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Science

Tech fair offers a glimpse into the future

Berlin's IFA consumer tech trade fair has all the latest gadgets - from headphones to hair massage machines. But this year, a TEDx debate has taken a peek far into the future.

Headphones on display at IFA 2012

Headphones appear to be big trend in the audio entertainment section

With a total of over 200,000 people expected to attend this year's International Funkaustellung (IFA) by Wednesday in Berlin, the 1400 exhibitors have been as keen as ever to gauge visitor reactions to their products that could hit store shelves in time for holiday shopping.

Big, bulky, quirky and even colorful headphones are the trend in the audio entertainment section.

The listening accessories, which once lost ground to smaller in-ear-phones, have long been back - but they now look like they are here to stay - including cordless ones, powered by Bluetooth.

But with some of the other gadgets it is harder to see how useful they might be.

Take, for instance, a television made of gold, speakers resembling lights hanging from the ceiling, or a hand-held head massage device. Panasonic, which makes the head massager, claims it will improve the health of your scalp.

Samsung has also presented its first Smartphone using the new Windows mobile operating system, and Hewlett Packard has unveiled a hybrid product, combining a tablet computer and a tuck-away keyboard.

Image of Panasonic's hand-held head massage device

Panasonic's hand-held head massage device (left) on its dock

A drive into the far future

For those visitors willing to pay an extra 49 euros ($62) on the first day of IFA, there was a chance to get a glimpse of some of the innovations that will shape the future.

The IFA-hosted TEDx Conference - "Future 3.0" - got leading thinkers, artists and innovators to divulge their visions for the next few decades.

Raul Rojas, a professor of artificial intelligence at Berlin's Freie Universität, self-driving cars are the future. Rojas heads a team, which has developed a self-driving car.

In the future, you could call up the cars from anywhere on a handheld device - they would be part of a smart city.

"It works like a human driver, [it] has two eyes and hands and feet, and feet are for accelerating, braking or moving the steering wheel," says Rojas.

Prototype self-driving cars are being tested on public roads in California and Berlin - the only two places researchers are allowed to test them. Current German law requires every car to have a human driver at the wheel.

"It will take many years to get public acceptance because we will need hundreds of thousands, or millions, of driven kilometers to show that the technology is even safer than a human," says Rojas.

Out of sync

But it is unclear whether the carmaker or the programmer would take responsibility in the event of an accident - and this is just one of the many issues that need to be resolved.

Rojas believes it could take up to 40 years before self-driving cars are produced for the market.

Even then, it is unknown whether people will want the technology on their streets.

An image of Annette Schavan, German Minister of Education and Research, getting out of the self-driving car developed by Rojas' team

German Minister of Education and Research tries out the car developed by Rojas' team

"New possibilities do not automatically change the behavior of the people," says Ulrich Reinhardt of the Foundation for Future Studies. "There's a big gap in the hardware and the soft skills that people actually need."

Most of the gadgets at IFA are aimed at the market as it stands today. But the plethora of electronics is mind boggling. Smartphones can be used under water, and speakers can be built into walls. But having more options does not mean that consumers will use them.

"The possibilities that mobile phones offer people are not even used [fully today]," Reinhardt says.

There could be an argument for investing time into educating consumers, rather than simply giving them more options. Rojas suggests the responsibility for educating consumers lies with the producers.

"Optimizing is done by the industry and thinking ahead, thinking in terms of twenty or forty years is what research does," he says. "It's a division of labor."

The possibilities are endless. And things that were once Sci-Fi visions are becoming reality. The question is whether the industry will give consumers the products they will actually use and need.

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