The next time you’re at the airport (or police station) and someone asks you to “please empty your pockets,” take a close look at the contents. At this moment, the total inventory from my multiple pockets consists of:

  • A large key ring with three large electronic keys, seven regular keys, a SecurID fob, two flashlights, a Leatherman Micra with a knife, scissors, and other tools, a tape measure, and a micro-sized 8-Gbyte USB flash drive
  • A wallet holding a driver’s license, four credit cards, two ATM/debit cards, two leftover hotel key cards, three gift cards (Peet’s, Whole Foods, Apple), three membership cards (AAA, Costco, healthcare), a small amount of cash, a few random receipts, checks, and a few business cards (none of them mine)
  • My reading glasses
  • My 64-Gbyte iPhone 4S

While that seems like a lot of stuff, I’m a packrat, and I like to be prepared. However, it’s nothing compared with what I used to pack for even a short family vacation, which added SLR cameras and lenses, a point-and-shoot camera with a waterproof case, a video camera, a portable gaming system, a laptop computer, and many, many chargers, cords, and cables.

These items added about 25 pounds and a large backpack full of gadgets that I generally don’t carry around with me anymore (except the laptop when needed) for either business or vacation travel. I recently bought a waterproof case for my phone and got some pretty good underwater snapshots and video on my last trip to Maui! That’s one more gadget (actually two) off the list!

The 80/20 Ratio

So it seems we’re at the 80/20 point of complete electronic convergence. My smart phone is now my camera, video camera, pager, Internet browser, note taker, calendar, voice recorder, calculator, metronome, tuner, game machine, magazine and book reader, music and video player, GPS mapping and navigation device, and banking and stock trading terminal. It makes phone calls too!

But I still have to carry those last few items that I can’t live without, where “there’s no app for that,” around in my pockets. Recent developments, though, are chipping away at the elusive final 20%! We all know that the last 20% of the 80/20 rule is typically “hard” in any context, and this case is no different. Let’s look at the specific items.

Of the 10 keys in my pocket, three are for cars, and only one of them is the “keyless” variety. It’s my second-favorite feature on my 2007 Prius. (The first is its 44.1 MPG, city or highway, since the day I bought it!) With only a slight extension to recognize my phone instead, it should be possible to replace all of my “hard” keys with an electronic equivalent. But the infrastructure to make it happen beyond my car and for my house and office keys is expensive, and it would take many years to change over. Still, it’s not a technological barrier, so I’ll count keys as “solved.”

My SecurID fob already has a software equivalent. The USB flash drive is surprisingly useful. It’s hard to believe it couldn’t be incorporated into my phone, but it has some implications on device security and the openness of the file system.

I’ve removed one flashlight already, but the other does a better job and is handier than my phone’s “soft” flashlight. So, I’ll keep it until it’s the only thing left on my key ring. My Micra is one of my most useful tools. They’ll have to rip it from my cold, dead hands (like they did once at the airport). It will stay until there’s a cutting laser available on my phone, which might also create a little problem for the TSA.

I’d be willing to give up my tape measure, but today’s tape measure apps are neither reliable nor accurate enough for my needs. It would be an awful waste of energy to use a modern smart phone (or tablet) as a measuring tape. But given the extremely low duty cycle, I would use one to save some pocket space if I could get reliable results. I already use my phone as an electronic level for non-critical applications.

With the recent rollout of near-field communications (NFC) and other technologies on many phones, the wallet may become extinct before the key ring. While there are real concerns about security in any electronic transaction system, the cat is already out of the bag on personal security and privacy. The best we can do (beyond living off the grid) is to use the technology to detect and fix problems—and just behave ourselves!

Driver’s licenses, credit and debit cards, key cards, gift cards, membership cards, business cards, receipts, and even cash will give way quickly to electronic transactions and information exchanges initiated through your smart phone.

And that brings us down to the final item in my pockets—my reading glasses! I have a couple of “reading glasses” apps, and they’re pretty good for reading small print on small items like medicine bottles. But they just don’t work very well for any continuous reading or scrolling. There’s definitely some room for improvement here.

Now that we’re in the era of “retina displays” that have higher resolution than your own eyes, I’ve always thought it would be an interesting app to apply some kind of reverse optical transformation to the phone display itself so individuals could read their screens without glasses, and for enhanced security, no one else could!

From The Pocket To The Phone

The need for enhanced verification of these functions, from the hardware to the operating system to the application, continues to grow exponentially as we move forward with more amazing functionality. The seemingly unending combinations of capabilities and services in use simultaneously dictates not only that individual capabilities are exhaustively verified, but also that system-level and application-level verification occur throughout the development process for both the hardware and the software. And with personal ID, credit cards, and other financial information (including “electronic” cash) at stake, the tolerance for a security flaw or vulnerability or even a critical patch is approaching zero.

Security is a real problem as we consolidate all of our identification and financial information around our smart phones. But by taking advantage of and extending the smart phone’s sensory and computational capabilities, we have the opportunity to enhance personal security beyond the limitations of credit cards, car keys, and similar traditional security based on physical possession.

With real-time biometric security, smart phones have the potential to significantly increase personal security by incorporating facial and voice recognition, fingerprint and retina scans, information-based queries, and even physical characteristics such as typing cadences or the number and type of keyboarding errors (I’m off the scale on this one!) to ensure you’re the person requesting the bank transfer, credit card charge, or just an iced tea from the corner vending machine.

The challenge for all of the design and verification engineers out there, both hardware and software, is to come up with an overall solution that seamlessly enables these new capabilities, extending functionality and enhancing security, while still maintaining battery life and a reasonable operating temperature. After that, the next big fashion trend will be one-pocket jeans—since you’ll only need one pocket because the only thing you’ll have to carry will be your do-everything smart phone!