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The New Senses of Symbiotic Humanity (3)
By Joël de Rosnay
Director of Forecasting and Assessment
City of Science and Industry, Paris

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The wrist videophone, similar to a wristwatch, will follow close on the heels of the portable telephone with hidden earphones. Japanese companies have partially solved the problem of compressing a television image so that it can be carried by a cellular telephone. Compressed color images are transmitted today at a speed of 10,000 bits per second, with a quality close to that of videoconferencing systems operating at 64,000 or 128,000 bits, making possible the commercial production of an interactive wrist videophone. Siemens, Kyocera, and Nokia are anticipating the launch in 2002 of color videophones, which will be connected to the Web and will use the new GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) at 170 kbs, and UMTS (Unified Mobile Telecommunications System) at 2 Mbs.

Mechanical and electronic (mechatronic) systems that store sound and images — mainly tape recorders and videotape recorders with no moving parts — are being reduced to a single microchip. Goodbye cassettes, magnetic tapes, motors and read/write heads! With small solid state digital sound readers, cybernauts can listen to music downloaded from the Web in MP3, a highly compressed music format.

Through the coupling of GPS (the satellite Global Position Systems), the cellular phone, "tags," and the Internet, humans will also have at their disposal a highly developed sense of direction. The GPS can localize a cell phone or a hand-held computer. A Web service will respond to any geographical question (such as: find the nearest hospital, the closest Italian restaurant, or a given address), and the cellular phone voice will guide the user to the destination. With miniaturized "tags," chips hidden in clothing or in cars and connected to GPS, cellular phones, and the Internet, it will be soon possible to localize or track people, cars, objects, parcels, or luggage anywhere in the world. With such miniaturization, these communications devices will be brought even closer to our sense organs.

Finally, the familiar television screens that are watched from several yards away are being replaced by special "TV glasses" that are right in front of viewers’ eyes and that use a technology similar to that of the heads-up displays in the cockpits of fighter planes. The top of the frame hides a liquid crystal display less than an inch in size, which is reflected in a half-silvered mirror placed at an angle to the viewer’s field of vision, giving the viewer the impression of seeing a single screen with both eyes.

These examples show how transmission systems for audiovisual information from televisions, telephones, or computers are being miniaturized and brought closer to the human body. We can already envisage the next stages in communication between humans and the cybiont in two possible ways: through invasive and noninvasive interfaces. The former include electrodes, implants, or plug-in modules introduced into the body, such as a pacemaker or a cochlear implant. The latter include the new virtual reality communications tools: videohelmets, datagloves, datasuits, and, soon, biosensors — a step on the road to a direct perceptual and emotional interface with the brain itself. Among the noninvasive interfaces, we should also mention a generation of creatures that live in the virtual world. These are intelligent agents, designed to facilitate dialogue with computers and navigation in information hyperspace. Let us first consider some applications of the direct method of communication, and then enter the world of virtual reality and intelligent agents.

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