Published: Feb 09, 2018
Updated: Nov 20, 2018

What Is Convergence?

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Author: Christy Roland

photo illustration of streaked lights in tunnel

What Is Convergence in Technology?

The word “convergence” is used in different ways in different fields. The most common current usage of the term can be found in technology. In that realm, it’s the joining of two or more functions in a single device or system. While technological convergence is happening in many areas, a lot of the activity over the last couple decades has involved mobile devices.

Mobile Devices and…

Cameras

The first camera phones were released in South Korea (Samsung SCH-V200) and in Japan (Sharp J-SH04) in 2000. While the Samsung came out a few months earlier, the Sharp had the ability to send the photos electronically, rather than having to hook the phone up to a computer, which was the case with the Samsung model. In the United States, the first model to be available to consumers in 2002 was the Sanyo SCP-5300. Once camera phones caught on, sales of point-and-shoot digital cameras dropped. Digital cameras reached their peak in 2010. According to the Camera & Imaging Products Association (CIPA), about 121 million were produced. By comparison, that same year, IDC reported that 302.6 million smartphones (which have cameras) were sold worldwide. Since then, CIPA states that standalone digital cameras have fallen to about 20 million produced in 2016, while camera phones skyrocketed with the sales of about 1.5 billion units according to Gartner.

The addition of front-facing cameras led to the popularity of selfies, and may usher in using facial recognition as a more common way to unlock your device.

Pagers

Mobile phones combined with caller ID contributed to the decline of digital pagers. Once manufacturers added SMS (aka text messaging) to the device, text pagers were on their way out. SMS allows things that a one-way pager could never do, like texting-based banking services and the ability to send emoji’s.

photo of pagers
Pager collection by Hades2k is licensed CC BY 2.0

Computers

At its heart, a smartphone is the combination of a computer and a mobile phone. You don’t need to open your laptop to check your email, and you can easily research the capital of Estonia (Tallinn) or the most common blood type (O positive).

Music

Just as MP3 players like the iPod supplanted portable CD players (which had themselves succeeded portable cassette players like the Walkman), music apps on phone cannibalized the market for MP3 player. Using the connectivity of a phone led to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora; this convergence is leading to a drop in sales of music as more people switch to subscription services.

Wallets

It’s still gaining traction, but if mobile payments catch on, people may be resorting to their phones to purchase things, which means they could end up carrying and using credit and debit cards less. If affinity cards, ID (like drivers’ licenses and passports) gain traction, the need for physical wallets may decrease (most people have stopped carrying photos in their wallets because they are on their phones instead).

Video Games

Mobile game app sales surpassed that of console (like the Microsoft Xbox and Sony Playstation) and PC games in 2016. Mobile games combined with augmented reality (AR) created experiences like Pokemon Go that would be impossible on any other platform.

screenshot of converged phone screen A Few Little Things

Adding smaller features to the mobile phone has reduced the need for keychain flashlights, pocket calculators, notepads, and magnifying glasses.

Cars and Trucks

New York Times Magazine devoted the November 7, 2017 issue to autonomous vehicles. The article explores how the convergence of cars with navigation systems, GPS, and AI will change how people use and own cars, and the impact to truck driving as a profession. It also looks into the possible impact to traffic flow and accident rates (both are expected to improve).

TVs

Streaming video for lots of people means a device such as a Roku or an Apple TV. Smart TVs combine the function of those devices directly into the TV set, meaning one less item to worry about, and fewer cables.

While the WebTV system from the 90s never really took off, the addition of a browser to a smart TV gives consumers the ability to read news, check their email, or access anything else that they’ve previously viewed on a computer or mobile phone.

News

News used to mean getting a paper, listening to the radio, or watching TV. Then much of it migrated to the internet. The rise of social media has reduced a lot of the work people had to do to find news. Relevant topics appear in Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines.

Sports

The ability to integrate digital experiences with live sporting events is changing the way people watch sports. In fact, the planners of the 2028 Olympic games in Los Angeles are planning to transform the way the world interacts with the event, using technology to create personalized badges that holds information about attendees tickets and events. They imagine outfitting athletes and key personnel with sensors that can pinpoint their exact location, making it easier to deliver personalized video to family and friends. Viewers would be able to immediately pull up information about their favorite competitor without ever having to avert their eyes from the screen.

Drones

Embedding cameras in drones is not a new idea, but adding other technologies to drones that can do more with the images and videos they capture will lead the way to new uses. For example, adding next-generation sensors, high-bandwidth communications, and real-time connectivity to the cloud can help turn the data they gather in the sky into actionable intelligence. Amazon and Google also see potential for this technology with drone pilot programs that aim to deliver goods to consumers.

Digital Media

Voice, video, and audio used to be sent over different networks, but as technologies become compatible with the internet protocol (IP), consumers can access more and more content via any device. They can watch live TV on a mobile phone. People can read, hear, and respond to text messages and voicemail via a TV. We can stream radio stations from around the world to a connected stereo, or watch a local soccer match broadcast in Ireland on a tablet in China. Just about any device can access news in video or audio format from around the world. Phone calls can be carried as Voice Over IP (VOIP), which digitizes the sound and sends it over the internet, making it more efficient and easier to get around network bottlenecks.

Many of these convergences required a convergence in regulations, as different types of content and communications were regulated by different agencies and by different rules. While a lot of these convergences are still in a nascent stage and they may not always be easy to accomplish, they continue to get better.

Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) brings together many functions and actions. Connecting a lot of single-function devices is a move toward the smart home, which gives the ability for someone to control the thermostat via their Amazon Echo, Google Home, or other similar devices. Anywhere someone has connectivity, they could do a variety of things: turn on the oven so it’ll be ready to go when they get home, see who’s ringing the doorbell and unlock the door to let in an expected service technician, turn on the bedroom lights when it gets dark, check on their dog through a web cam (and even tell it to get off the couch), or query the fridge to see if they need eggs.

The connected devices could have autonomous functionality, as well. For example, if the oven is on, the thermostat could adjust up or down to compensate for the heat it produces. If the family calendar has an upcoming visit from the cousins, the fridge could update the shopping list to get more milk and cereal.  The car could ask the garage door to open when it’s a few yards away. The smoke detector could text when you need to replace its battery.

Computers

Networking has allowed different computer OSs to communicate with one another using the same network medium. This means one person can be on a PC, another on a Mac, and a third on a tablet, and they can all use those disparate devices to communicate and collaborate on a document.

 

Challenges and Benefits of Convergence

As technology advances, we should continue to see a trend towards further convergence of different technologies and industries, which will create new paradigms. If Elon Musk’s vision comes to pass, both homes and cars will draw power from battery banks that are charged via multiple methods (e.g. solar, wind, the traditional power grid). This will require new ways of manufacturing, to ensure that everything is compatible. We’ll have to learn to plug in our cars instead of getting gas and make sure our battery banks are recharging (but some IoT devices should be able to text if there’s a problem).

Often, the end result of technological convergence is the decease of one of the merged systems or products (like the digital camera, as previously mentioned). However, convergence generally leads to the creation of entirely new ideas and uses, some examples of which were given in the sections above.

Convergence can also help people adapt to new technologies. When a new function is added to a familiar device, people already comfortable with the device can more easily adapt to the new use. For people who don’t feel computer-savvy, accessing the web on their TV would give them the comfort of a familiar tool and may make them more willing to explore.

 

Other Convergence Definitions

Convergence is a term used in many fields outside technology, from the sciences to the arts to business. Many examples are listed below.

Convergence in Media

The recent merger between AT&T and DirecTV combined two communications areas. This is an example of what’s known as ITTCE, or Information Technology, Telecommunications, Consumer Electronics, and Entertainment.

Mathematics

An infinite series getting close to a limit, but never reaching it as the value of variable in the function increases or decreases, or as the number of terms in the series grows. An example: For the function y=1/x, y will approach zero as the value of x increases, but no matter how large x gets, y will never be zero.

mathematics convergence graph

General Science

The National Science Foundation defines convergence as the integration of multidisciplinary knowledge, techniques, and expertise that helps form new and expanded frameworks to address new challenges and opportunities. Convergent research is associated with transdisciplinary research, in that they both combine diverse approaches into a united whole that can promote new paradigms or domains.

Biological Evolution

This type of convergence is the independent development of similar characteristics in two different species, often when they live in similar environments.  For example, fish and cetaceans (e.g. dolphins and orcas) both evolved dorsal and pectoral fins. An example of convergent evolution in non-similar environments are the resemblance of the eyes of squid and octopuses to those of humans; they have comparable lens structures, even though humans evolved on land and cephalopods evolved in the ocean.

Cultural Evolution

Cultures become more similar as they exchange goods and ideas. Many countries have adapted democratic forms of government during the last couple centuries, fast food has become ubiquitous in many parts of the world, and music styles from one country influence and are influenced by styles from others.

Finance

This type of convergence occurs when the price of a futures contract for a commodity approaches the spot price as the delivery date for the futures contract approaches.

Economics

A theory that the per-capita income in poorer economies will grow at a faster rate than that of richer economies, and eventually the two will meet. This event can occur because the law of diminishing returns has a greater impact on richer economies.

Accounting

Different counties have different accounting standards. The goal of getting them all to match is called convergence. The standard being worked toward is called the International Financial Reporting Standards.

Politics

Political convergence, which is all too rare, is the concurrence of opinions and policies by parties and groups in a country.

Physiology

When a creature with binocular vision turns their eyes inward at the same time to focus on a nearby object. Some children have a condition called Convergence Insufficiency, in which they struggle to focus on a close object; their eyes tend to drift outward, causing eye strain and other symptoms.

diagram of physiological convergence

Electronics

The intersection of the red, blue, and green beams onto a single CRT pixel. Since flat-panel displays have been outselling CRTs for well over a decade (for both use as TVs and computer monitors), we see this kind of convergence less and less.

Meteorology

An area where two winds meet is known as a convergence zone. When winds converge, the mass of air is forced into an updraft, and the result is convection, clouds, and precipitation. A well-known example is the Puget Sound convergence zone in Washington State; winds from the northwest are split by the Olympic Mountains to the west, and meet again (generally) north of Seattle, resulting in the famed Seattle rain.

Puget Sound convergence zone diagram

The Arts

There are many examples of artistic convergence. A few of them are:

  • In the 50s, combining the blues with country and western music gave us rock and roll.
  • Cirque de Soleil has been described as the convergence of the circus with opera and dance.

Healthcare

We’re in the middle of an ongoing convergence of healthcare processes and computing, which has led to electronic records, improvements in care (such as verifying patients are getting the right treatment by scanning a barcode on the patient’s wristband to verify they are in the right room). A recently-announced electronic pill might be used to verify patients are taking their prescriptions.

Physics

In physics, convergence is the contractions of a vector field or the measurement of the collapse. A vector field is a visual representation of complex functions, such as the flow of fluids, that assigns a vector to each point in space. What causes a vector field contraction is beyond the scope of this article.

diagram of physics convergence
By Jim.belk via Wikimedia Commons

Data Centers

In this area, convergence is a method of data center management that combines networking, servers, storages, visualization, and computing tools into an easy-to-use package. This allows small business with little IT skill or knowledge to take advantage of cloud computing and storage and manage the services themselves.

Telecommunications Networks

A converged network is one that carries traffic that used to be carried on three separate networks: video (i.e. cable TV), telephone, and data (i.e. internet traffic). As referenced above, this can impact both business and consumers.

Network Routing

This occurs when routers on a network all have matching information about the network on which they operate. When changes are made in routing tables (e.g. if a website changes its IP address), and all the routers on the network have made that update, they will be in a state of convergence.

Convergence Trends Will Continue With 5G

Entertainment will become ambient. We will dip in and out of the entertainment flows, engaging in offerings that are contextually relevant and always available.  Read about the array of technologies — from augmented reality (AR) to artificial intelligence (AI), immersive media to “magical” interfaces — that is driving this transformation in the AT&T Futurist Report: Blended Reality–The Future of Entertainment, 5G, & Mobile Edge Computing.

 


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