Big Blue previews five innovations for the next five years

translation software and nanotechnology among projects

Real-time language translation, medical monitoring via the mobile web and nanotechnology to purify water are some of the innovations IBM Labs thinks will be on the market within five years.

But sorry, says IBM’s George Pohle, still no jet-packs.

“These are not just ‘Gee, whiz,’ innovations, but practical innovations that we are working on today,” said Pohle, of IBM’s Global Business Services, during a recent presentation he called the “Next Five in Five” at the company’s Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose.

IBM gathered business partners, industry analysts and reporters to unveil some innovations it is working on that it believes are commercially viable and could be on the market by 2012.

Pohle demonstrated a real-time translation program that is on trial with US forces in Iraq which translates English into Arabic. He uttered a phrase into a microphone, a laptop computer displayed his text in English and then translated it into Arabic text. Still with a few bugs in it, he could not get the computer to give the audio Arabic translation, however.

Real-time translation also has business applications, Pohle says, because it would allow global companies to more easily collaborate with others in foreign countries.

Another innovation makes it possible for doctors in an office to monitor a patient in their home via sensors that would transmit patient data sent over the internet. “In the future, we see the return of the house call,” says Pohle.

Research into nanotechnology could result in development of a cloth embedded with carbon nano-particles through which potable water could be filtered to make it instantly drinkable. For every gallon of water on Earth only one drop is drinkable without filtration, he says.

The next five years could see more development of a three-dimensional internet, he says, in which a tourist contemplating a trip to the Forbidden City in China could visit a 3-D version of it online. This, too, has business applications, as it could enhance collaboration between co-workers in different countries, or allow retail customers to browse in a 3-D version of a physical store.

Lastly, IBM sees the potential for advanced “presence technology”, which already makes it possible for a GPS-enabled cellphone to send notice of a special sale at a store as the user walks by it. Pohle says it may soon be possible to point a camera phone at a painting in a museum and have the phone display information about the painting such as the artist or the year it was painted.

Although some of this technology is not entirely new, the demonstration shows how technology labs like IBM’s aren’t just brainstorming but are developing viable products, says Carl Claunch, director of research at Gartner.

“A lot of this (research) is filtered around commercial availability,” he says.

Although companies like IBM still do basic research they are leaving more of that to university research centres, he says. IBM Labs, Hewlett-Packard’s HP Labs and other corporate-operated facilities tend to do more applied research.

Revealing lab research also helps a company maintain its customer relationships, Claunch says. “Being able to talk about continuous innovation shows they [know] what you will need in the future.”

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