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Originally published Monday, January 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Predicting what we'll consider must-haves

The gift gizmos that brightened the holidays this year — the telephone that is mostly screen, the tiny music player — were unimaginable...

Special to The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — The gift gizmos that brightened the holidays this year — the telephone that is mostly screen, the tiny music player — were unimaginable not long ago.

So we wonder what our objects of desire will be in a year or five. For answers, we turn to Paul Saffo, a veteran Silicon Valley forecaster who explores long-term technological change and its practical impact on business and society.

Five years is almost painfully short-range thinking. So Saffo does not focus here on astonishments likely to emerge from the research pipeline, like prescription memory drugs. Instead, he concentrates on things that actually exist commercially today but have yet to explode into our consciousness.

Q: What do we not know we want yet, that we're going to find out we do want in the next five years?

A: It's robots. Very simple, very clear. In the '80s we created our computers. In the '90s we connected them together. In this decade we've been hanging sensors on them — eyes, ears. All they need are wheels and they become robots. It is increasingly affordable.

Q: So "The Jetsons" was right?

A: You mean Rosie the Robot? Not quite. We have the technology. The thing missing is the big idea.

We want to confer life and intelligence on everything. We want to see fairies under trees. We want to believe that rocks can talk. And that's why we are just delighted when our electronics act in a lifelike form.

For teenage boys, I guarantee you, within five years the it Christmas gift, the thing everybody is going to want, is going to be a telerobotic UAV (unmanned air vehicle).

Today's radio-controlled fliers are hard to use because you have to learn how to fly them. But when your helicopter is a robot, it flies itself and you just tell it where to go — no learning curve, just instant gratification. Imagine a flying bot that costs $200 or less, is the size of a paperback book, and teenage boys can —

Q: Terrorize their sisters?

A: Terrorize their sisters or look at the sunbathers in the pool next door.

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Q: Can you see our cars becoming robots?

A: You can push a button now and they park themselves. We're going to keep piling more smarts into automotive telematics. The robots increasingly will advise you. Then there will be a tipping point — the insurance company is going to require the robot drives.

Q: When do we start falling in love with the intelligent entity on board?

A: Some guy's got a book and says everyone is going to have sex with robots in the near future.

Q: But they don't actually exist yet, do they?

A: I — I haven't really looked into it.

Q: What's the point of living in California if you don't —

A: I know. It's hard to keep up with these things.

But let's pick the low-hanging fruit here. The double-knit-suit thing of the next five years is nano finishes on fabrics.

(Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of objects as small as molecules.)

Q: You think they're actually going to take off?

A: Clothes that don't stain, that you can spill a glass of red wine on and laugh at — I think that's going to catch on a lot more. We have nano fabrics today, but nobody's done anything really fun with them yet.

Q: Wait a minute. If they don't get stained, does this mean that geeks are going to wear them for like four months straight without washing them?

A: This is what's terrifying. You know the fabrics with the embedded nano silver? A couple of athletic gear companies have these fabrics — the embedded silver kills the bacteria that makes them smell.

Q: So these shirts will never be washed.

A: Every new thing comes with a hidden curse. It was Heraclitus who told us that.

Another place where nano stuff comes in is new kinds of fabrics with wildly new finishes. Things that look like chatoyant rainbows. You know the kind of rock called tiger's-eye? How it shimmers when you look at it? That is the quality of chatoyant. Having really interesting surfaces. Having fabrics that the artwork changes on them.

Q: Robots, nano fabrics. OK, what else we got?

A: Phones are fashion.

Q: Is that going to produce a want?

A: The want has already happened, and people just don't realize it. You no longer replace your old phone with your new phone because the old phone is broken. You replace it because you're bored with the finish.

Q: What's so complicated about enamel?

A: It's not enamel. It's the highest of high-tech. What we're going toward is phones that have chameleon finishes, that have active surfaces that change shape and color. You know, mood phones.

Q: And we are going to want chameleon phones?

A: We're just going to want something new. Whether it's a chameleon phone that changes its colors based on the conversation going around it, or the music that's playing on it, or it becomes all screen, it's not the specific thing we want. What we just want is something new.

So phones become hyper-fashion. Electronics are fashion. The same thing with finishes on cars. Electrochromic stuff where you can actually change the color of the car. Very popular with thieves.

Q: What about our social lives and connecting up to people? Social networking? Are there going to be any big new wants?

A: The big thing that will be in fashion is being disconnected. Seriously. When being connected is hard or takes a fancy device, being connected is hip. When pagers first came out, if you had a pager it meant you were a cardiac surgeon or an arms-control negotiator. Now it means you're a maid at the Hyatt.

So, when connectivity becomes as easy as it is, the hip thing is to be unconnected. It will cost money. We will depend on sort of an electronic concierge that's vigilantly watching our phone calls and e-mail, mediating between you and the rest of the world.

Q: What about energy, climate change, going green? Anything in that?

A: In an age when pessimism is the new black, solar cells are hip. It's the perfect badge of social consciousness. Solar cells on your house are evidence of virtue, and the price is coming down fast enough. It's home fashion.

Q: This is going to be bigger than granite countertops?

A: Maybe not quite. This all has to get down to the cost of a car. Right now it's about the cost of three cars.

Q: When does want-to-have turn into need-to-have?

A: Wants turn into needs when your neighbor gets it. That's what happened with TVs. People wanted TVs. But the moment the neighbor had it and your kids came home saying, "Daddy, Daddy, why don't we have a TV?" — that's when it becomes a need.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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