Compact Midsize

_Open up the handheld-mode display panel (1) to turn the PDA into a videophone (2). Unfurl the desktop-mode display (3, 4, 5): Polymers along the flexible OLED edges stiffen when an electric charge is applied, keeping it open and flat. The versatile command-and-control panel varies with communicator function. A stylus and handwriting-recognition software allow the user to write and wirelessly send e-notes; the stylus doubles as a touchpointer for the interactive display._

Call it the smart communicator. In a few years, the functions in today’s personal digital assistant (PDA)–notebook, to-do list, calendar, contacts–will be the least of it. Thanks to a variant of Moore’s Law that says data-storage density doubles every 18 months, tomorrow’s smart communicator will hold 250GB–enough to store 55 movies.

Indeed, video–both viewing and recording–will be a killer app. One reason: “There will be phenomenal leaps forward in display technology,” says Hank Nothhaft, chairman and CEO of Danger Labs, maker of the SideKick PDA. Say good-bye to your PDA’s power-greedy liquid crystal display (LCD). Say hello to the smart communicator’s energy-efficient, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display. OLEDs use organic materials that emit light when electrically charged, so there’s no need for a backlight. Already found in some cellphones, OLEDs offer a wider viewing angle and faster refresh rate than LCDs, improving the look of everything from games to business graphics.

Another leap: high-speed wireless connectivity. As data-transfer speeds of 400 Kbps become standard, high-quality streaming video will become a reality. The potential of Bluetooth, a wireless technology with a range of about 30 feet, will also bloom on the smart communicator, giving it the ability to connect to remote keyboards and displays. “You’ll carry your whole life in your PDA,” says Scott Summit, designer of the award-winning Tapwave Zodiac PDA. “And any device next to it–a computer, a TV–will reconfigure to run from it.” Business travelers will be able to use it with screen-and-keyboard combos in hotel rooms and airports, where the device’s expanded mode, complete with projected keyboard, might be awkward.

The smart communicator will have its own nervous system: sensors that assess the outside world and adjust the device’s behavior accordingly. A built-in RFID (radio-frequency identification) reader will pick up data stored on RFID tags in nearby objects, so the PDA will automatically embed identification labels in the photos it takes. The onboard eye scanner will let you navigate pages with a mere glance at the menu bar. Light, heat and motion sensors will enable the device to know whether it’s in your pocket or your hand, and pump up its cellphone’s ring tone if needed. A tilt sensor will trigger the display to shift between portrait and landscape mode, and it’ll offer finger-free scrolling. The microphone will measure ambient noise and adjust the volume to compensate in a loud restaurant. The GPS will detect when you’re nearing home, and the communicator will signal ahead to turn on the heat or AC. Once you arrive, the Bluetooth network will automatically synchronize data between your communicator and your PC.

With so much personal information packed in it, you’d think your smart communicator would be worth 10 times its weight in platinum to an identity thief. And it would be, if not for the combination of software encryption and biometrics it will employ to keep criminals out. If you lose it, the thumbprint-sensing power switch will cause the screen to display a message asking the finder to return it to you. It’ll also secretly transmit its location via any available wireless network, so you can track it on a Web-based map. Don’t be surprised if the map’s blinking green dot is over your house–it just means you need to retrieve your smart communicator from under the sofa cushion.

On a side note:

Battery Blues
Whatever the super PDA looks like by 2010, everything in it will be smaller, faster and stronger. Everything, that is, but the battery. It’ll be incrementally better than today’s standard battery. You’ll have to wait another five years for a real pocket-size power revolution. That’s when membrane technology should increase the surface-area-to-volume ratio of fuel cells enough to make them practical for mobile use. And better fuel-flow management will help solve one of fuel cells’ most stubborn problems: handling variable power demands. Another possible solution is combining a fuel cell with a battery. The battery would supply power to the device, while the fuel cell would keep the battery juiced.