Portable futures


Crabs in vending machines, shops in shipping containers, and credit card computers. Here’s why 2012’s biggest mobile innovation may not be the iPad 3.
Live crustaceans sold as ‘fresh’ food in Far Eastern snack dispensers isn’t so much the height of technology as it is a regional delicacy. But this area of street-side marketing is home to a more fitting example of how portable developments are becoming engrained in everyday life. Introducing the Ubox application.
In China people are already used to topping up e-commerce accounts online through systems like Taobao (as we do on eBay), and Ubox is an extension of this idea. The application runs on Android, iPhone, and Java devices, and links to (what the developers hope will become) a national network of vending machines. Credit your account at home, then make a selection from any machine via your phone and payment is taken automatically. It really is that simple.
Sticking in the world of food and drink retail, though applying a broader definition to the term ‘mobile’, Stockbox Grocers is an innovative model and sign of the times currently being trialled Stateside. Crafted from reclaimed (and therefore also recycled) shipping containers, these autonomous shops are designed to be delivered to any destination, unloaded, and immediately opened for business.
Better yet, if footfall in the area drops off the premises can be moved, wholesale, to another site. The first store has already opened in Seattle, and the concept may be rolled out across America this year, so watch Britain’s streets for the inevitable arrival soon after that. The success of ‘pop up stores’ in high priced city centres provides numerous examples of why this idea could be so lucrative.
Stockbox UK might not be confirmed, but one revolution guaranteed to be seen on a high street near you in 2012 is Object Recognition (OR). That is, of course, if you haven’t noticed it already, as many smartphones already pack this functionality, allowing users to catalogue images as viewed through a mobile lens. Just hold the device so as to capture the desired object in a photograph, then drop the stored image into a compatible application.
The result means performing tasks like searching online for a sofa using a photograph taken seconds earlier will easily be possible. Like Augmented Reality (see our blog post on The ‘Half Naked App’), this is the next phase of camera phone use, one of many ‘smart’ developments currently taking place on the mobile tech frontier. But most of us still don’t know much about how a basic computer works, so many of these advancements can be quite confusing.
To try and solve this problem boffins at Cambridge University have invented the Raspberry Pi Computer. This new PC is the size of a credit card, can network with numerous devices (laptops, flatscreens etc), and will cost £15. Admittedly it’s no Power Mac, with estimates gauging that its processing capabilities are similar to an average desktop circa 2005. Nevertheless, when something’s this small and cheap those specs sound impressive to us.
The idea is to re-engage young people with computer science by having them learn skills like programming on these portable, affordable devices. Revolutionary in the same way old BBC machines were four decades ago, the notion of putting technology back in the hands of users is fitting in a discussion on mobile developments, and confirms this is an era in which microchips are universal, and have become integral to our lives, as such understanding them is now vital.