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Tech Watch: Cheap Gizmos of the Next Decade Available Now

OLED business cards? Mini cameras for sports videos? Next generation battery technology? These new gadgets are bringing tech of the future to the present.

Movies about the future usually show viewers the same handful of simple, ubiquitous and fantastic innovations over and over again: flying cars, moving images on every surface, miniscule cameras, and wireless everything. This week a few of those things look like they might be reality.

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Imagine having business cards with moving video, or product packaging that could run advertisements for itself. That’s the promise of the next generation of printable, flexible OLED displays, or organic light-emitting diode displays. OLED displays aren’t new — many new cell phones use them — but they have the potential to shrink down much thinner than regular LED screens because they use living, electrified bacteria to produce their glow, with no backlight required.

On Friday a group of research organizations in Europe announced that their version of OLED technology could soon be cheap and flexible enough to use in everyday, throw-away applications. The group, led by Finland’s VTT Technical Research Center, says that they will be able to achieve cheap mass production by using traditional roll-to-roll printing technology, which will allow them to crank out a cuttable OLED film that is about the thickness of three or four sheets of paper, and holds organic sensors inside a moisture barrier film. The details of the technology are still vague, but the researchers say that it could be used for some rather crucial roles; a milk container, for example, would be able to accurately display when its contents have soured. The material should be available in 1-2 years, and be inexpensive to produce.

Another product that smacks of the future is the Epic StealthCam, a diminutive Flash-memory camera meant to be strapped to anything and everything you’d every want to record: bikers, snowboarders, ATVs, kayaks, horses, or toddlers. “Action” cameras have been around for a while, usually in the form of small lenses that have a wire lead going back to a compact DV camera in your backpack. The Epic is a self-contained unit, no DV cam required, and weighs a scant 2.5 ounces at only 3 inches long — about the size of a 35mm film container (remember those?) with battery, lens, microphone, and memory card all inside. I had a chance to test the StealthCam myself for a month of mountain and road biking, during which I found it surprisingly rugged and capable, even at capturing rough terrain and subtle audio. It has no moving parts, stores its video on an SD card, and comes with all kinds of mounting options — one of which is a watertight case — that include provisions for most sporting and hunting scenarios.

I used mine with a 2GB SD card, which captured about 45 minutes of video at 30 frames per second, in pretty faithful color and quality. The camera has a low-quality option if you’re looking for longer videos, but you can also pop in a 4GB card and get 100 minutes of recording time, according to Epic. Unfortunately, rugged often means simplistic, and the Epic’s user interface — which consists of two rubber buttons and a wristwatch-style LCD — is confusing, and practically inoperable without the user manual. Luckily, it’s easy enough to memorize the basic button commands, and the camera beeps at you to let you know that it is starting or stopping recording. Video quality was consistent, but on extremely choppy terrain, the image became wobbly, as if it were being recorded through a layer of Jello. For most applications, however, the Epic’s video was surprisingly detailed and clear for something so small and inexpensive (it retails for $150). The camera also features an auto-upload feature that sends your brilliant work straight to YouTube.

Wireless devices like the Epic are terrific, but eventually everything needs fresh juice. Cue the Psyclone wireless charging pad, announced Friday, which allows Microsoft Xbox 360 users to charge their wireless controllers simply by placing them atop a thin pad that connects to the wall. No plugs, no cords and no battery-swaps. The TouchCharge Kit, as it’s being called, is made possible by a company called WildCharge, whose wireless charging technology came out a while ago but has yet to see widespread implementation. The kit uses a battery pack that has special contacts on the bottom, which draw electricity from the face of the pad without requiring wires or endangering the lives of any gamers. The pad kits are a little pricey at this point, running $70 for a kit that will charge just one controller at a time, but if you want to enter the future of gaming, the TouchCharge is a must-have. EB Games has it on pre-sale, and it should be shipping just before Christmas.

Now the only thing we’re missing is those flying cars; maybe GM will surprise us when the new Volt hybrid comes to dealerships in about a year.

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About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs

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