The world of technology can be hard to keep up with but, with our guide to the hi-tech year ahead, you won't be left behind.
With a new year upon us, now seems like a fine time to explore what the world's white-blazered boffins have in store for us in the coming months.
Leave a light on
Prosaically named organic light-emitting diode technology, or OLED for short, is poised to brighten up the lives of many a mobile gadget user.
In brief, OLED is destined to depose traditional colour LCDs in the arena of portable electronics; screens based on this technology can provide higher resolutions while consuming less power.
The techniques and principles behind OLED have been understood for many years but it's only recently, with intense development efforts by the likes of Kodak and Sanyo, that commercially viable results have been realised.
In contrast to typical LCD-based TFT monitors - and not dissimilar to the hind quarters of a firefly - the organic materials that make up OLED screens are self-luminous, meaning no backlight is needed to illuminate displayed information.
The upshot of this is an ability to manufacture much thinner displays, in turn leading to more compact portable gadgets and gizmos.
Best of all, the lack of backlighting is no detriment to clarity; OLED displays perform as well as their LCD counterparts in terms of brightness and offer wider viewing angles and better resolutions at the same screen size.
While the technology still has some way to go in terms of market penetration, a few OLED-exhibiting offerings are already available. Kodak's EasyShare LS633 digital camera, for instance, benefits from a 2.2in OLED screen with an exceptionally-wide viewing angle of 165°.
Please speak IP
There's something radically different about the new VoIP-based system from US company Vocera.
Rather than requiring callers to remember and dial a telephone number or office extension, wearers of a Vocera Badge - a thumb-sized, clip-on device that incorporates a microphone and speaker - can simply say out loud the name of the colleague they wish to speak to. Within moments, the Vocera software pinpoints the fellow Badge-wearer's location within the building and opens hands-free communication between the two.
The Vocera system is typical of where modern VoIP systems are headed - exploiting existing wireless network technology in order to route calls, free of charge, to wherever someone might roam.
Rise of the Machinima
Bored of all that Hollywood has to offer? Then create and direct your own special effects-laden blockbusters-to-be using nothing more complicated than a computer game.
This is the promise made by proponents of an innovative method of movie-making, dubbed Machinima ('machine' and 'cinema', which gives you a good idea of the preferred pronunciation).
Machinima-makers exploit the complex computer code that drives modern video games, using it instead to generate virtual film sets that can in turn be used to stage computer-generated movie productions. Think a low-budget Toy Story and you won't be far wrong.
One of the Machinima movement's leading lights, Hugh Hancock of Edinburgh-based Strange Company, told us more.
"Few of us can afford to build a film set that resembles Mars but, with Machinima, anyone can do just that - and the only cost is your time and effort ... All you need to get started is the Machinima Production Kit, though you should prepare to scale a steep learning curve."
So, slip on your climbing shoes and scramble up to the heady heights of Machinima, where you can obtain the Machinima Production Kit (MPK) free of charge. If your modem melts at the mention of a 96MB download, you can order the MPK on CD for about £3.
The 64-bit question
In the unending war to achieve warp-speed processing power, the next salvo is bits. Lots of bits.
Existing processors designed for desktop computers, like Intel's Pentium 4 and AMD's Athlon, rely on 32-bit data 'paths' in order to conduct their number-crunching wizardry. In simple terms, this means sums that need calculating are served up to the processor as a series of binary-digit chunks consisting of 32 ones and zeroes at a time.
However, this is proving something of a bottleneck, since many external devices are capable of supplying much larger quantities of data at any one time. In response, the chip manufacturers have developed processors that are able to accept 64-bit chunks of binary information.
The upshot is far more efficient calculations that hopefully result in faster everyday operations for computer uses. In addition, 64-bit processors are able to make use of much more memory than the 4GB that 32-bit models can deal with. How much more memory, exactly? Well, about four billion times more.
The dampener comes in the shape of existing desktop software, which continues to serve up the data in 32-bit chunks and has no truck with massive memory complements.
Think digital ink
Electronic ink - or e-ink, to use the inevitable term - began life as a novel experiment but matured rapidly, attracting the attention of multinational manufacturers.
Sheets of e-ink paper, which in their nude state have the look and feel of laminated paper, contain a matrix of millions of microscopic capsules. In each capsule there are an even number of particles coloured black or white, with the different colours carrying either negative or positive charge.
By applying the appropriate charge, particles of either colour can be made to float to the surface side. All this happens in moments and, viewed without the aid of a microscope, e-ink sheets display clearly readable text or graphics that can change in the blink of an eye.
To some the effect is ghostly, but not to display specialist Philips, which predicts that the technology's effect will be eye-catching to consumers. Philips has teamed up with e-ink's creator, Massachusetts-based E-ink, in an effort to produce the first commercial products based on the technology.
By the end of 2004, Philips claims, it will be manufacturing e-ink-based displays offering brightness levels six times better than that of LCD screens, with much higher contrast ratios, allowing text to be read in dim conditions or direct sunlight.
Development scientists have been beavering for years to create lightweight fuel cells capable of extracting hydrogen from methanol in order to make electricity that in turn powers portable equipment such as laptops and mobile phones. It looks like they have at last succeeded.
Over the next year, expect to hear an awful lot about direct-methanol fuel cells (DMFCs). These power-generating devices, which promise up to three times the working life of traditional batteries, feed off easily replenished methanol, a big convenience improvement over traditional rechargeable batteries which demand regular intimacy with a mains-electricity socket.
Toshiba is just one of many big-name notebook manufacturers to embrace the technology. While keeping its precise strategy secret for now, the company has announced two DMFC-based products aimed at mobile phone and notebook owners.
Powerline Communication technology has been mooted for a number of years, but it's only recently that the remaining technical hurdles to it have been cleared.
With a box of tricks installed at its local substation, an electricity company can conduct data signals down electricity lines without affecting the flow of the conventional electricity supply.
However, although the technology has now been perfected, there are numerous financial constraints to a widespread roll-out and it costs the electricity firms a small fortune to kit out each substation. Only time will tell if broadband over power lines will be made available to all.
In the meantime, lucky residents of Winchester and the small Scottish towns of Crieff and Campbeltown, the only three locations where Powerline Communication is available, can enjoy a 1Mbps broadband connection for a monthly subscription of £30.
If you want further information, contact Scottish And Southern Energy on 0845 7444 555.
If you're looking to buy a digital camera in the coming year then prepare for PictBridge, which is bound to become a buzzword. In brief, PictBridge is a direct-printing technology designed to allow compatible digital cameras to bypass PCs and send their image data straight to a printer.
This is certainly not a new idea (there already exist several of proprietary technologies that achieve the same), but PictBridge represents a concerted effort to implement an industry-wide standard, so that with PictBridge at the helm, digital camera brand A will be able to output directly to printer brand B. Let's hope it takes off.
Ringtones run rampant
We can't confess to having the same sentiments towards our next hot new technology, but we fear that it's set to be big this year. We're talking about a mobile phone ringtone-replacement system with a difference: rather than you choosing which warbles your mobile should emit when a call comes in, the whim of your contact will rule.
That, of course, is if you're brave (or foolish) enough to opt in to Korean firm Wider Than's COLORing service, set to launch in Europe by the end of this year. Callers will be able to choose from thousands of tunes and tones to transmit to recipients' handsets.
Don't think it'll be a hit? Think again: the system has proved a massive success in Korea, generating millions of dollars in revenue for Wider Than and its sister firm, network operator SK Telecom. Steel yourself for a caller-controlled cacophony.
Don't phone home
Parents worried about the whereabouts of their young ones will lap up the final item on our list of innovations - the ability to plot the location of mobile phones on an online map.
We're not talking pinpoint accuracy here - the location is narrowed down to a radius of 100 metres (or even poorer) - but we have little doubt than many people will be prepared to pay handsomely for the kind of reassurance that even approximate location information can bring.
Typical of the many mobile-tracking services set to launch in the UK this year is Mapaphone, from electronic-mapping firm Mapminder. Available to Orange, Vodafone and O2 subscribers, it costs £5 to add a mobile phone's number to the Mapaphone online database and then 20p for each location request.
With security and privacy legistation in mind, Mapminder operates Mapaphone on an opt-in basis. The target phone is sent a text message containing instructions for the recipient to respond to only if they explicitly agree to the handset being made available to the Mapaphone tracking system.
With authority thus granted, the Mapaphone subscriber can then click a button and have the mobile handset's current location radius plotted on a map.
The not so hots ...
It's all too easy to be fooled into supporting some of the less desirable advances brought about by unbridled boffins. Here are our top five irksome innovations:
1. Product activation
Blame Microsoft for this one. Since the firm introduced electronic shackling with its Windows XP operating system, the software world and its piracy-paranoid watchdog has gone activation mad, causing headaches for anyone who regularly upgrades computers.
2. Wi-Fi hotspots
The practicality, let alone the economic viability, of these commercial bubbles of wireless internet access has yet to be proven. Should 3G mobile technology take off in a big way - and with tens of billions invested already, the mobile networks won't let 3G fail without a fight - how many people will need to go to the bother of hunting around for a cafe offering a Wi-Fi internet connection alongside its coffee?
BT has announced a 'dual-mode' mobile phone handset that will use Bluetooth technology to route calls over its landlines when in range of a suitably equipped base station, allowing for cheaper calls. Trouble is, similar systems have been tried before, not least by BT. And they failed.
4. Multimedia messaging (MMS)
The simplicity of sending sounds and snapshots between mobile phone handsets makes MMS an appealing prospect to many, but the premiums the network operators charge for these services is obscene. A few pennies more than a standard text message is fine; four times more is not. And let's not even mention the quality of captured photographs ...
5. Windows XP Media Center PCs
Even ignoring the American spelling, we're not convinced that the public will take kindly to Microsoft's latest attempt make the PC the centrepiece of the living room. Who wants to run the risk of a blue screen of death during Coronation Street?
Updating your subscription status