It's a camera, a PDA, a phone! It's Origami!

I've noticed a trend in devices - 'the Transformer Effect.' It's more than just convergence, which has been happening over the past few years. The Transformer Effect is taking one device and turning it into another device with a few clicks, swivels or button pushes.

          Apart from the lines of people waiting to play Microsoft's new Xbox video game platform, Comdex 2002 wasn't as crowded as previous years. That said, there were still plenty of cool things to see on the show floor, especially the new concepts that vendors will try to develop into products over the next few years.

          Mobility and wireless continues to be a trend, with almost every major vendor adding some kind of wireless connectivity to their products. If a product doesn't have either an 802.11b or Bluetooth connection, it might as well be sitting in a corner collecting dust.

          But I noticed another trend in devices, something I'm calling "the Transformer Effect." It's more than just convergence, which has been happening over the past few years. The Transformer Effect is taking one device and turning it into another device with a few clicks, swivels or button pushes. If you're blocking out the 1980s, Transformers were toys that could "transform" into other toys by shifting and clicking. You could take a car or a boat and turn it into a robot.

          Kyocera Wireless was one of the first vendors to do this with its Smart Phone. At first glance, the device was a wireless phone, but when you flipped open the cover, it became a Palm OS PDA. Other devices are continuing this trend, as Handspring Inc. recently demonstrated with its Treo communicators, and new phone/PDA combos coming from LG Electronics and Nokia.

          At Comdex, National Semiconducor showed that it's a believer in the Transformer Effect. In demonstrating the uses for its Geode SC3200 Processor, National Semi built a concept device called the Origami. Like the ancient Japanese art of paper folding, National Semi's Origami can become different shapes, and different products, by twisting and turning the unit. The device can function as a digital camera, a digital camcorder, a videoconferencing terminal, internet access and e-mail terminal, internet picture frame, MP3 player, smart phone and a PDA. I heard one official at National Semi call it a "PDA on steroids."

          The device ran on a Windows XP Embedded operating system, and included Compact Flash storage, a 4-inch 640-by-480 pixel LCD display with a touchscreen, a mini keyboard, universal serial bus expansion ports, and came with either Bluetooth or 802.11b wireless LAN options. It also had a camcorder that can double as a digital camera.

          Because this is a concept, don't expect to see this product on store shelves any time soon. But National Semi has a good track record with concept devices; a few years ago it developed what is now known as web tablets (or web pads).

          Another concept device I saw was from Hewlett-Packard, which wanted to share its vision of the notebook computer. This also fits into the Transformer Effect trend, because the notebook can swivel its screen around 180 degrees (perfect for PowerPoint presenters). After folding again, you can place the notebook onto a specially designed docking station and rotate it again depending on whether you want your screen to display like a portrait or landscape. Again, this is a concept, it might look much different by the time production models are released.

          Still, it's pretty cool to see what some really smart people are thinking about in terms of building devices that can improve our productivity. Now if one can just turn into a race car, we'll be all set.

          Send news of cool stuff to kshaw@nww.com.

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