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The Future of Field Communications Technology
Blumberg uses his experience with the evolution of portable computer technology to predict the future of field terminals. He argues that mobile workers will soon regularly use technology once described only in science fiction stories, and speculates on what the next step beyond that will be.
Posted Sep 17, 2001
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I recently visited my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania--specifically, the Moore School of Electrical Engineering. At the time that I studied there, way back in the early 1950s, the top floor of the building was fully occupied with something quite new--the first general purpose electronic computer called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC). The ENIAC was a monster, weighing over three tons. It also cost more than $3 million, contained 18,000 vacuum tubes and tended to fail at least once an hour. A few years later, as a young Army officer, I was involved in the first attempt to create a field computer, a system for controlling artillery fire that weighed well over 350 pounds and was mounted on a Jeep. Punch cards were the primary input method for this system. The Army seriously considered making the cards out of edible stock so that if the unit was surrounded it could use the punch cards to make soup.

Today, less than 50 years later, the ENIAC technology is packaged smaller than a dime, weighs a few ounces and costs less than $50. The point is, simply, that information technology has been evolving so incredibly fast that what was once wild fiction can be converted into reality whenever the appropriate mix of market requirements, demand and underlying building modules is available.

For example, the old Dick Tracy watch envisioned in 1950s-era cartoons was a wrist size display with full voice communications capability--a wild stirring of the imagination at a time when computers weighed tons. One need only examine the current trade journals to recognize that the newest PDAs, such as he Palm m505, approximately $449, and the Sony CLIÉ at $499, are coming close to the fictional watch in size and capability. In addition, NTT DoCoMo's new WCDMA service, launched on May 30 in Japan, provides full wireless-based multimedia communications through cell phone PDA technology. Examining these and other new products helps us to predict what tools will be carried by mobile workers in days to come.

Future field force terminals will be palm size or smaller and will incorporate memory cards through an expansion slot to provide immediate access to information such as electronic repair manuals or configuration control data. Data entry will be provided through a stylus in conjunction with a flexible display or through direct voice recognition. Voice recognition technology from firms such as Datria is rapidly gaining sophistication, so full voice input can be used to replace the standard keyboard, dramatically cutting down the unit's footprint and weight. The unit, which will weigh only a few ounces and be shock-resistant and waterproof, will provide multimedia capabilities in conjunction with wireless service for voice, data, images and even teleconferencing. It will have GPS capabilities for sending position reports as well as providing real-time access to directions and routes. Probable cost will be approximately $400 per unit or less.

Is this the end of technology development for field personnel? Absolutely not. There will be an extrapolation of high-speed fighter jet pilot goggles or glasses, which will provide voice recognition and communications. Also, the movement of the wearer's eyes will enable cursor pointing and clicking on projected-image screens visible through the see-through surface of the glasses. This, you might argue, is too futuristic. I would suggest that this technology currently exists in a more expensive form in military development channels.

Returning to the original discussion on terminals, please consider the art concept of such a terminal and provide me with input as to its optimum size and dimensions, weight and other special features that you would like to see developed. I will then tally your responses and pass them on to vendors who are involved in product development, as well as report the survey results in a future column. E-mail me at dfba@dfba.com and type "field force terminal design" in the e-mail subject line.

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