I built a cell phone into my watch. People take this type of technology for granted today, but not so long ago it was firmly established in science fiction. The transition from fantasy to reality was far from flicking a switch. The time, money, talent, and effort it took to put a phone on my wrist went well beyond a single product development cycle.
The folks who crossed a wristwatch with a cellphone have worked hard for it for several years, but technology development is really happening on a timescale of decades. As the final steps of technological development hit the headlines, it takes thousands of scientists and engineers, who have worked on countless technologies for decades, to get to the point where blockbuster products capture the public’s imagination.
The first cellular service for 80 pound phones installed in cars was demonstrated on June 17, 1946, 75 years ago. The service was only available in major cities and highway corridors and was aimed at businesses rather than individuals. The devices took up much of the trunk of a car, and participants made phone calls by picking up the phone and speaking to an operator. Until 1948 the service was had 5,000 customers.
The first portable cell phone was introduced in 1973, almost three decades after the first cell phone service was introduced. It was almost three decades after that before half of the US population owned a cellphone.
Big story in small packages
As an electrical engineer, I know that today’s cellular technology consists of a remarkable number of components, each with a long development path. The phone has antennas and electronics that allow signals to be sent and received. It has a specialized computer processor that uses advanced algorithms to convert information into signals that can be transmitted over the air. These algorithms have hundreds of component algorithms. Each of these technologies and many more have decades of development.
A common thread that runs through the evolution of practically all electronic technologies is miniaturization. The radio transmitters, computer processors and batteries at the heart of your cell phone are the descendants of generations of these technologies that have gradually become smaller and lighter.
The phone itself would not be of much use without cellular base stations and all of the network infrastructure behind it. The first mobile communications services used only a few large radio towers, so that all participants in a large city shared a central base station. This was not a recipe for universal cellular service.
Engineers began working on a concept to overcome this problem when the first cell phone services went live, and it was almost four decades before the first cell phone service was introduced in 1983, moving callers from one transceiver to another.
Your mobile phone is the result of over a hundred years of commercial and government investment in research and development in all of its components and related technologies. Much of the state-of-the-art development has been funded by the military.
A major impetus for the development of cellular technologies was the need to communicate troops on the move in the field during World War II. The SRC-536 Cell phone talkie was developed by the predecessor of Motorola Corporation and used by the US Army in the war. The handie-talkie was a two-way radio that was small enough to hold in one hand and resembled a telephone. Motorola grew to become one of the largest cell phone manufacturers.
The story of military investments in technology that became groundbreaking commercial products and services has been repeated over and over again. As is well known, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency developed the technologies behind the Internet and speech recognition. But DARPA has also made investments in advanced communication algorithms, processor technology, electronic miniaturization and many other aspects of your phone.
I’m looking forward to
By realizing that it takes many decades of research and investment to develop each generation of technology, it is possible to get a feel for what might be coming. Today’s communication technologies – 5G, WiFi, Bluetooth, etc. – are fixed standards, meaning they are each designed for a single purpose. But over the past 30 years the Department of Defense and companies have invested in more powerful and flexible technologies.
Your near future phone may not only signal fluidly in more efficient ways, allow greater range or higher data rates, or last significantly longer when charged, but it may also use that radio frequency energy for other functions. For example, your communication signal could also be used as a radar signal to track your hand gestures, control your phone, measure the size of a room, or even Monitor your heart rate Predict heart problems.
It’s always difficult to predict where the technology will go, but I can guarantee that the technology of the future will be built on decades of research and development.
Daniel Bliss is a professor of electrical engineering at Arizona State University.
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