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Today's mail tomorrow!

   Lindsay Pereira

The future of email, you ask? Steve Mann would know, I suppose.

Even if you haven't bothered to ask, it makes sense to assume he would have a clue. After all, the man has been working on inventions like the WearComp (wearable computer) and WearCam (eyetap camera and reality mediator) for over two decades now. The former is a computer that can be worn and remains constantly accessible even while doing something as mundane as watering your garden; amounting to a whole new bond between man and machine.

That's a hint, then. A clue to what you can expect by the time your kids grow old enough to say "Uniform Resource Locator".

Two decades from now, email may be anything but text messages filling your inbox with monotonous regularity. It could mean three-dimensional images sent by little green men from another planet!

Sticking firmly to earth for the moment, there are a few who expect the future to look a lot more colourful. That's ridiculous. If animated signatures and wider options for backgrounds were all it meant, incredimail has been at it for a while now. It throws in jumping bunnies and beating hearts too, should you feel the need to enhance otherwise drab messages. Future of email gives you animated gif movies and 'sigMovies', while mail to the future lets you, well, send mail to yourself or others at some time in the future.

Back to Mann, who is also credited with tapping and re-routing the visual path from one's eye to the brain. He used a camera system with radio communications that enabled him to send what he saw to anyone around the world via the Internet. He reads his email while taking a walk now, which a lot of people would kill to be able to do.

No matter what happens to email though, it will continue to evolve as a fairly egalitarian structure that goes beyond time zones and user profiles. At present, it remains largely incapable of conveying expressions of joy, sadness or even sarcasm - and that's set to change. The email of tomorrow is all about enhancing the virtual and obscuring the line that separates it from what's real.

LifeFX could explain.

Calling itself the 'face of the Internet', it boasts a product called FaceMail that lets you create email with virtual people and photo-realistic facial expressions. Pick a face, make it smile or send a virtual wink while you're at it. Downside: all recipients need the software, which is multimedia intensive.

More exciting are projects like the InterPlanetary Internet, which investigates how current Internet protocols may be extended to explore deep space. The goal here is to get same kind of services outside Earth that we do on it. Expect domains like .venus and .pluto soon.

Other projects have been initiated, like the setting up of a communication network between satellites, planets and spacecraft. The implications are huge.

Voice recognition could also be the next big thing. It's a field of computer science dealing with designing computer systems that can recognise spoken words. Which means that instead of typing out long messages, all you have to do is say something and let your computer do the rest.

Sort of like a secretary that needs to be switched on.

This, however, implies that your PC can only take dictation, not that it can understand what you say. A number of systems are already available, from speaker dependent systems accustomed to particular voices and accents, to discrete speech systems that require speakers to speak slowly and distinctly, to continuous speech systems that allow you to speak naturally.

Next on the agenda: email retrieval systems from public telephones. Wait for it.

The incorporation of rich media has also begun. Bluestreak, radicalmail and mindarrow all offer integrated Web-based solutions like email marketing campaigns and 1-to-1 sales communications through a single application. Think of it as a company profile, multimedia presentation and introductory note all rolled into one tight package. It could dispense with the need for marketing executives altogether, which wouldn't be such a terrible thing.

Greater personalisation is the thing to look out for, coupled with approaches more direct than you've ever known. Could Ray Tomlinson have expected this, while sending that first electronic message? I doubt it.

Maybe Steve Mann wouldn't want to comment either.


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