IBM has announced its fifth annual Next Five in Five – a list of five technologies that the company believes “have the potential to change the way people work, live and play over the next five years.” While there are no flying cars or robot servants on the list, there are holographic friends, air-powered batteries, personal environmental sensors, customized commutes and building-heating computers.

3D telepresence

It may not be a flying car, but it’s definitely one we’ve seen in sci-fi movies before – the ability to converse with a life-size holographic image of another person in real time. The futurists at IBM point to recent advances in 3D cameras and movies, predicting that holography chat (aka 3D telepresence) can’t be all that far behind. Already, the University of Arizona has unveiled a system that can transmit holographic images in near-real-time.

It is also predicted that 3D visualization could be applied to data, allowing researchers to “step inside” software programs (wasn’t that just in a movie?), computer models, or pretty much anything else that is limited by a simple 2D screen. IBM compares it to the way in which the Earth appears undistorted when we experience it first-hand in three dimensions, yet it appears pinched at the top and bottom when we see it on a two-dimensional world map.

Air-powered or non-existent batteries

Lithium-air batteries are already in the works, and IBM predicts that batteries “that use the air we breath to react with energy-dense metal” will result in smaller, lighter rechargeable batteries that last ten times longer than today’s lithium-ion variety. While such batteries could be used in everything from cars to home appliances, it is also suggested that small items such as mobile phones might not need batteries at all. IBM is trying to reduce the amount power required for such devices to less than 0.5 volts per transistor. At those rates, it is claimed, they could be powered via “energy scavenging” – like already-existing kinetic wrist watches that get their power from the user’s arm movements, or experimental piezoelectric devices.

Personal sensors creating “citizen scientists”

As it currently stands, most scientific data must be gathered by scientists, who have to go out in the field and set up sensors or other data recording devices. Within five years, however, a lot of that data could be gathered and transmitted by sensors in our phones, cars, wallets, computers, or just about anything else that is subjected to the real world. Such sensors could be used to create massive data sets used for everything from fighting global warming to tracking invasive species. IBM also sees custom scientific smartphone apps playing a part in “citizen science,” and has already launched an app called Creek Watch, that allows us regular folks to update the local water authority on creek conditions.

Customized commutes

Invaluable as Mapquest and other online mapping services have become to many of us, apparently it’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the not-so-distant future, says IBM, sensors and other data sources (such as the aforementioned citizen scientists, perhaps?) will provide a continuous stream of information on traffic conditions, road construction, public transit schedules, and other factors that could affect your commute. When you inquire about the quickest way of getting from A to B, computer systems will do more than simply consulting a map – they will also take into account all the variables unique to that day and time, combine them with mathematical models and predictive analytics technologies, and advise a route accordingly. It is also possible that, utilizing such data, traffic management systems could learn traffic patterns, and self-adjust themselves to minimize congestion.

Harvesting computer heat

It is estimated that half of the energy consumed by data centers goes toward cooling computer processors, with most of the removed hot air simply being blown into the atmosphere. Instead, IBM sees that heat being captured to warm the air in other areas of the building, to heat water, or to be converted into electricity. The company has already developed an on-chip water-cooling system for computer clusters, which is being demonstrated on the Swiss Aquasar supercomputer. It utilizes a network of microfluidic capillaries inside a heat sink, attached to the surface of each chip. Water flows within a few microns of the semiconductor material, picks up heat from it, then pipes the warm water to a heat exchanger – from there, the cooled water returns to the computers, within a closed loop system.

As with last year’s list, given that all of these technologies are already in experimental use, it’s a pretty good bet that they will indeed one day find their way our lives. Whether that day is within the next five years, however, is another question.

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