A future where "technology and human become one" is fast arriving, according to Nils Müller, CEO of TrendOne, a German microtrend analysis firm.
Passive entertainment such as standard television embodied the 1.0 era, Müller said Tuesday during a panel discussion at the Cebit show, in Hanover, Germany. Web 2.0 saw a rise in audience-generated content like blogs and podcasts. The ongoing 3.0 period represents a deeper level of engagement, where users "jump into" media such as virtual worlds, he added.
But evidence of the '4.0' era -- an "always-on" world where humans can "self-upgrade" through technology extensions -- is already nigh and being driven by the youngest generation, according to Müller.
"Our kids will talk to the Web like they talk to a friend," he said as a video presentation showed a user entering a series of natural-language queries such as "how far away is the moon" into the AskWiki search engine, now in beta.
While to adults virtual worlds such as Second Life were novelties, today's children are growing up virtually, he argued. As evidence, Muller pointed to Barbie Girls, a virtual world launched last year. Some three million young fans of the doll signed up for the service within 60 days of its launch, claimed one report.
Outside of computers, three-dimensional technologies will find widespread applications, Muller said. 3-D printers, now expensive devices often used for design and prototyping, will cost US$760 "and everyone can have one at home," he predicted.
A U.K. company called Musion has developed a 3-D holographic projection system. Recently, Cisco Systems used the system to "beam" a couple of its executives onstage to deliver a speech. According to Muller, 3-D holographs will power the next generation of television.
More important than one particularly flashy technology or another is the fact that the line between human and device will blur and even disappear, he suggested.
He pointed to medically focused devices such as the implant chip for restoring sight, being developed by German company Retinal Implant, as well as the work ongoing at Cyberkinetics, which hopes to provide severely disabled people with the ability to control a computer with their thoughts.
Hitachi Data Systems' chief operating officer, Jack Domme, also sat on the panel. He declared that RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, now common in manufacturing and other industries, will become so widespread that they create an invisible, living network capable of powering unheard-of levels of interaction between man and machine.
"RFID will be in every piece of paper that we have and every device we have out there," he said. "This whole room will become interactive. Your paper, your devices will start talking to one another."
For example, when all food items contain an RFID tag, a store scanner will be able to price every item in your basket simultaneously, he said. In addition, RFID will enable even more advanced scenarios, such as allowing a local store and your refrigerator to communicate and alert you when you're running low on certain items, he said.
Or by using the location-tracking abilities of RFID, your refrigerator could send a message to your car when you're going by the store and remind you to buy the items, Domme predicted.
"Our whole future revolves around data and data integration," he said.