Category Archives: fashion

The future of biometric identification and authentication

If you work in IT security, the first part of this will not be news to you, skip to the section on the future. Otherwise, the first sections look at the current state of biometrics and some of what we already know about their security limitations.

Introduction

I just read an article on fingerprint recognition. Biometrics has been hailed by some as a wonderful way of determining someone’s identity, and by others as a security mechanism that is far too easy to spoof. I generally fall in the second category. I don’t mind using it for simple unimportant things like turning on my tablet, on which I keep nothing sensitive, but so far I would never trust it as part of any system that gives access to my money or sensitive files.

My own history is that voice recognition still doesn’t work for me, fingerprints don’t work for me, and face recognition doesn’t work for me. Iris scan recognition does, but I don’t trust that either. Let’s take a quick look at conventional biometrics today and the near future.

Conventional biometrics

Fingerprint recognition.

I use a Google Nexus, made by Samsung. Samsung is in the news today because their Galaxy S5 fingerprint sensor was hacked by SRLabs minutes after release, not the most promising endorsement of their security competence.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/samsung/10769478/Galaxy-S5-fingerprint-scanner-hacked.html

This article says the sensor is used in the user authentication to access Paypal. That is really not good. I expect quite a few engineers at Samsung are working very hard indeed today. I expect they thought they had tested it thoroughly, and their engineers know a thing or two about security. Every engineer knows you can photograph a fingerprint and print a replica in silicone or glue or whatever. It’s the first topic of discussion at any Biometrics 101 meeting. I would assume they tested for that. I assume they would not release something they expected to bring instant embarrassment on their company, especially something failing by that classic mechanism. Yet according to this article, that seems to be the case. Given that Samsung is one of the most advanced technology companies out there, and that they can be assumed to have made reasonable effort to get it right, that doesn’t offer much hope for fingerprint recognition. If they don’t do it right, who will?

My own experience with fingerprint recognition history is having to join a special queue every day at Universal Studios because their fingerprint recognition entry system never once recognised me or my child. So I have never liked it because of false negatives. For those people for whom it does work, their fingerprints are all over the place, some in high quality, and can easily be obtained and replicated.

As just one token in multi-factor authentication, it may yet have some potential, but as a primary access key, not a chance. It will probably remain be a weak authenticator.

Face recognition

There are many ways of recognizing faces – visible light, infrared or UV, bone structure, face shapes, skin texture patterns, lip-prints, facial gesture sequences… These could be combined in simultaneous multi-factor authentication. The technology isn’t there yet, but it offers more hope than fingerprint recognition. Using the face alone is no good though. You can make masks from high-resolution photographs of people, and photos could be made using the same spectrum known to be used in recognition systems. Adding gestures is a nice idea, but in a world where cameras are becoming ubiquitous, it wouldn’t be too hard to capture the sequence you use. Pretending that a mask is alive by adding sensing and then using video to detect any inspection for pulse or blood flows or gesture requests and then to provide appropriate response is entirely feasible, though it would deter casual entry. So I am not encouraged to believe it would be secure unless and until some cleverer innovation occurs.

What I do know is that I set my tablet up to recognize me and it works about one time in five. The rest of the time I have to wait till it fails and then type in a PIN. So on average, it actually slows entry down. False negative again. Giving lots of false negatives without the reward of avoiding false positives is not a good combination.

Iris scans

I was a subject in one of the early trials for iris recognition. It seemed very promising. It always recognized me and never confused me with someone else. That was a very small scale trial though so I’d need a lot more convincing before I let it near my bank account. I saw the problem of replication an iris using a high quality printer and was assured that that couldn’t work because the system checks for the eye being alive by watching for jitter and shining a light and watching for pupil contraction. Call me too suspicious but I didn’t and don’t find that at all reassuring. It won’t be too long before we can make a thin sheet high-res polymer display layered onto a polymer gel underlayer that contracts under electric field, with light sensors built in and some software analysis for real time response. You could even do it as part of a mask with the rest of the face also faithfully mimicking all the textures, real-time responses, blood flow mimicking, gesture sequences and so on. If the prize is valuable enough to justify the effort, every aspect of the eyes, face and fingerprints could be mimicked. It may be more Mission Impossible than casual high street robbery but I can’t yet have any confidence that any part of the face or gestures would offer good security.

DNA

We hear frequently that DNA is a superbly secure authenticator. Every one of your cells can identify you. You almost certainly leave a few cells at the scene of a crime so can be caught, and because your DNA is unique, it must have been you that did it. Perfect, yes? And because it is such a perfect authenticator, it could be used confidently to police entry to secure systems.

No! First, even for a criminal trial, only a few parts of your DNA are checked, they don’t do an entire genome match. That already brings the chances of a match down to millions rather than billions. A chance of millions to one sounds impressive to a jury until you look at the figure from the other direction. If you have 1 in 70 million chance of a match, a prosecution barrister might try to present that as a 70 million to 1 chance that you’re guilty and a juror may well be taken in. The other side of that is that 100 people of the 7 billion would have that same 1 in 70 million match. So your competent defense barrister should  present that as only a 1 in 100 chance that it was you. Not quite so impressive.

I doubt a DNA system used commercially for security systems would be as sophisticated as one used in forensic labs. It will be many years before an instant response using large parts of your genome could be made economic. But what then? Still no. You leave DNA everywhere you go, all day, every day. I find it amazing that it is permitted as evidence in trials, because it is so easy to get hold of someone’s hairs or skin flakes. You could gather hairs or skin flakes from any bus seat or hotel bathroom or bed. Any maid in a big hotel or any airline cabin attendant could gather packets of tissue and hair samples and in many cases could even attach a name to them.  Your DNA could be found at the scene of any crime having been planted there by someone who simply wanted to deflect attention from themselves and get someone else convicted instead of them. They don’t even need to know who you are. And the police can tick the crime solved box as long as someone gets convicted. It doesn’t have to be the culprit. Think you have nothing to fear if you have done nothing wrong? Think again.

If someone wants to get access to an account, but doesn’t mind whose, perhaps a DNA-based entry system would offer good potential, because people perceive it as secure, whereas it simply isn’t. So it might not be paired with other secure factors. Going back to the maid or cabin attendant. Both are low paid. A few might welcome some black market bonuses if they can collect good quality samples with a name attached, especially a name of someone staying in a posh suite, probably with a nice account or two, or privy to valuable information. Especially if they also gather their fingerprints at the same time. Knowing who they are, getting a high res pic of their face and eyes off the net, along with some voice samples from videos, then making a mask, iris replica, fingerprint and if you’re lucky also buying video of their gesture patterns from the black market, you could make an almost perfect multi-factor biometric spoof.

It also becomes quickly obvious that the people who are the most valuable or important are also the people who are most vulnerable to such high quality spoofing.

So I am not impressed with biometric authentication. It sounds good at first, but biometrics are too easy to access and mimic. Other security vulnerabilities apply in sequence too. If your biometric is being measured and sent across a network for authentication, all the other usual IT vulnerabilities still apply. The signal could be intercepted and stored, replicated another time, and you can’t change your body much, so once your iris has been photographed or your fingerprint stored and hacked, it is useless for ever. The same goes for the other biometrics.

Dynamic biometrics

Signatures, gestures and facial expressions offer at least the chance to change them. If you signature has been used, you could start using a new one. You could sign different phrases each time, as a personal one-time key. You could invent new gesture sequences. These are really just an equivalent to passwords. You have to remember them and which one you use for which system. You don’t want a street seller using your signature to verify a tiny transaction and then risk the seller using the same signature to get right into your account.

Summary of status quo

This all brings us back to the most basic of security practice. You can only use static biometrics safely as a small part of a multi-factor system, and you have to use different dynamic biometrics such as gestures or signatures on a one time basis for each system, just as you do with passwords. At best, they provide a simple alternative to a simple password. At worst, they pair low actual security with the illusion of high security, and that is a very bad combination indeed.

So without major progress, biometrics in its conventional meaning doesn’t seem to have much of a future. If it is not much more than a novelty or a toy, and can only be used safely in conjunction with some proper security system, why bother at all?

The future

You can’t easily change your eyes or your DNA or you skin, but you can add things to your body that are similar to biometrics or interact with it but offer the flexibility and replaceability of electronics.

I have written frequently about active skin, using the skin as a platform for electronics, and I believe the various layers of it offer the best potential for security technology.

Long ago, RFID chips implants became commonplace in pets and some people even had them inserted too. RFID variants could easily be printed on a membrane and stuck onto the skin surface. They could be used for one time keys too, changing each time they are used. Adding accelerometers, magnetometers, pressure sensors or even location sensors could all offer ways of enhancing security options. Active skin allows easy combination of fingerprints with other factors.

 

Ultra-thin and uninvasive security patches could be stuck onto the skin, and could not be removed without damaging them, so would offer a potentially valuable platform. Pretty much any kinds and combinations of electronics could be used in them. They could easily be made to have a certain lifetime. Very thin ones could wash off after a few days so could be useful for theme park entry during holidays or for short term contractors. Banks could offer stick on electronic patches that change fundamentally how they work every month, making it very hard to hack them.

Active skin can go inside the skin too, not just on the surface. You could for example have an electronic circuit or an array of micro-scale magnets embedded among the skin cells in your fingertip. Your fingerprint alone could easily be copied and spoofed, but not the accompanying electronic interactivity from the active skin that can be interrogated at the same time. Active skin could measure all sorts of properties of the body too, so personal body chemistry at a particular time could be used. In fact, medical monitoring is the first key development area for active skin, so we’re likely to have a lot of body data available that could make new biometrics. The key advantage here is that skin cells are very large compared to electronic feature sizes. A decent processor or memory can be made around the size of one skin cell and many could be combined using infrared optics within the skin. Temperature or chemical gradients between inner and outer skin layers could be used to power devices too.

If you are signing something, the signature could be accompanied by a signal from the fingertip, sufficiently close to the surface being signed to be useful. A ring on a finger could also offer a voluminous security electronics platform to house any number of sensors, memory and processors.

Skin itself offers a reasonable communications route, able to carry a few Mbit’s of data stream, so touching something could allow a lot of data transfer very quickly. A smart watch or any other piece of digital jewelry or active skin security patch could use your fingertip to send an authentication sequence. The watch would know who you are by constant proximity and via its own authentication tools. It could easily be unauthorized instantly when detached or via a remote command.

Active makeup offer a novel mechanism too. Makeup will soon exist that uses particles that can change color or alignment under electronic control, potentially allowing video rate pattern changes. While that makes for fun makeup, it also allows for sophisticated visual authentication sequences using one-time keys. Makeup doesn’t have to be confined only to the face of course, and security makeup could maybe be used on the forearm or hands. Combining with static biometrics, many-factor authentication could be implemented.

I believe active skin, using membranes added or printed onto and even within the skin, together with the use of capsules, electronic jewelry, and even active makeup offers the future potential to implement extremely secure personal authentication systems. This pseudo-biometric authentication offers infinitely more flexibility and changeability than the body itself, but because it is attached to the body, offers much the same ease of use and constant presence as other biometrics.

Biometrics may be pretty useless as it is, but the field does certainly have a future. We just need to add some bits. The endless potential variety of those bits and their combinations makes the available creativity space vast.

 

 

The future of ‘authenticity’

I recently watched an interesting documentary on the evolution of the British coffee shop market. I then had an idea for a new chain that is so sharp it would scratch your display if I wrote it here, so I’ll keep that secret. The documentary left me with another thought: what’s so special about authentic?

I’ll blog as I think and see where I get to, if anywhere.

Starbucks and Costa sell coffee (for my American readers, Costa is a British version of Starbucks that sells better coffee but seems to agree they should pay tax just like the rest of us - yes I know Starbucks has since reformed a bit, but Costa didn’t have to). Cafe Nero (or is it just Nero?) sells coffee with the ‘Authentic Italian’ experience. I never knew that until I watched the documentary. Such things fly way over my head. If Nero is closest when I want a coffee, I’ll go in, and I know the coffee is nice, just like Costa is nice, but authentic Italian? Why the hell would I care about my coffee being authentic Italian? I don’t go anywhere to get an authentic Danish pastry or an authentic Australian beer, or an authentic Swiss cheese, or an authentic Coke. What has coffee got to do with Italy anyway? It’s a drink. I don’t care how they treat it in any particular country, even if they used to make it nicer there. The basic recipes and techniques for making a decent coffee were spread worldwide decades ago, and it’s the coffee I want. Anyway, we use a Swiss coffee machine with Swiss coffee at home, not Italian, because the Swiss learned from their Italian sub-population and then added their usual high precision materials and engineering and science, they didn’t just take it as gospel that Mama somehow knew best. And because my wife is Swiss. My razor sharp idea isn’t a Swiss coffee chain by the way.

I therefore wonder how many other people who go into Cafe Nero care tuppence whether they are getting an authentic Italian experience, or whether like me they just want a decent coffee and it seems a nice enough place. I can understand the need to get the best atmosphere, ambiance, feel, whatever you want to call it. I can certainly understand that people might want a cake or snack to go with their coffee. I just don’t understand the desire to associate with another country. Italy is fine for a visit; I have nothing against Italians, but neither do I aspire in any way to be or behave Italian.

Let’s think it through a bit. An overall experience is made up of a large number of components: quality and taste of the coffee and snacks, natural or synthetic, healthy or naughty, the staff and the nature of the service, exterior and interior decor and color scheme, mixture of aromas, range of foods, size of cake portion, ages groups and tribal ranges of other customers, comfort of furnishings, lighting levels, wireless LAN access….. There are hundreds of factors. The potential range of combinations  is massive. People can’t handle all that information when they want a coffee, so they need an easy way to decide quickly. ‘Italian’ is really just a brand, reducing the choice stress and Cafe Nero is just adopting a set of typical brand values evolved by an entire nation over centuries. I guess that makes some sense.

But not all that much sense. The Italian bit is a nice shortcut, but once it’s taken out of Italy, whatever it might be, it isn’t in Italy any more. The customers are not expected to order in Italian apart beyond a few silly words to describe the size of the coffee. The customers mostly aren’t Italian, don’t look Italian, don’t chat in Italian and don’t behave Italian. The weather isn’t Italian. The views outside aren’t Italian. The architecture isn’t Italian. So only a few bits of the overall experience can be Italian, the overall experience just isn’t. If only a few bits are authentic, why bother? Why not just extract some insights of what things about ‘Italian’ customers find desirable and then adapt them to the local market? Perhaps what they have done, so if they just drop the pretense, everything would be fine. They can’t honestly say they offer an authentic Italian experience, just a few components of such. I never noticed their supposed Italianness anyway but I hate pretentiousness so now that I understand their offering, it adds up to a slight negative for me. Now that I know they are pretending to be Italian, I will think twice before using them again, but still will if it’s more than a few metres further to another coffee shop. Really, I just want a coffee and possibly a slice of cake, in a reasonably warm and welcoming coffee shop.

Given that it is impossible to provide an ‘authentic Italian experience’ outside of Italy without also simulating every aspect of being in Italy, how authentic could they be in the future? What is the future of authenticity? Could Cafe Nero offer a genuinely Italian experience if that’s what they really wanted? Bring on VR, AR, direct brain links, sensory recording and replay. Total Recall.  Yes they could, sort of. With a full sensory full immersion system, you could deliver an experience that is real and authentic in every sense except that it isn’t real. In 2050, you could sell a seemingly genuinely authentic Italian coffee and cake in a genuinely Italian atmosphere, anywhere. But when they do that, I’ll download that onto my home coffee machine or my digital jewelry. Come to think about it, I could just drink water and eat bread and do all the rest virtually. Full authenticity, zero cost.

This Total Recall style virtual holiday or virtual coffee is fine as far as it goes, but a key problem is knowing that it isn’t real. If you disable that by hypnosis or drugs or surgery or implants or Zombie tech, then your Matrix style world will have some other issues to worry about that are more important. If you don’t, and I’m pretty sure we won’t, then knowing the difference between real and virtual will be all-important. If you know it isn’t real, it pushes a different set of buttons in your brain.

In parallel, as AI gets more and more powerful, a lot of things will be taken over by machines. That adds to the total work pool of man + machine so the economy expands and we’re all better off, if we do it right. We can even restore and improve the environment at the same time. In that world, some roles will still be occupied by humans. People will focus more on human skills, human interaction, crafts, experiences, care, arts and entertainment, sports, and especially offering love and attention. I call it the Care Economy. If you take two absolutely identical items, one provided by a machine and one by another person, the one offered by the person will be more valued, and therefore more valuable – apart from a tiny geek market that specifically wants machines. Don’t believe me? Think of the high price glassware you keep for special occasions and dinner parties. Cut by hand by an expert with years of training. Each glass is slightly different from every other. In one sense it is shoddy workmanship compared to the mass-produced glass, precision made, all identical, that costs 1% as much. The human involvement is absolutely critical. The key human involvement is that you know you couldn’t possibly do it, that it took a highly skilled craftsman. You aren’t buying just the glass, but the skills and attention and dedication and time of the craftsman. In just the same way, you will happily pay a bigger proportion of your bigger future income for other people’s time. Virtual is fine and cheap, but you’ll happily pay far more for the real thing. That will greatly offset the forces pushing towards a totally virtual experience.

This won’t happen overnight, and that brings us to another force that plays out over the same time. When we use a phrase like ‘authentic Italian’, we don’t normally put a date on it. Do we mean contemporary Italy, 1960 Italy, or what? If 1960, then we’d have to use a lot of virtual tech to simulate it. If we mean contemporary, then that includes all the virtual stuff that goes on in Italy too, which is likely pretty much what happens virtually elsewhere. A large proportion of our everyday will be virtual. How can you have authentic virtual? When half of what everyone sees every day isn’t real, you could no more have an authentic Italian coffee bar than an authentic hobbit hole in Middle Earth.

Authenticity is a term that can already only be applied to a subset of properties of a particular component. A food item or a drink could be authentic in terms of its recipe and taste, origin and means of production of the ingredients, perhaps even served by an Italian, but the authenticity of the surrounding context is doomed to be more and more limited. Does it matter though? I don’t think so.

The more I think about it, the less I care if it is in any way authentic. I want a pleasing product served by pleasant human staff in a pleasant atmosphere. I care about the various properties and attributes in an absolute sense, and I also care whether they are provided by human or machine, but the degree to which they mimic some particular tradition really doesn’t add any value for me. I am very happy to set culture free to explore the infinite potential of imagination and make an experience as enjoyable as possible.  Authenticity is just a labelled cage, and we’re better if it is unlocked. I want real pleasure, not pretend pleasure, but authenticity is increasingly becoming a pretense.

Oh, my razor sharp idea? As I said, it’s secret.

 

 

The internet of things will soon be history

I’ve been a full time futurologist since 1991, and an engineer working on far future R&D stuff since I left uni in 1981. It is great seeing a lot of the 1980s dreams about connecting everything together finally starting to become real, although as I’ve blogged a bit recently, some of the grander claims we’re seeing for future home automation are rather unlikely. Yes you can, but you probably won’t, though some people will certainly adopt some stuff. Now that most people are starting to get the idea that you can connect things and add intelligence to them, we’re seeing a lot of overshoot too on the importance of the internet of things, which is the generalised form of the same thing.

It’s my job as a futurologist not only to understand that trend (and I’ve been yacking about putting chips in everything for decades) but then to look past it to see what is coming next. Or if it is here to stay, then that would also be an important conclusion too, but you know what, it just isn’t. The internet of things will be about as long lived as most other generations of technology, such as the mobile phone. Do you still have one? I don’t, well I do but they are all in a box in the garage somewhere. I have a general purpose mobile computer that happens to do be a phone as well as dozens of other things. So do you probably. The only reason you might still call it a smartphone or an iPhone is because it has to be called something and nobody in the IT marketing industry has any imagination. PDA was a rubbish name and that was the choice.

You can stick chips in everything, and you can connect them all together via the net. But that capability will disappear quickly into the background and the IT zeitgeist will move on. It really won’t be very long before a lot of the things we interact with are virtual, imaginary. To all intents and purposes they will be there, and will do wonderful things, but they won’t physically exist. So they won’t have chips in them. You can’t put a chip into a figment of imagination, even though you can make it appear in front of your eyes and interact with it. A good topical example of this is the smart watch, all set to make an imminent grand entrance. Smart watches are struggling to solve battery problems, they’ll be expensive too. They don’t need batteries if they are just images and a fully interactive image of a hugely sophisticated smart watch could also be made free, as one of a million things done by a free app. The smart watch’s demise is already inevitable. The energy it takes to produce an image on the retina is a great deal less than the energy needed to power a smart watch on your wrist and the cost of a few seconds of your time to explain to an AI how you’d like your wrist to be accessorised is a few seconds of your time, rather fewer seconds than you’d have spent on choosing something that costs a lot. In fact, the energy needed for direct retinal projection and associated comms is far less than can be harvested easily from your body or the environment, so there is no battery problem to solve.

If you can do that with a smart watch, making it just an imaginary item, you can do it to any kind of IT interface. You only need to see the interface, the rest can be put anywhere, on your belt, in your bag or in the IT ether that will evolve from today’s cloud. My pad, smartphone, TV and watch can all be recycled.

I can also do loads of things with imagination that I can’t do for real. I can have an imaginary wand. I can point it at you and turn you into a frog. Then in my eyes, the images of you change to those of a frog. Sure, it’s not real, you aren’t really a frog, but you are to me. I can wave it again and make the building walls vanish, so I can see the stuff on sale inside. A few of those images could be very real and come from cameras all over the place, the chips-in-everything stuff, but actually, I don’t have much interest in most of what the shop actually has, I am not interested in most of the local physical reality of a shop; what I am far more interested in is what I can buy, and I’ll be shown those things, in ways that appeal to me, whether they’re physically there or on Amazon Virtual. So 1% is chips-in-everything, 99% is imaginary, virtual, some sort of visual manifestation of my profile, Amazon Virtual’s AI systems, how my own AI knows I like to see things, and a fair bit of other people’s imagination to design the virtual decor, the nice presentation options, the virtual fauna and flora making it more fun, and countless other intermediaries and extramediaries, or whatever you call all those others that add value and fun to an experience without actually getting in the way. All just images directly projected onto my retinas. Not so much chips-in-everything as no chips at all except a few sensors, comms and an infinitesimal timeshare of a processor and storage somewhere.

A lot of people dismiss augmented reality as irrelevant passing fad. They say video visors and active contact lenses won’t catch on because of privacy concerns (and I’d agree that is a big issue that needs to be discussed and sorted, but it will be discussed and sorted). But when you realise that what we’re going to get isn’t just an internet of things, but a total convergence of physical and virtual, a coming together of real and imaginary, an explosion of human creativity,  a new renaissance, a realisation of yours and everyone else’s wildest dreams as part of your everyday reality; when you realise that, then the internet of things suddenly starts to look more than just a little bit boring, part of the old days when we actually had to make stuff and you had to have the same as everyone else and it all cost a fortune and needed charged up all the time.

The internet of things is only starting to arrive. But it won’t stay for long before it hides in the cupboard and disappears from memory. A far, far more exciting future is coming up close behind. The world of creativity and imagination. Bring it on!

Active Skin – an old idea whose time is coming

Active Skin

In May 2001, while working in BT research, I had an idea – how we could use the skin surface as a new platform for electronics. I grabbed a few of my colleagues - Robin Mannings, Dennis Johnston, Ian Neild, and Paul Bowman, and we shut ourselves in a room for a few hours to brainstorm it. We originally intended to patent some of the ideas, but they weren’t core business for a telecoms company like BT so that never happened.

Now, 12.5 years on, it is too late to extract any value from a patent, but some of the technologies are starting to appear around the world as prototypes by various labs and companies, so it’s time is drawing near. We never did publish the ideas, though a few did make it out via various routes and I talk about active skin in my writings more generally. So I thought I’d serialise some of the ideas list now – there are lots. This one will just be the intro.

Introduction

Today we have implants in the body, and wearable devices such as watches and cell-phones in regular proximity to our bodies, with a much looser affiliation to other forms of electronics such as palmtops and other computers. With recent advances in miniaturisation, print technology and polymer based circuits, a new domain is now apparent but as yet unexploited, and offers enormous potential business for a nimble first-mover. The domain is the skin itself, where the body meets the rest of the world. We have called it active skin, and it has a wide range of potential applications.

Active skin layers

Stimulated by MIT work in late 1990s that has shown that the skin can be used as a communications medium, a logical progression is to consider what other uses it might be put to. What we proposed is a multi-layer range of devices.Slide2

(actually, this original pic wasn’t drawn quite right. The transfer layer sits just on the skin, not in it.)

The innermost ‘tattoo layer’ is used for smart tattoos, which are permanently imprinted into the lower layers of the skin. These layers do not wear or wash away.

The next ‘mid-term’ layer is the upper layers of the skin, which wear away gradually over time.

Above this we move just outside to the ‘transfer layer’. Children frequently wear ‘tattoos’ that are actually just transfers that stick onto the skin surface, frequently on a thin polymer base. They are fairly robust against casual contact, but can be removed fairly easily.

The final ‘detachable layer’ is occupied by fully removable devices that are only worn on a temporary basis, but which interact with the layers below.

Above this is the ‘wearable layer; the domain of the normal everyday gadget such as a watch.

A big advantage for this field is that space is not especially limited, so devices can be large in one or two dimensions. However, they must be flexible and very thin to be of use in this domain and be more comfortable than the useful alternatives.

And another new book: You Tomorrow, 2nd Edition

I wrote You Tomorrow two years ago. It was my first ebook, and pulled together a lot of material I’d written on the general future of life, with some gaps then filled in. I was quite happy with it as a book, but I could see I’d allowed quite a few typos to get into the final work, and a few other errors too.

However, two years is a long time, and I’ve thought about a lot of new areas in that time. So I decided a few months ago to do a second edition. I deleted a bit, rearranged it, and then added quite a lot. I also wrote the partner book, Total Sustainability. It includes a lot of my ideas on future business and capitalism, politics and society that don’t really belong in You Tomorrow.

So, now it’s out on sale on Amazon

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-humanity-belongings-surroundings/dp/1491278269/ in paper, at £9.00 and

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-Ian-Pearson-ebook/dp/B00G8DLB24 in ebook form at £3.81 (guessing the right price to get a round number after VAT is added is beyond me. Did you know that paper books don’t have VAT added but ebooks do?)

And here’s a pretty picture:

You_Tomorrow_Cover_for_Kindle

Font size is becoming too small

Warning: rant, no futures insights enclosed.

Last night, we went for a very pleasant meal with friends. The restaurant was in a lovely location, the service was excellent, the food was excellent. The only irritating thing was a pesky fly. However, for some reason, the menu was written on nice paper in 6 point text with about 15mm line spacing. Each line went about 2/3 of the way across the page. I hadn’t brought my reading glasses so was forced to read small text at arm’s length where it was still blurred.

My poor vision is not the restaurant’s fault. But I do have to ask why there is such a desire across seemingly every organisation now to print everything possible with the tiniest font they can manage? Even when there is lots of space available, fonts are typically tiny. Serial numbers are the worst culprits. My desktop PC is normal tower size and has its serial number printed on a tiny label in 1mm font. Why? Even my hated dishwasher uses a 2mm font size and that stretches my vision to its limits.

Yes, I am ageing, but that isn’t a crime. When I was a school-kid, I took great pride in irritating my teachers by writing with the finest tipped ball-pen I could get (Bic extra-fine) in the smallest writing I could manage. I rarely submitted a homework without getting some comment back on my writing size. But then I grew up.

It makes me wonder whether increased printer capability is a problem rather than an asset. Yes, you can now print at 2000 dpi or more, and a character only needs a small grid  so you can print small enough that a magnifying glass is needed for anyone to be able to read the text. But being physically able to print that small doesn’t actually make it compulsory. So why does it make it irresistible to many people?

When I do conference presentations, if I use text at all, I make sure it is at least 16pt, preferably bigger. If it won’t fit, I re-do the wording until it does. Some conferences that employ ‘designers’ come up with slide designs that contain a massive conference logo, bars on the side and bottom, title half way down the page, and any actual material has to be shrunk to fit in a small region of the slide with eye-straining font sizes on any key data. I generally refuse to comply when a conference employs such an idiot, but they are breeding fast. If someone can’t easily read text from the back row, it is too small. It isn’t actually the pinnacle of cool design to make it illegible.

Mobiles have small displays and small type is sometimes unavoidable, but even so, why design a wireless access login page with a minuscule login box that takes up a tiny fraction of the page? If there is nothing else on the page of any consequence apart from that login details box, why not fill the display with it? Why make it a millimetre high, and have loads of empty space and some branding crap, so that a user has to spend ages stretching it to make it the important bit usable? What is the point?

To me, good design isn’t about making something that is pretty, that can eventually be used after a great deal of effort. It is about making something that does the job perfectly and simply and is pretty. A good designer can achieve form, simplicity of use and function. Only poor designers have to pick one and ignore the others.

The current trend to make text smaller and smaller is pointless and counter-productive. It will cause eye problems for younger people later in their lives. It certainly discriminates against a large proportion of the population that needs glasses. Worse, it does so without no clear benefit. Reading tiny text isn’t especially pleasurable compared to larger text. It reduces quality of life for many without increasing it for anyone else.

It is time to end this stupid trend and send designers back to school if they are somehow convinced that illegibility is some sort of artistic goal.

The primary purpose of text is to communicate. If people can’t easily read the text on your design, the communication is impeded, and your design is therefore crap. If you think you know better, and that tiny text is more attractive and that is what really counts, you should go back to school. Or find a better school and go to that one.

Casual displays

I had a new idea. If I was adventurous or an entrepreneur, I’d develop it, but I’m not, so I won’t. But you can, before Apple patents it. Or maybe they already have.

Many people own various brands of pads, but they are generally expensive, heavy, fragile and need far too much charging. That’s because they try to be high powered computers. Even e-book readers have too much functionality for some display purposes and that creates extra expense. I believe there is a large market for more casual displays that are cheap enough to throw around at all sorts of tasks that don’t need anything other than the ability to change and hold a display.

Several years ago, Texas Instruments invented memory spots, that let people add multimedia to everyday objects. The spots could hold a short video for example, and be stuck on any everyday object.These were a good idea, but one of very many good ideas competing for attention by development engineers. Other companies have also had similar ideas. However, turning the idea around, spots like this could be used to hold data for a  display, and could be programmed by a similar pen-like device or even a finger touch. Up to 2Mb/s can be transmitted through the skin surface.

Cheap displays that have little additional functionality could be made cheaply and use low power. If they are cheap enough, less than ten pounds say, they could be used for many everyday purposes where cards or paper are currently used. And since they are cheap, there could be many of them. With a pad, it has to do many tasks. A casual display would do only one. You could have them all over the place, as recipe cards, photos, pieces of art, maps, books, body adornment, playing cards, messages, birthday cards, instructions, medical advice, or anything. For example:

Friend cards could act as a pin-board reminder of a friend, or sit in a wallet or handbag. You might have one for each of several best friends. A touch of the spot would update the card with the latest photo or status from Facebook or another social site. Or it could be done via a smart phone jack. But since the card only has simple functionality  it would stay cheap. It does nothing that can’t also be done by a smartphone or pad, but the point is that it doesn’t have to. It is always the friend card. The image would stay. It doesn’t need anything to be clicked or charged up. It only needs power momentarily to change the picture.

There are displays that can hold pictures without power that are postcard sized, for less than £10. Adding a simple data storage chip and drivers shouldn’t add significantly to cost. So this idea should be perfectly feasible. We should be able to have lots of casual displays all over our houses and offices if they don’t have to do numerous other things. In the case of displays, less may mean more.

The future of gender

My writing on the future of gender now forms a section of my new book You Tomorrow, Second Edition, on the future of humanity, gender, lifestyle and our surroundings. Available from Amazon as paper and ebook.

or

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-humanity-belongings-surroundings/dp/1491278269

 

Flat lenses – oozing potential

Lenses used to be curved. Not in the future thanks to Harvard scientists: https://www.seas.harvard.edu/news-events/press-releases/flat-lens-offers-perfect-image and http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/nl302516v.

Ht http://nextbigfuture.com/ for making me aware.

Flat antennas aren’t new per se, phased array radio antennas have been around decades, but this is the first optical flat lens I am aware of. Theirs is pretty damned clever!

They are already looking at applications such as flat microscope objectives, and have probably covered most of the biggest opportunities. But just in case, and researchers do occasionally miss some opportunities, here are a few for free:

Kite telescopes

NASA are currently flying a 747-based telescope, chucking out huge quantities of water vapour into the high atmosphere, contributing to global warming to take over from their space shuttles. Ironic that such a warmist organisation should do that, but there we go. A large flat surface telescope could presumably be made into a high altitude kite, albeit one that needs a little engineering. And it wouldn’t add to stratospheric water vapour, or even add CO2.

High altitude telescopes could be used for ground imaging as well as space of course, and there would be many commercially viable businesses from this root, as well as military surveillance of course.

Smart glasses and contact lenses

I would like a pair of glasses that record everything I look at. Flat surface cameras would allow this. Glasses are much bigger than my pupil, so they could allow much higher resolution, so I’d be able to see at very high magnification without having to use binoculars. I’d also be able to see infrared, microwaves, see where the strongest cellphone signal is, enable a whole new kind of fashion using different spectra, add to augmented reality hugely by using the infrared channel to show real as well as digital auras. Wow, can’t wait for these! I am playing Assassin’s Creed again, and this is Eagle Sense and then some.

Of course, active contact lenses could also use this tech and offer intuitive optional zoom. I would see the world as normal, but by trying to focus on something in the distance, it would zoom in automatically. There have only been a few updates to my original active contact lens idea from 1991, http://www.futurizon.com/inventions/activecontactlensmay91.pdf but this will be another generation for its 21st anniversary.

Credit card cameras

The smartphone is causing the decline of standalone digital cameras. Digital jewellery will cause the decline of smartphones, but one of the things we still needed them for is the camera. Not any more. A simple credit card camera would work fine. Or maybe even a wristband could be used. Flat cameras will hasten the decline of smartphones.

Smart posters

If they can be printed cheaply, cameras could be built into much of the urban environment. Any poster could have video capture and storage built in, powered by solar, with some comms added too. What and who it sees could direct what it displays. Sure, you can do all that and then some with augmented reality, but augmented reality is a whole load of additional functionality that lives happily alongside other stuff, and doesn’t necessarily replace everything. Posters could be the next wave of Big Brother or the next wave of advertising. Or both.

Teletubby T-shirts revisited

When the Teletubbies were still new, I suggested that we’d be able to make clothes with video panels in using polymer screens. Teletubby t-shirts. Flat panel cameras would allow these to be two way. They could display images but also act as a cameras. They could link to cameras in other people’s t-shirts. You could have a camera on your back that links to the video image on your front, making you appear to have a big hole through you.

Thought recognition and smart microwaves

Wired carries another interesting article on brain wave recognition of PINs via the headsets used to play computer games. Old stuff in idea terms perhaps but it’s always nice to see practice catching up. http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/08/brainwave-hacking/

It seems obvious that this could work nicely with the flat lens idea. A flat surface could image the electrical activity in the brain from a greater distance instead of having to use a helmet.

It would also be possible to put flat cameras on the inside surfaces of microwave ovens, looking at the food to see where the hot spots and cold spots are, so that the microwave beams could be directed better to the areas needing heated.

I think that’s enough for now.

What do solar panels on your roof say about you?

I mostly work from home and since my office is just a short walk from the bedroom, lounge or kitchen, I have started going on short walks round the neighbourhood to avoid becoming fat. I noticed some of my neighbours have covered their south-facing roofs with solar panels.

What image did they convey? Here is a multiple choice:

a) I had some spare cash and wanted to get a big return on my investment and solar panels offer a fantastic return.

b) I had a guy come round promising me lots of cash if I let him put panels on my roof.

c) I hate paying big greedy companies for energy and paying too much taxes, so am very keen to take full advantage when there is a means to get my own back.

d) I really love technology and am keen to demonstrate it.

e) I want everyone to know what a nice person I am looking after the environment.

f) I want to do my bit for the environment and solar panels are a good way to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and reduce CO2 emissions.

g) I want my kids to live in a sustainable world and that is far more important than the appearance of my house.

I get the impression that each of the above would have some people ticking them. Some would tick several.

Well, I did have a guy come round offering me cash if he would let me stick panels on my roof too. I sent him away, mainly because I am a not an idiot. I had thought it through long before he came. Let me explain what image solar panels on a roof conjure up in my mind when I see them. And bear in mind that my full-time job is as a futurist and I think systemically about how people will behave over the longer term. Using the same tick list, with alternative answers:

a) I wanted a fantastic return on my investment and I don’t care at all that it is other people with less cash to invest who will pay that high return. So I am  greedy and selfish. As the recession lingers on, some people may be tempted to spray nasty messages on my door or run keys down my car doors or shame me on social networking sites, and maybe my family will live in fear or I will be forced to remove them. So I am an idiot too. I am a greedy selfish idiot.

b) I was fully taken in by a door to door salesman and didn’t understand that I could easily commission the panels myself so was happy to give most of the returns to a company who won’t have to suffer the drop in value of my home or the unsightliness, or the maintenance problems they will cause, or the hassle when I move or any other problems. So I am a first class idiot.

c) If energy companies can’t get as much from the energy they sell, they will try to increase the rental and maintenance and billing charges to maintain their revenue. And that means I will get less net profit from any energy I put back into the grid. So I probably won’t save much on what I buy and won’t make much on what I put back. And when I sell my house, even though I will get less for it because the panels make it look awful, I will probably lose heavily again in various admin fees to transfer the solar contracts over to the buyer, who probably won’t get the same deal, so won’t pay me much for it. So I am not as canny as I thought and my returns will be far less, so I am an idiot.

d) As long as I have the latest panels I will look cool and trendy. But they won’t be the latest panels for more than a few months, after which they will quickly start to look obsolete as well as unsightly, so I will have to either reinvest regularly or accept looking like a loser. So I am an idiot.

e) I care for the environment but not enough to do any basic reading and can’t think for myself anyway. I have been fully taken in by the anthropogenic global warming scam and as the global warming panic changes to global cooling panic I will increasingly be labelled as one of the idiots who went along with the AGW panic and just did what the environmentalists told me to do. I am a well-meaning idiot with little or no independent thought. Still an idiot though.

f) Solar panels will one day be an excellent way of reducing CO2 emissions, albeit in sunny countries. However, they are darker and absorb more of the sun’s energy than the roof did previously, so contribute directly to warming the earth, and manufacturing them creates loads of pollutants today, so it isn’t really quite as simple is it? And anyway, maybe we should have waited and put our panels in later, in the Sahara, and got far more energy for far lower costs, while helping poor African economies. And we now know for certain that the impact of CO2 has been greatly exaggerated and is fairly small compared to other impacts on global temperature. On the other hand, as global cooling sets in, we will welcome the extra heat absorption and I’ll be able to get my energy while helping warm the earth. But I didn’t expect it, so am a lucky idiot who landed in poo and came out smelling of roses.

g) I am holier than you are. You obviously don’t care about your kids and their future. I do, aren’t I wonderful? But I can’t think clearly so am happy to do make some ill-informed token gestures instead of things that actually help. So I am a sanctimonious idiot.

At the moment, public opinion hasn’t had time to catch up and many people are still influenced by AGW panic. But it will. Give it a while, and attitudes will migrate from the first list to the second.

I am all in favour of solar energy in the future in some sunny areas. It has an important role to play, but it isn’t as squeaky clean as it initially looks. It doesn’t need subsidised. When the technology is mature, it will be far cheaper than many other forms of energy, but it isn’t there yet. Since global warming has stopped for 15 years or more now, and it looks more and more like we are heading into a prolonged period of cooling, there is no economic or environmental justification for installing subsidised solar. If it indeed helps the environment overall, it will be far better to invest the same amount later, when we can buy more and help more. There is certainly no cause for panic based subsidies. In the short term they move money from the poor to the greedy, and in the longer term, even those people will lose out. Even the companies installing them can’t seem to survive because of the rapid technology evolution, making their investments in stock worthless and changes in subsidies undermining their business models. It really seems that there are no winners from early investment.

One day, in some places and circumstances, it may be a great idea, but for now, across the UK, rooftop solar power is for greedy, selfish, sanctimonious idiots.