ETel Conference: Peter Cochrane's Future

by Bruce Stewart

Peter Cochrane gave us a glimpse of an exciting future during his ETel keynote, and he's well-positioned to speak to such things. Formerly the CTO of British Telecom's prestigious reseach lab, the UK's first professor for Public Understanding of Science & Technology at Bristol, and a prolific author, Cochrane has been a key figure watching, studying, and participating in the march of technology throughout his life. He got a chuckle by mentioning that he's lately been donating some of his early gear to a technology museum, and it was a little unsettling how excited they were about it.

Cochrane believes the next 20 years will see more change than we've seen in the previous 200, and the next decades will see revolutionary changes in communications technology. He's now working with children who have been online their whole life but they have never had to plug in a network cable. "Their idea of a network is very different from mine," observed Cochrane.

For some more historical perspective Cochrane showed a couple of slides of video conferencing prototypes developed in the past. One from the 1960s showed video conferencing not much different than we have today, except it envisioned transmitting documents via a polaroid-style system where the recipient held up special paper to a monitor. The next prototype showed full-figured holographic representations of the remote attendees, which he noted was a far superior solution that would solve the "teleconferences are crap" problem that everyone experiences. This is because the most important bits in communication are the emotional bits, being able to make eye contact, see expressions and body language, and hear inflcetions of voice are what makes or breaks a video conference experience. He noted that one of the things people are experienceing as they start using VoIP telephony systems that transmit a higher audio quality than traditional telephone systems is an increased level of emotional communication.

Some of Cochrane's predictions are that in the coming years positioning systems will become bigger than communications systems, sensor nets will exceed the size of all the currently existing networks, podcasting will displace tv and radio, and there will soon be more robots than people. He expects RFID to revolutionize every aspect of the supply chain. Cochrane also predicted that by 2015 we'll see an iPod-like device that can hold every music track ever recorded, and 10 years after that we'll see those devices capable of holding every movie ever recorded.

Cochrane pointed out that in Japan next year every cell phone will be required by law to include GPS, and this will have a lot of implications for tracking and positioning technologies. Besides being bullish on trackers, sensors, and positioning tech, Cochrane was excited by recent advances in nano-gyro tech and its inclusion in cell phones. He described a combined GPS and nano-gyro inertial navigation system for phones that would allow someone walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood to flick their cell phone in the direction of a building and have it retrieve information about what that building is.

Cochrane pointed to the digitization of everything and ubiquitous connectivity as the disruptive forces that will bring on many of these changes. He also spoke to the telco fears that broadband and VoIP will kill traditional telephony (he agrees), and notes that as bandwidth is becoming a commodity, the glory days for the telcos are over.

Cochrane claimed that all the talk of convergence is really a myth, and it's connectivity that is much more responsible for spurring future technological developments. He also assailed the commonly-believed myth that spectrum is in short supply, with the reality being that most of the time most of the spectrum is not in use.

For more information about Peter Cochrane's views and writings check out http://www.cochrane.org.uk/.