going to be willing to pay for stuff that's inherently preventive?'"

 

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