Darren Waters

Mobiles bridge physical and digital worlds

  • Darren Waters
  • 27 Feb 08, 00:41 GMT

What sort of company is Nokia? What do you think of first when you hear the name?

Mobile phones? Handsets? Devices? Hardware?

Does it surprise you to learn that Nokia is responsible for the world's largest computing platform? That with 17 phones sold every second the Finnish firm is bigger than Microsoft, bigger than Linux and arguably more influential than Google.

I visited Nokia's scientists and researchers at their lab in Palo Alto to talk about the future of mobile phones in three, five and eight years, and also beyond that.

The first thing to highlight is the fact no-one at Nokia calls the devices phones anymore; they are multimedia computers.

I was shown three projects being developed at Nokia's labs around the world, two of them in Palo Alto.


The first project I was shown has been widely written about already in the last few days. But here you can see the video that Nokia produced to explain the concept - which I don't think is publicly available.

And I've also spoken to Nokia's head of Cambridge labs, Dr. Tapani Ryhanen, who is working with Cambridge Uni on the technology. You can watch a short video interview here.

So what is Morph? Morph is a concept looking at the potential applications of nanosciences in future handsets.

morph.jpgFrom nanowires that can sense the chemical properties of compounds in the air to nanowire grass that can turn the sun's rays into electrical power, and nanoelectronics with greater computing power than today's fastest computers, Morph is a beguiling vision.

But how far off is this vision?

Dr Rhyanen: "My rule of thumb is that if something is still at the level of idea it takes a minimum of 11 year, but if something is already tangible and we already have done demonstrations in the lab, then it's a minimum of seven years.

"Many of these technologies are already concrete."

Dr Rhyanen predicted that materials needed to build Morph - functional materials that can be used for different types of surfaces, both flexible and tough, and able to change its outward appearance - would emerge first from the range of nanosciences currently in development.

"Nanoelectronics is further in the future," he said.

Augmented reality

Mobile phones offer a bridge between the physical and the digital world. I was shown technology that is able to understand the decipher the real world and augment it with data from the digital world.

What a decade ago required a backpack full of equipment can be done today using just a phone.

Dr Kari Pulli and his team at Palo Alto demonstrated software which can pull information from the web about a location, such as a building, just by taking a photograph of it.

It works by utilising the GPS in a phone so the software knows where the picture was taken and can then fetch relevant information about that location, rather then having to trawl through the entire web.

The software s the photograph's properties and then matches it to likely subjects in the database.

In the example I was shown, a photograph taken of a local church in Stanford pulled up historical information for the user.

The applications for this sort of augmented reality are huge - from mapping and tourist information, to being able to give directions based on landmarks rather than road names and numbers.

You could use your phone to get information on almost any kind of consumer product - from CD covers, to movie posters and even wine in a local shop; simply snap a picture of the wine label and your phone could pull up reviews and sampling information.

There's a short video I shot on my mobile here.

Traffic analysis

Nokia's research centre in Palo Alto has been working with Berkeley University and state authorities to use mobile phones to better understand the flow of traffic. There's a short video I shot here.

Dr Quinn Jacobson said: "Every year in the US there are 4.2 billion hours of lost productivity due to traffic problems and 2.9 billion gallons of fuel lost due to congestion.

"We can improve our lives if we have more accurate traffic information and there is a shortage of good traffic data.

"Today we are mostly using conductive coil loops buried in the highway - they cost a lot to put in and maintain.

"They only cover main highways and main metropolitan areas."

Nokia's solution is to make use of the GPS that is being shipped in increasing numbers in mobile phones.

"A phone knows where it is, how fast it's going and of course it is programmable so we can instruct it to do things," said Dr Jacobson.

"As the devices travel through the world they are not randomly beeping your position. That would be costly. So we make the device spatially aware."

By creating a series of virtual triplines on maps - markers placed in virtual space - the flow of traffic can be mapped by instructing phones to send data about their location and speed as they pass these points.

"It means the data we are getting is useful. We're not getting data about the parking, the driveway. We're only getting the major roads."

Nokia has been keen to preserve the privacy of people who are using their phones in this way, while at the same time ensuring that enough data is being sent to make it valuable for analysis.

"It's all anonymous, but we also have to ensure that no-one can reconstruct identity through looking at the data."

In a recent field test with 100 cars, the researchers were trying to discover how much data they needed in order for it to become useful.

"The amount of data that is sent over the phone to the servers for analysis is tiny - a few packets of a few bytes."

The technology is still in the embryonic stage but Dr Jacobson believes that it could find its way into handsets within five years.

"There's no reason why a phone with GPS that is stuck in traffic cannot use that information to better inform other drivers about what lies ahead along the road."

Dr Quinn Jacobson's team has made a short video about the about the project. You can watch it here.


  • 1.
  • At 02:12 PM on 27 Feb 2008,
  • Mark - UK wrote:

Lots of interesting projects, the future looks bright.

Just so Long as the Nanny state don't start trying to associate people with all this data. This kind of facility could be very dangerous unless companies and people are very careful and responsible.

Cool phone. All that nano-sized, stretchable, haptic-touch, molecule sensing technology... and the hands free kit still looks like a Klingon's hearing aid from a 1980s Star Trek movie.

I'm inspired by the vision, but this is "Tomorrow's World - everyone will go to work by jetpack" type stuff. At least for the next few decades anyway.

  • 3.
  • At 06:14 PM on 29 Feb 2008,
  • Mike Lohman wrote:

Amazin technology and all available today, molecule sensing technology works superbly and the sooner it is available for all, the better - top marks for Nokia for embracing and using nanotechnology

Lets hope they bringout out a Voice translator on phones soon as well, it will enable us all to understand people from all over the world, invaluable for all sections of the community.

  • 4.
  • At 05:45 AM on 02 Mar 2008,
  • collet kudze wrote:

Fantastic technology with huge benefits. The challenge willbe to avail this at affordable prices.

I like the user interface ( which normally determines success or failure of a products of this nature) demonstrated in the video.

A productof this nature need not to NORMOB

This post is closed to new comments.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites