What's next?

BY J. CARLTON COLLINS, CPA
November 1, 2013

Q: For three decades I’ve watched new technologies emerge, but I’ve never invested early enough to catch those investments on the rise. What do you think the next great emerging technologies will be?

A: Asking me for investment tips is like asking a dog to guard your hamburger—in either case chances are you won’t be satisfied with the result. Nonetheless, I like talking about technology, so I’m willing to make a few predictions. Off the top of my head, I believe that 3-D printing, RFID shopping, or smart glass will make a splash in the decade to come. Here’s a brief explanation of these three technologies.

3-D printing. Technology that enables you to print solid objects has arrived. The technology is fairly straightforward. You already know that your current laser printer lays down ordinary toner on paper thick enough to feel with your fingertips. 3-D printers simply do the same thing, printing hundreds (or even thousands) of layers atop one another using a special toner containing composite material similar (in results) to the compound your dentist uses to fill cavities. Once hardened, the resulting printed object is very durable, and can even include moving parts. For example, the adjustable wrench pictured below was printed using a 3-D printer and is fully functional.

 

Already, 3-D printers are available for less than $400, and the potential implications are tremendous. In the future, 3-D printers may be as commonplace as microwave ovens. For example, instead of ordering a replacement part needed to repair your luggage, appliance, or automobile, you may simply print that part instead. In the future, electronic product manuals may include schematics for 3-D printing (replicating) the necessary replacement parts. Hospitals are already using 3-D printers to create skeletal body parts to repair the human skull, jaw, limbs, etc. 3-D printing also has the potential to reduce (or someday eliminate) the need to ship goods and parts around the world, or simply from one town to the next. You can view a video clip of a 3-D printed object at tinyurl.com/obtgty2.

RFID shopping. RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags work very much like a bar code, except they emit an electronic signal that can be read at a distance, and these signals can contain far more information and can be read quickly in large quantities. RFID technology is already a proven technology. For example, for more than two decades Atlanta drivers have installed RFID tags in their automobiles, enabling them to pay tolls on the Georgia 400 highway without stopping or even slowing down. As the automobile speeds through the toll booth, a specific radio signal emitted from the toll booth temporarily supplies energy to and activates the automobile’s RFID tag so the user’s account can be determined and the proper toll collected.

The use of RFID tags is becoming more prevalent. I believe that within the next decade we will see RFID tags affixed to virtually every retail product. Shoppers will enter a retail store, select their merchandise, and then simply walk out the front door, while in the background, RFID technology identifies the shopper and his or her merchandise selections, and automatically deducts the required payment from the shopper’s account. To prevent identity theft, it is likely that to complete the sales transaction, each shopper will be required to enter a password or provide identification, such as a fingerprint, ID card, or retina scan, to verify his or her identity.

The use of RFIDs offers many benefits. For example, their use can reduce (or eliminate) the need for labor-intensive scanners to read bar codes one at a time, while also reducing (or eliminating) the need to purchase and recharge hand-held bar code readers. A video clip produced by IBM demonstrates this type of technology in action at tinyurl.com/qbdv3sx. RFID technology has been used at the pallet level for more than a decade by more than 80,000 manufacturers and suppliers, and I predict that it is only a matter of time before RFID tags become affordable enough to deploy at the item level as well.

The implications of RFID technology are impressive. Imagine never waiting in line at the grocery store again. Imagine a grocery store’s savings if it could eliminate the majority of its cash registers, cashiers, and checkout area floor space. Imagine the impact on retail prices if this potential savings were passed on to consumers. I foresee a day when we will run out to buy milk and bread, and we will face the decision to shop at either a traditional grocery store or one with no waiting and lower prices; this would be an easy decision, right? I suspect that the retailers who implement this technology first will likely grow their customer base very quickly.

Smart glass. Smart glass technology, such as that provided by Samsung’s Smart Window, is basically a computer monitor that looks like a regular window when it’s not in use. However, a simple tap of the glass activates the device, effectively transforming the glass into a touch-screen computer.

How might this technology be used? Imagine your car windshield displaying turn-by-turn driving directions that correspond exactly with your view beyond the windshield. Imagine your bathroom mirror waking up to your touch and delivering news and stock information as you brush your teeth. Imagine a large glass wall in a hotel lobby that activates at your touch to provide an informative concierge and information portal. You can view a short video showcasing smart glass technology at tinyurl.com/86xkzlr.

Admittedly, applications of smart glass thus far lean more toward “cool novelty” than “useful technology,” but history has taught us that many new technologies are often under-appreciated at first, only to become mainstream solutions down the road. For example, the controversial peer-to-peer solution Napster ultimately morphed into the well-received Skype solution.

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