Digital Life: I've seen the future: some of it works
Self-driving cars, 3D phones, mobiles made out of wood and paying for goods with a wave of your hand. It sounds like the future but it's much closer than you think if the world's biggest phone trade show is anything to go by.
In fact, bar the car, all of these innovations were on display at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona last week. Up to 1,400 companies showcased their products and services across 60,000 square metres of exhibition space in the bustling Spanish city.
But don't fret -- the car is coming, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt assured us at MWC, confirming the internet giant was developing the necessary software.
"It's obvious that cars should drive themselves," he said, explaining that there would be a "kill switch" in case the software went haywire while you were barrelling down the motorway. "This is coming. It will be decades, I suspect, not a year."
If that tantalising prospect sounds too far away, the 60,000 delegates found the future had already arrived in the crowded halls of MWC.
Naturally, you couldn't move five yards without tripping over a flashy new mobile, with some estimates putting the number of handsets launched at more than 120. But in the wake of the iPad's hot streak, the world and his wife were touting new tablets, many based on the imminent Android software from Google known as Honeycomb.
In this avalanche of me-too devices, many struggled to differentiate themselves. Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Tab 10.1, which resembles a supersized version of its slow-selling Galaxy Tab, while Motorola demonstrated the similar Xoom. Pricing is unknown and could be as high as €1,000. But these two looked the best of the Android bunch, trumping the current iPad in several quarters. Yet Honeycomb still looks as if it needs work even though these tablets launch as early as next month.
HTC brought the stylus back from the dead for its seven-inch Android tablet called the Flyer. Use of the stylus is optional but its revival seemed more like an act of desperation rather than inspiration. It might have a chance if HTC can trim the rumoured price tag of almost €700.
It was only a matter of time before the hype about 3D spilled over into the mobile world and LG came out of the blocks fighting by launching both a 3D tablet and phone at MWC.
The LG Optimus Pad runs on Android, sports a nine-inch screen and dual rear cameras to capture pictures and video in 3D. Viewing the results requires the disposable glasses used in cinemas.
Consumers haven't exactly warmed to 3D in the home yet. But perhaps the ability to create your own 3D movies will be the killer app for the Optimus Pad, which should cost around €1,000 when it hits the streets before the summer.
The LG Optimus 3D ploughs a similar furrow, an Android phone hoping to attract 3D fans with recording/playback of movies plus games in the third dimension. The key difference is that, like the forthcoming Nintendo 3DS, the screen does not require special glasses.
Like the rest of LG's new smartphone line-up, the Optimus 3D rocks a dual-core processor, making it one of the fastest phones in the world, at least on paper.
Pricing is unconfirmed but it should go on sale by the summer.
It was tough to pass the Japanese stands at MWC without a twinge of jealousy. Japan is a hotbed of wacky ideas and many of the products on display will never make to these shores but you can't help hoping. At the NTT Docomo booth, crowds cooed over waterproof phones, handsets made primarily from wood, 3D phones and mobiles shaped like chocolate bars and biscuits.
WHAT'S HOT AT MWC
- HP TouchPad
The software that underpins Palm phones will power HP's new 10-inch tablet, the TouchPad -- and it looks stunning.
First impressions suggest an experience more polished than the iPad but HP is very vague on our old friends Mr Pricing and Mr Availability. Expect it to cost a packet, alas.
- Samsung Galaxy S II
The successor to last year's superb Android phone, the Galaxy S II turns it up to 11, with a bigger screen, more horsepower and a thinner build.
The body is still a bit plasticky but the Galaxy S II will be another hit for Samsung.
- Near Field Communications
Basically a smartcard built into your phone, NFC allows consumers to make small payments, collect loyalty points and redeem coupons just by waving your phone at an electronic reader.
Expected to be built into the next iPhone, it's already available in the brand-new Google Nexus S. NFC trials are already running in Ireland, including ones at the Insomnia coffee chain.
- Sony Ericsson Xperia Play
The idea of a PlayStation Phone has been rumoured for two years but it's finally come to fruition with this new Android mobile, which has PlayStation-style controls.
Some older PS1 and PS2 games will be converted to work on the Play but it will not run PSP titles. Out in April, it faces fierce competition from within its own stable from the next PSP, out in December.
MASS EFFECT 2
A very belated PS3 conversion of an Xbox 360 hit would not normally warrant a review in these pages but when you're dealing with one of the finest games of 2010, it's worth making an exception.
The second in the Mass Effect trilogy paints a believable universe of sci-fi conflict, part Blade Runner, part Star Trek. Visually arresting and with a sharp script convincingly voiced, ME2 takes you on a rollercoaster ride that seamlessly blends a first-person shooter with an RPG.
This PS3 version throws in a host of extras and, though technically a bit ropey at times, it's unputdownable.
TEST DRIVE UNLIMITED 2
You couldn't accuse the TDU2 developers of lacking ambition. Having successfully recreated the Hawaiian island of Oahu as a free-roaming driving paradise in the original game, the sequel adds several hundred miles more of road on the island of Ibiza for your cruising pleasure.
Amid these two beautiful settings, TDU2 sets up an inexhaustible supply of challenges including races, taxi services and skill contests.
Bolstered by the always-on multiplayer, you share the roads with other online drivers, meaning you're never more than a few seconds away from a race.
The beautiful weather effects and a healthy dose of car porn make the driving an end in itself.
But technical issues, an unbelievably cheesy storyline and unconvincing vehicle handling conspire to chip away at TDU2's playability. The lack of damage modelling is almost a blessing given that an innocuous bit of scenery such as a flowerbed can be enough to stop your 800bhp supercar in its tracks.
Emerging from a timewarp dated somewhere in the 90s, Ascendancy reboots the original hardcore strategy game with no concession to modern times. It's part Civilisation, part Spore as you choose one of a host of bizarre alien races and establish a community on a barren planet.
Despite a steep learning curve that would give you nose bleeds and navigation that's a confusing mess, there's something compelling about Ascendancy that strategy fans will recognise.