October 28, 2011
As a kid in 1995, I remember going to Target to check out the latest and greatest in video game technology. I had read all about Nintendo’s new console, the Virtual Boy, in the gaming magazines that I was so enamored with at the time. The Virtual Boy had just hit the market that summer and I was lusting after one. It was a peculiar looking little unit: an unwieldy red and black headset that would cover your eyes and ostensibly transport you to other worlds. I peered into the display model and saw a familiar character, Mario (of “Brothers” fame), holding a tennis racquet. I don’t remember much about how the game played, but I do remember hating it and being quite disappointed.
In the 1990s, virtual reality offered the promise of a completely immersive experience—not just for games, but for completely reshaping the way we viewed the world. There were predictions that virtual reality would allow us to see inside things that it would be impossible for humans to otherwise venture into; allowing researchers to explore the human body or students to visit the bottom of the ocean floor. There were promises that we would one day never need leave our homes, for the world would be brought to us.
The January 1991 issue of Omni magazine includes an interview with Jaron Lanier, a man known in some circles as the father of virtual reality. The article paints Lanier as a man of vision, enthusiasm, and purpose, if a bit of an eccentric: “The Pied Piper of a growing technological cult, Lanier has many of the trappings of a young rock star: the nocturnal activity, attention-getting hair, incessant demands on his time.”
Lanier’s enthusiasm for the potential applications of this new technology jumps off the page. Interesting then, that Lanier’s 2010 book, You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto, strikes a slightly different tone, warning in many ways that technology may be building us into a corner from which we can’t escape. Lanier’s manifesto could be viewed as techno-reactionary, but it’s a special brand of reactionary thinking that comes into sharper focus when you read his Omni interview more closely. Back in 1991, Lanier explains that he ultimately wants his technology to open as many doors as possible; an ever-expansive tool for humanity that transcends the physical world:
As babies, each of us has an astonishing liquid infinity of imagination on the inside; that butts up against the stark reality of the physical world. That the baby’s imagination cannot be realized is a fundamental indignity that we only learn to live with when we decide to call ourselves adults. With virtual reality you have a world with many of the qualities of the physical world, but it doesn’t resist us. It release us from the taboo against infinite possibilities. That’s the reason virtual reality electrifies people so much.
While anyone with even a cursory knowledge of sci-fi movies of the 1990s (such as The Lawnmower Man) probably understands the fundamental cliches of virtual reality, it seems interesting that in 1991 the technology still needed to be explained in some detail. Lanier, for instance, describes how virtual reality’s “computerized clothing” works:
The goggles put a small TV in front of each eye so you see moving images in three dimensions. That’s only the beginning. There is one key trick that makes VR work: The goggles have a sensor allowing a computer to tell where your head is facing. What you see is created completely by the computer, which generates a new image every twentieth of a second. When you move your head to the left, the computer uses that information to shift the scene that you see to the right to compensate. This creates the illusion that your head is moving freely in a stationary space. If you put on a glove and hold your hand in front of your face, you see a computer-generated hand in the virtual world. If you wiggle your fingers, you see its fingers wiggle. The glove allows you to reach out and pick up an artificial object, say a ball, and throw it. Your ears are covered with earphones. The computer can process sounds, either synthesized or natural, so that they seem to come from a particular direction. If you see a virtual fly buzzing around, that fly will actually sound as though it’s coming from the right direction. We also make a full-body suit, a DataSuit, but you can just have a flying head, which isn’t really so bad. The hands and head are the business ends of the body — they interact most with the outside world. If you wear just goggles and gloves, you can do most of the stuff you want in the virtual world.
While I certainly don’t agree with every point Lanier makes in You Are Not a Gadget, I consider it essential reading. Unlike other techno-reactionary books of the last few years—such as Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur or Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation—Lanier doesn’t seem to wish to turn back the clock. He still believes in the potential of high technology to do positive things, he just asks readers to take a step back and consider what a more humanistic version of our technologies might look like.
October 25, 2011
The mid-1950s was a revolutionary time for the American driver. The Federal Freeway Highway Act of 1956 would radically alter the American landscape with the largest public works projects the country had ever seen. President Eisenhower’s expansion of freeways criss-crossing the country inspired a lot of Americans to think about what the future of transportation might look like. It was an era of drive-ins, tailfins and Googie architecture.
The September, 1955 issue of Reading Automobile Club Magazine – a magazine from the town of Reading, Pennsylvania associated with AAA – included an article by Michael Frome titled, “A Travel Editor Speculates: If Today Were 1965!”
The piece mentions some staples of futurism from the time, such as the four-day work week, which would allow citizens to take full advantage of the benefits resulting from greater mobility:
While the four-day work week is not yet universal, most citizens enjoy the pleasures of added three-day weekends during the year. These extra days, as well as monthlong vacations, are used in the pursuit of our studies, hobbies and travels — and often all three are indulged at the same time.
On the one hand, there is a tremendous outgoing of travelers to other continents, but, on the other, the national parks are being visitied this year by 75,000,000 persons and the national forests by an equally heavy volume.
Frome also quotes Robert F. Kohr, director of Ford’s engineering staff about the future of the automobile:
“Today’s developments, no matter how advanced,” [Kohr] said then, “will be antiquated by 1965 — though that is just a little too far in the future for any accurate prediction.
“The passenger car engine probably will be lighter, smaller and more compact. It should have greater combustion efficiency, higher compression ratios and improved ignition. If some of today’s knotty metallurgical problems are solved, a gas turbine power plant, weighing roughly half as much as the reciprocating engine, may be used.
“Tomorrow’s automobile will be a highly dependable and durable vehicle, requiring fewer repairs and less frequent servicing. Strong, light metals, such as magnesium and titanium, may perform increasingly important roles in engine and body construction.
“Visibility will be enhanced, probably by smaller structural supports and greater use of glass — although car glass may be tough enough to support the roof itself, and impregnated to filter out the burning rays of the sun. Stylists will attempt to lower the future automobile, imparting a longer, wider and faster look. Sliding car doors are a possibility. Electronic controls will be popular.”
The piece mentions some of the industries that would be expanded around the highway system to service all of the drivers participating in America’s favorite fossil fuel-based pastime. Writing from the futuristic vantage point of 1965, Frome continues:
Motorists now have a choice of fabulous stopping places. The newest accommodations have been built in two general types of locations: at service areas along the superhighways (which have grown up into attractive and complete communities) and at the outskirts of major cities. Certain of the urban centers, which had been thought to be doomed, have scored a surprising comeback as a result of striking new traffic developments such as depressed roadways and vast underground parking spaces. As a result, tourists are not repelled as once they were, but instead enjoy city sight-seeing.
The new overnight lodgings, built by large corporations at great expense, have combined features of the motel and hotel. The Sheraton chain, as you may recall, was one of the first major firms to enter this field, starting in 1955 with a $2,500,000 “highway inn” at Tarrytown, N.Y., followed by others at Binghamton, N.Y., Portland, Ore., and New Orleans, until it had completed a network of nearly 15 suburban hotels across the country.
October 21, 2011
The first decade of the 20th century was, for many people, a period characterized by incredible optimism for the future. The November 22, 1908 Sunday New York Times ran an article titled, “Inventions Which the World Yet Needs.”
The dreams of yesterday are the realizations of today. We live in an age of mechanical, electrical, chemical, and psychical wonder. On every hand the human mind is reaching out to solve the problems of nature. In those solutions are hidden the mysteries and revelations of all things. While the dreamer may dream, it is the practical man of affairs, with a touch of the imaginative in his nature, who materializes and commercializes new forces and new conceptions. Step by step these men lead in the vanguard of progress. What is their conception of the needs of the world? Toward what is their imagination reaching? What in their viewpoint, is the world waiting for—what are the immediate needs of the world in practical, scientific conception and invention?
The article then looks at the predictions of inventor and businessman Thomas Edison; Edward Bruce Moore, who was head of the U.S. Patent Office; Frank Hedley, who would eventually become president of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company; Lewis Nixon, a naval architect; Cortlandt E. Palmer, a mining expert; and Peter Cooper Hewitt, an electrical engineer and inventor.
Edison had nine predictions for the 20th century, touching upon everything from electricity and movie technology to flying machines and the extinction of the locomotive. His first prediction concerned the future of concrete architecture—a topic that, for him, was not purely academic. The inventor had founded the Edison Portland Cement Company in 1899 in order to use excess sand, which was a waste byproduct of his iron ore milling process. Edison had hoped to revolutionize the building of homes by using relatively inexpensive concrete. As Neil Baldwin notes in his book Edison: Inventing the Century, “Always with an eye for spin-offs, Edison went on to produce cement cabinets for the phonograph, and seriously considered building a concrete piano.”
While Edison’s concrete was used in the construction of New York’s Yankee Stadium in 1922, his company and efforts to build homes made entirely of concrete was considered a failure. Edison’s modular homes, measuring 25 by 30 by 40 feet high, failed largely because of the difficulty in creating the reusable, metal molds that were needed to fabricate and mass-produce houses made of concrete. Perhaps, deep down, Edison was skeptical of the venture from the beginning. His predictions in the Miami Metropolis—just three years after his New York Times interview—would quickly swing in favor of steel as the building material of the future.
An excerpt from the New York Times piece appears below.
NINE NEW INVENTIONS CERTAIN
They Will Come Soon — and Pave the Way for Hundreds More
Interview with Thomas A. Edison
The next era will mark the most wonderful advance in science and invention that the world has ever known or hoped for. So vast will that advance be that we can now have scarcely any conception of its scope, but already a great many of the inventions of the future are assured. It is only of those which I regarded as practical certainties that I speak here.
First — Within the next twenty or thirty years — and it will start with the next two or three — concrete architecture will take enormous strides forward; the art of molding concrete will be reduced to a science of perfection and, what is equally important, of cheapness; there will rise up a large number of gifted architects, and through their efforts cities and towns will spring up in this country beside which Turner’s picture of ancient Rome and Carthage will pale into nothingness and the buildings of the Columbia Exhibition will appear common. But great expense will not attend this; it will be done so that the poor will be able to enjoy houses more beautiful than the rich now aspire to, and the man earning $1.50 a day, with a family to support, will be better housed than the man of to-day who is earning $10.
Second — Moving-picture machines will be so perfected that the characters will not only move, but will speak, and all the accessories and effects of the stage will be faithfully reproduced on the living picture stage. This, of course, will not be done as well as on the regular stage, but its standard will approach very near to that, and the fact that such entertainment will be furnished for 5 cents will draw vast numbers of the working classes. The result will be that the masses will have the advantage of the moral of good drama, they will find an inexpensive and improving way of spending the evening, and death knell of the saloon will be sounded.
Third — In perhaps fifteen or twenty years — depending on the financial condition of the country — the locomotive will pass almost altogether out of use, and all our main trunk railways will be operated by electricity.
Fourth — A new fertilizer will spring into existence, containing a large percentage of nitrogen. This will be drawn from the air by electricity, and will be used to increase the arability of the land.
Fifth — All our water power will be utilized by electricity to an extent now almost unthought of, and will be used with great advantage, both industrially and for railroads.
Sixth — A successful serial navigation will be established — perhaps for mails — and will achieve a sound practical working basis.
Seventh — We shall be able to protect ourselves against environment by the use of serums and things of that sort so that the general state of health will improve and the average span of life will increase by a large percentage. The grand fight which is being made against tuberculosis and cancer will reach a successful culmination, and those diseases will be entirely mastered.
Eighth — A new force in nature, of some sort or other, will be discovered by which many things not now understood will be explained. We unfortunately have only five senses; if we had eight we’d know more.
Ninth — We will realize the possibilities of our coal supplies better, and will learn how to utilize them so that 90 percent of the efficiency will not be thrown away, as it is today.
Finally, let it be said, hardly any piece of machinery now manufactured is more than 10 percent perfect. As the years go on this will be improved upon tremendously; more automatic machinery will be devised, and articles of comfort and luxury will be produced in enormous numbers at such small cost that all classes will be able to enjoy the benefits of them.
These are some of the inventions which the world is awaiting which it is sure of seeing realized. Just how they will be realized is what the inventors are working now to determine.
October 20, 2011
Almost 100 years ago, in the year 1912, Harry Grant Dart illustrated for Life magazine what the World Series of the future might look like. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the scoreboard shows New York is squaring off against London, as it was common for sports fans of the time to imagine that one day the World Series might truly include baseball teams from around the world. Naturally, airships (similar in appearance to another illustration by Dart from circa 1900) are sailing above the stadium. Some of the airships appear to be selling score cards, others peddling souvenirs, and one is even selling opera glasses to the spectators perched on nearby buildings. While some spectators peek through telescopes trying to get a free look at the game, others have purchased reserved seats in bleachers atop nearby roofs. One sign reads “Reserved Seats Including Elevator Ride and Telescope – $4.00.” This entire set up reminds me of the seating you’ll see on roofs just outside of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, where some apartment building owners began building bleachers in the 1990s. To prevent people from watching the game for free, some stadiums will even construct spite fences to obstruct the view from nearby rooftops.
Harry Grant Dart is hands down one of my favorite cartoon artists of the early 20th century—and though he’s relatively obscure, he has thankfully gained better recognition over the last few years with the rise in popularity of the steampunk movement. Dart’s often humorous depictions of life in the future graced the pages of magazines like Life, Literary Digest, All Story and Judge.
The scan of this cartoon comes from the book Predictions: Pictorial Predictions from the Past by John Durant.
October 18, 2011
Brown University has an exhibit running through November 6 called “Building Expectation: Past and Present Visions of the Architectural Future.” The exhibit catalog has some fascinating write ups: one on King Camp Gillette (yes, the razor guy) and his vision for a utopian community near Niagara Falls; another about postcards from the turn of the 20th century that envisioned cities of the future; and a great piece on architect Hugh Ferriss and how his stark 1920s visions for New York influenced popular culture.
The objective of the exhibition—which spans from the 19th century to the present day—is to ask a number of basic but important questions:
What do people stand to gain from designing “futures”? How do people, individually and collectively, decide what does and does not look futuristic, what is and is not permitted to inhabit “the future”? Is it merely a process of extrapolation, in which we attempt to imagine the fulfillment of trends and patterns that are gaining power in the present—or is something more subjective, more arbitrary, more rhetorical, and/or more creative taking place?
Below is one of the featured illustrations. Drawn for the February 16, 1895 issue of Judge magazine, the architectural future is used as a humorous foil for the social and political concerns of the era.
“In this satirical take on the trajectory of urban evolution, Hamilton pokes some rather pointed fun at the tendency of capitalist industry to relentlessly intensify the scale of real-estate development, in this nominally residential building are found not only shops, living space, and a steam-powered mass transport system, but also religious institutions and the houses of government —the public realm has been totally absorbed by the monolithic power of the private.”
The exhibit is free and open to the public at the David Winton Bell Gallery, inside the List Art Center, Monday through Friday from 11am until 4pm and on Saturday and Sunday from 1 until 4pm.