As the telecommunications industry races to implement 4th generation communications technology, it is worth looking back to see both where the industry has come from and speculating as to where it is likely to go. What might the 5th and 6th generation electronics look like?
The first generation cell phones, introduced in the early 1980s, relied on radio frequencies to transmit analog signals.
Second generation phones used a digital signal to process mainly calls through circuit switching. The first phones were introduced in the early 1990s. Although later models integrated some packet switching and the ability to send and receive data, the phone was still mainly a phone and transmission speeds were low.
Third generation technology relied exclusively on packet switching to transmit signals. This allowed the software to handle voice, data, and video. Users could browse the Internet and transmission speeds were much higher. The first 3G phones were introduced in the early part of this century. Users could not only receive non voice data, they could send it. This opened the way for including other capacities such as a camera and GPS into the device.
The fourth generation of phone, just being introduced, are fully integrated into the Internet with transmission speeds that approach or surpass broadband and allow the user to move between different modes of connecting to the Internet. The ability to integrate data from a microphone, camera, GPS device, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass and other devices enabled a large range of apps. Fast wireless connections expanded these apps by allowing this information to interact with remote databases. It also allowed 4G phones to access the cloud for unlimited storage and processing power.
Progress has therefore been measured along two directions: the ability to seamlessly handle all forms of data, not just voice, and the speed of transmission. In addition, advances in computing and material sciences have allowed phones with any given capacity to become smaller and more versatile.
Given this, where might the future lead? I believe that 5th generation phones will increasingly integrate the Internet with reality. Packet switching and fast transmission speeds allow users to access unlimited amounts of data of all types. Very often this data is most useful when applied to the physical world in which users live. Already, applications allow users to look at a scene through their lens and see data layered on top of their view. This will be much more useful as display technology continues to develop. Rather than calling up directions to a store, individuals might call up a visual yellow brick road that projects onto their eyeglasses and points the way. When you go shopping, current software can tell you whether any of your friends are already at the mall. Fifth generation software will continue to fully integrate the real with the virtual.
What is left? Sixth generation might then integrate the communications system with our bodies so that we are truly connected to the Internet wherever we are. As miniaturization continues we will be able to implant components directly into ourselves. Cochlear implants are already well developed technology and scientists are working on implanting tiny cameras that send electronic signals to blind people. Paraplegics are having circuitry implanted directly into their brains so that they can control things remotely. As the reality of virtual worlds increases, it may become increasingly difficult to distinguish the virtual from the present. Both may lay the same claim to being real.