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Five-tech forecast

A virtual version of IBM's chairman and CEO, Sam Palmisano, stands in a replica

of China's Forbidden City to announce the company's 3-D Internet initiative.

Five years from now, which technologies are going to be the breakout hits? It's not an easy game to play: Sure, some folks predicted at this time last year that 2006 would be the "Year of Video on the Internet." But try looking five years ahead.

IBM did just that, bringing together 150,000 people from 104 countries to pitch in their prognostications. Then the company narrowed that list down to the five innovations that were the "most impactful, and probably the most likely to be successful" by 2012, said George Pohle, IBM's vice president for business consulting services.

Here are the five that IBM came up with:

The 3-D Internet: Pohle said this technology is "about translating the user experience on the Internet from being almost a replication of a piece of paper - a Web 'page' - to almost a three-dimensional experience on the Internet." Basically, a virtual world a la Second Life, with open borders.

IBM has been experimenting with virtual environments for locales ranging from Eternal Egypt and Russia's Hermitage Museum (open now) to China's Forbidden City (due in 2008). Just this month, the company announced a deal with Circuit City for an experiment in Second Life retailing.

As the 3-D Internet develops, IBM says it will be aiming for the integration of virtual environments into a seamless whole.

"Instead of separate islands of virtual worlds, where you cannot cross over from one to the other in a consistent way, IBM's vision is to allow your virtual personal to cross over from one world to another, much in the same way you can go from one page to another on the Internet without losing any consistence, enabling all sorts of new applications of the technology," the company says in a 3-D Internet fact sheet.

Pohle said "we're not sure where this is going to lead, but the experience you get going to a 3-D site is a very different experience from what you get using the traditional Internet or a messaging tool."

Mind-reading cell phones: In the next five years, cell phones may well have a mind of their own - integrating location information with a database of your surroundings. If you're on the road at dinnertime, your phone could let you know where the nearest pizza place is, and what's on special. Or it could figure out on its own that you're in a conference room and will have to go into voicemail mode.

You could also point your camera phone at a nearby landmark, snap a picture, and have the network tell you everything it knows about what you're seeing. IBM is already working with Norway's Telenor mobile network on this "presence" technology. Meanwhile, the company's India Research Lab has developed a phone-presence service called Business Finder.

Pohle admitted that having a cell phone looking over your shoulder all the time could be a downright scary proposition, "so the opt-in feature is important." You should be able to turn your "presence" on or off at will.

Nanotechnology for energy and the environment: "Over 2 billion people live without reliable water sources," Pohle said. "More people die from issues related to the lack of water than from any other cause."

As a spin-off of its work with carbon nanotubes for electronics, IBM is looking into developing filters woven from nanotubes that could remove the salt and impurities out of salt water, at a lower cost than current desalination technologies. The company is also developing software to manage water more efficiently. "The water distribution system would serve as a grid, much like a utility grid, at multiple levels," IBM said.

Another company objective is to adapt nanotechnologies to create more efficient, lower-cost solar power systems, Pohle said.

Telemedicine: "Because many people now have Internet or even broadband connections, you can start using those communication platforms, free or very cheaply, to connect to your doctor's office," Pohle said.

Imagine having a setup at home that can beam your vital signs directly to the doctor's office, or alert a health-care provider if something goes wrong. Patient information could be contained on an RFID-equipped bracelet - in fact, such bracelets have been in use for years already. Meanwhile, care providers in remote areas could use a "Doc in a Box" to transmit medical images and data to specialists thousands of miles away for instant review.

The scenario may sound like something from George Orwell's "1984" rather than IBM's 2010 - but Pohle said technological shortcuts could actually create "a higher quality of interaction between the doctor and the patient."

Real-time speech translation: This field is already a hot one, and over the next five years, IBM predicts that translators will be popping up in mobile phones, handheld devices and automobiles. "These services will pervade every part of business and society, eliminating the language barrier in the global economy and social interaction," the company said.

IBM already has developed some translation tools with obvious homeland security applications: It has provided the U.S. military with two-way English-to-Arabic translation software called the Multilingual Automatic Speech-to-Speech Translator, or MASTOR, for use in Iraq. MASTOR also does Mandarin Chinese, and still more languages are in the works. Another program - the Translingual Automatic Language Exploitation System, or TALES - can monitor Arabic-language broadcasts and send e-mail alerts when a particular subject is mentioned. 

It should be obvious by now that these are not technologies coming totally out of the blue (Big Blue, that is).

"In many of these cases, there will be products that come directly from what we do, and then there will be products that come from our customers," Pohle told me. "There's not really a change in direction, because all of these things are things that we're working on already."

These are merely the fields that IBM thinks will bear a prodigious technological harvest in the next five years. "These are things that the public should know about," Pohle said.

Does this list contain too much gee-whiz speculation, or is it not gee-whizzy enough? Register your opinion on which of these technologies are most likely to change society over the next five years, using our unscientific Live Vote, and feel free to add your suggestions and observations below.