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In-your-face interface

Wrap your head around this: As technology gets smaller, faster, more futuristic, imagine yourself connected to a device that doesn't just lamely hang on your ear but invades your skull. Not yet. Soon.

MICHAEL KRUSE
Published October 5, 2006

At the malls, at Bay-Walk and at Tampa International Airport, there are the people, and there is the blinking.

Those blue-lit Bluetooth wireless cell phone earpieces: They aren't everywhere, at least not yet, but they're getting there: 33-million sold in 2005, tracking to 60-million in 2006, continuing to double or so every year for the foreseeable future.

This trend is more than just folks looking like something off the Star Trek set. It is, say some academics, cultural critics and industry analysts, the latest of inevitable steps in the blurring of the line between man and machine.

Blink.

Blink.

Blink.

At the airport early one recent morning, a guy in black slacks was standing at the magazine rack.

"I like machines a lot better than humans," businessman Richard Will, 58, said before flying home to Knoxville, Tenn. "I just have to interface with humans to do business."

Eddie Morrell is 20 and works at one of the two Cingular kiosks in St. Petersburg's Tyrone Square Mall. He said he sometimes falls asleep with the thing still on his ear.

"Once you start," he said, "you don't go back."

First the phone sat on our desk next to the Rolodex. Then it lost its cord. Then it crept into our purses and pockets.

Now it's on us. Clinging like a caterpillar to our cartilage.

When, then, will it be in us?

Some still scoff at the idea of Borglike implants. But plenty of others say it's inevitable. Even coming soon.

"This gets into the question not so much what we're going to be capable of; it's more a question of what we as a species decide we want," said Joel Garreau, "cultural revolution correspondent" for the Washington Post and author of the recent book Radical Evolution. "This is a conversation about what it means to be human."

"We call it the Bluetooth ecosystem," said Ed Valdez, chief operating officer of Parrot, a leading manufacturer of headsets and accessories. "We believe everything in a consumer's life revolves around their cell phone."

More than 200-million Americans and 2-billion people worldwide have cell phones. Studies from Michigan to MIT say a majority of us think we can't live without them . . . and think they're the most irritating of modern technologies.

Next up: Bluetooth.

One in six cell phones was Bluetooth-compatible at the end of 2005. By the end of this year, that's expected to be one in three, Valdez said. And by the end of '07, more than half.

Bluetooth is not just used in headsets. The wireless technology allows one device to talk to another within a small network. It is also used in hands-free car kits, computers, MP3 players, PDAs, mice, keyboards, printers, gaming consoles - any device that can be synched to another so they can be synched with you.

Oakley and Motorola partnered up for Bluetooth stereo sun specs. The snowboard company Burton sells a Bluetooth-enabled jacket. Watch phones are on the market.

And the headsets figure to follow three of the few guarantees when it comes to technology: They'll get cheaper, they'll get smarter and they'll get smaller.

Until . . .

"We're going to wind up in essence with 'intelligent earrings,' " said Paul Levinson, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York and author of Cellphone: The Story of the World's Most Mobile Medium and How It Has Transformed Everything!

And then . . .

"The size is going to continue to decrease until it disappears," Garreau said.

And then . . .

Kevin Warwick, a cyborg expert at the University of Reading, England, told the San Francisco Chronicle last year that implants are "the next step" and "a relatively minor one."

"I think they'll go internal pretty soon," Levinson said. "Not in a matter of months. But maybe five or 10 years from now.

"Every new technology, you can almost begin to map the pace of its development, its dissemination to the public, how quickly it sprouts new features. I'm looking at what's happened between '01 and '06, and then I'm just extrapolating and projecting - if anything, the pace will pick up even more. Five to 10 years may even be a little conservative."

A cyborg is a human with robotic enhancements. Some people are cyborgs already.

By the most basic definition, in fact, people with pacemakers and some prosthetics are cyborgs. Cochlear implants help deaf people hear; they're computers embedded in the skull. And just last month, a 26-year-old from Arkansas became the first woman to get a bionic arm, which uses sensors and commands from the brain to make the mechanical arm move.

Cassette tapes were new once.

So were microwaves.

So were cars.

Now, though, the pace of technological change gets faster every year, exponentially.

"We're moving inside" the body with cell phones, said James Hughes, a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and author of Citizen Cyborg. "My opinion is it is realistic. But for at least a couple of decades, I don't think it's going to be terribly attractive to open up our heads."

Longtime mobile industry analyst Bob Egan agrees. "I don't think the mainstream population is ready to make that leap," said Egan, with Emerging Technologies in Needham, Mass.

But Valdez thinks it at least will be an option.

"I do foresee that coming, maybe 10 years from now," he said last week from his office in Austin, Texas.

Dill, the man in the airport, said he wanted anything that would make him more efficient - except that.

A cell phone implant? The self-described toy freak said no. No way.

But things change. Ten years ago, only about 30-million Americans had cell phones. They were clunky, and as big as a brick, and Bluetooth might as well have been sci-fi stuff, and implants embedded in our heads was a conversation to be had over popcorn at the megaplex.

Not anymore.

"I'm interested in what this means for the future of humans," Garreau said. "Not off in the distant future - in the next two, three, 10, 15 years, in our lifetimes and those of our children.

"It's not about the little piece of plastic," he said. "It's about the future of human connection."

Blink.

Blink.

Blink.

 

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434.

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