1973 would hardly be considered a watershed year in technology. Most Americans were more concerned with the price of gasoline for cars that needed filling up after going less than 100 miles. The only gadget anyone seemed to care about was the television, which wasn’t wired for cable, except in the most rarefied of instances. And some hand-held calculators – needed only by the truest of nerds – were priced in the hundreds of dollars.

But on April 4, 1973, a Motorola engineer named Marty Cooper called one of his colleagues at another telephone company and declared that his voice was being transmitted by “a ‘real’ cellular telephone”. In describing the moment, a BBC News story reported that by 2012, there were six billion mobile phone subscriptions across the globe – out of a total population of seven billion.

These days, Cooper’s inventive moment might have a hard time distinguishing itself amid a torrent of technological developments that allow people to do things that strain the brains of their older siblings, not to mention those of their parents. And many of the newest high-tech developments include wearable items, some promising the capability of being directly applied to one’s body. Even Cooper himself, says the BBC, someday envisioned the cellphone as fitting on the ear, and maybe embedded under the skin.

Reality breezes past science fiction

One of today’s inventions that pre-dates Cooper’s, at least in theory, is Apple’s iWatch – a sleek looking wearable display that brings to mind the two-way wrist radio from the old Dick Tracy comic strips (1931-1977). Tracy’s watch featured a small screen and speaker that allowed the fictional police detective to see and talk with various important people. According to Apple’s recently filed patents, the iWatch should be able to communicate with other devices wirelessly and possess the capability to stream live video. And Apple is thinking about harnessing solar power for the device, as well as kinetic energy – by using generators worn around the wrist or ankle to keep the device charged.

The iWatch also might make use of another patent that Apple filed, this one for a wraparound display. In a nutshell, the patent calls for a translucent display that uses the front, sides and back of an iPhone. Looking more or less like a flattened prism, the wraparound display allows for the possibility of projecting 3D images, a feature that might be attractive to map makers and app engineers looking to show a fully dimensioned snapshot of, say, a crowded downtown area, complete with highlighted landmarks.

Not to be outdone, Google has unveiled plans for Google Glasses, a contraption that’s received a lot of press lately, in part for the following reasons:

  • The wearable headset computer uses a micro-display, mounted very closely in front of one eye, to display images; the lightweight frame can also receive and carry out voice commands
  • Reportedly priced in the neighborhood of $1,500, Google’s headset might also include a pair of designer lenses treated to reduce UV rays, enabling the practice of computing while jogging – or even surfing
  • Sony has upped the ante by filing its own patent for a wearable headset, one that uses two displays instead of one – raising the possibility of 3D images being piped through a user’s pupils
  • In response, augmented reality boosters have revived interest in their apps, which don’t require the expensive headset but still provide a vibrantly real experience

Riding those endless, augmented waves

As might be expected, the tech-invention parade shows no signs of slowing down, much less stopping, anytime soon.

A year ago, Nokia received a patent for a vibrating tattoo, which, as the name implies, vibrates on your skin when you’ve got a cell phone message or text.

Automakers have come up with an augmented reality windshield that displays dashboard data directly in front of a driver, and which also signals a warning when the car is getting too close to other vehicles and objects.

And Japanese scientists have recently come up with an algorithm that might be able to read your dreams. While an actual dream-reading machine is still a long way away, the experimental process recently proved 60 percent accurate in an extensive test involving three sleep subjects and their nocturnal imaginings.

Practically the only kind of invention that’s awaiting further development involves predicting people’s thoughts before they happen (although scientists have already progressed in a process that allows them to wire together the minds of laboratory rats).

There’s no sense worrying about when the “thought predictor” will appear, though. If the device works as planned, none of us will be the first to know about it. And besides, how could it ever hope to outperform that reliable force of nature known as…women’s intuition?

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