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Four Cellphone Experiments That We Wish Existed Here, and One That We Don't

The cellphone is already a constant companion for most of us. But a few developments around the world are utilizing cellphones in new ways that, if popularized, will make it hard to get by in life with a cellphone in your pocket (and let's hope your battery doesn't run out).

Take the news from Germany about eco-friendly streetlighting. Morgenrothe-Rautenkranz's 900-odd residents have a system in place that limits street lighting turn-on times. To get the lights turned on you have to call a number and make the request for the area you're in, and then the lights get turned on for a limited time. The system does have some flaws, but it's an excellent solution if you're planning to stroll home from a bar—you just activate the right streets, and then the lights go dim when you're done with them. Less light pollution, less environmentally-damaging energy burned, and more money saved—around $5,100 equivalent savings per year. Similar schemes exist in other towns across the country.

In Japan, cellphones as payment devices are pretty commonplace: over 25% of Japanese use phones that incorporate the technology. It links bank details with vendors, exactly as a debit card works, and it lets you buy rail tickets, purchase goods in shops, and even extract cash from an ATM. The main advantage is that you don't have to carry a wallet and a cellphone around. And it's contactless, which makes it very convenient. In-fighting between various parties over who will earn revenue from the tech is likely to keep it out of the U.S. for the near future, but it's so convenient it'll arrive eventually. 

In an attempt to reduce vandalism, public restrooms in Western Finland were electronically locked last year, and users have to text a special number to auto-unlock them (which also identifies the user to the system, supposedly lowering the temptation for vandalism). Okay, maybe we aren't wishing for this one, but it's still an interesting experiment.

How about using your phone as universal translator? NEC announced it had shrunk its speech recognition and translation engine technology to a size small enough to be practically built into a cellphone, and then promptly demonstrated a Japanese-to-English phone translator that didn't need a network connection to look up data. With a 50,000 Japanese-word dictionary it was pretty capable—NEC said it was working on an English-to-Japanse version, and other languages, but no commercial product has yet arrived. It can't be too long 'til they perfect a Star Trek-alike Universal Translator device based on this technology to make traveling abroad on Holiday so very much simpler.

Soon your media-playing, digital-camera-equipped, live-email, GPS-navigating, RFID-credit-card will be a vital tool if you're to venture outside your front door—our exciting modern life depends upon it. There's just one problem: Privacy. The advertising and sales industry would simply love to know where you are and what you're shopping for, and there is already a system in the U.K. that tracks people's movements around a shopping mall using the stray ID markers being radiated by their cellphones.