April 4, 2013
Yesterday the most important company of my childhood killed the second most important company of my childhood.
This past October, Disney purchased LucasFilm which included their venerable video game division LucasArts. But recently Disney decided that LucasArts no longer made financial sense for them to keep alive and just yesterday laid off all of the staff at LucasArts. Disney apparently reasoned that when it comes to video and computer games it makes more sense to simply license their stable of franchises (including Star Wars) to other game developers rather than produce games with them in-house.
Though gaming no longer takes up much of my time, it’s still a sad day for people like me who remember spending hours glued to the family computer playing the classic LucasArts games of yesteryear.
From Day of the Tentacle (1993) to Star Wars: Dark Forces (1995) to Full Throttle (1995) to Sam & Max Hit the Road (1995 for Mac) I spent an incredible amount of time parked in front of the family computer playing LucasArts games. Sure, I played games from other developers (sidenote: Age of Empires II is getting a Steam re-release in HD next week!), but a new LucasArts game coming out was always something special in the mid-1990s.
When LucasArts was first starting out as a company in the 1980s, the future of video games included holograms, virtual reality headsets and worldwide networking. Children’s books, magazines and movies all had a different take on what the world of games and computing would look like in the decades to come.
The 1981 children’s book Tomorrow’s Home: World of Tomorrow by Neil Ardley told the story of a child from the future who plays games with his friends remotely through the home computer. It’s raining outside, but despite the fact that weather control is a practical reality, this kid from tomorrow doesn’t live in an area where they practice it. With the rain spoiling the kid’s outdoor fun (remember going outdoors?) he’s pretty jazzed about at least being able to play video games:
Your day in the future continues. It’s not a school day, so you can do whatever you like. However, it’s raining, so you can’t play outside. Although scientists can now control the weather, this is done only in certain places to produce artificial climates that aid farming. Your home is not one of these places.
Even though everyone is busy and you’re stuck at home on your own, you’re still going to have an exciting and interesting day. After breakfast, you rush on to the living room. It has chairs and other furniture in new designs as well as some antiques like a twentieth-century digital clock and a push-button telephone. However, the room is dominated by a large viewscreen linked to the home computer.
The ability to play video games with friends and strangers from all over the world became a mainstream reality within my lifetime (and that of LucasArts) but the games envisioned by Ardley are decidedly more three-dimensional than most electronic games today.
As the caption to the illustration above explains, ”A home computer game of the future has solid images of spaceships that move in midair. These are holographic images produced by laser beams. The game is played with other people who also sit at their home computers and see the same images. Each player controls a ship and tries to destroy the other ships.”
Ardley emphasizes the social nature of future gaming in the book:
You ask the computer to contact several friends, and they begin to appear on the screen. Soon you’re linked into a worldwide group of people, all of whom can talk to and see each other. After chatting for a while, you decide to play some games together. As you can’t agree on what to play, the computer makes up your minds for you. It gives you puzzles to do and devises quizzes, as well as all kinds of electronic games. The computer keeps the scores as you play against one another, and then it gives you games in which you all play the computer. You carry on until someone loses interest and tries to cheat for fun. The computer finds out and everyone laughs. Then it’s time to break up the party and have lunch.
After lunch you decide to spend some time on your own at a hobby or craft you particularly enjoy. Making things of all kinds is easy with the computer. You design them on the screen of the terminal in your playroom, and then the computer operates a machine that constructs the objects in materials such as plastics. This system is very good for making your own clothes. You can dress up in all kinds of fantastic garments that you design yourself. To avoid waste, the objects and clothes can be fed back into the machine and the materials recycled or used again.
We may not have holograms, but as Ardley predicted, gaming at home in the 21st century has become an exercise in networking through multiplayer platforms. (And, Ardley throws in an uncanny prediction about 3D printers.) Gamers can play against people they know as well as complete strangers using tools like the internet and the incredibly popular service Xbox Live.
But what about the most popular form of electronic gaming in the early 1980s? Arcades (remember those?) were a major force in the world of gaming in the early 1980s. But what about their [retro] future?
A 1982 issue of Electronic Games magazine looked at the future of gaming into the 21st century and saw what some today might regard as the limitations of arcade games as beneficial. Specifically, the magazine imagined that the arcade console’s dedication to one function (which is to say, playing a single game) would allow the arcade game to maintain supremacy over the more versatile (but less focused) home computer.
From Electronic Games:
Since arcade games have the distinction of being designed for the purpose of executing one, specific program, they should be able to maintain an edge over home computers. The pay-for-play devices also utilize special monitors, that incorporate groundbreaking scanning technology, while home games remain chained to the family TV set.
The arcade games of the next century may not only be activated by voice command, but conceivably even by thought- at least in a sense. Something akin to galvanic skin-monitoring devices attached to the gamer’s arm, perhaps in the form of a bracelet, could measure emotional response and even act as a triggering device.
In terms of futuristic audio, tomorrow’s coin-ops – that is, if there still are such prehistoric items as coins still in use – will have miniature synthesizers to produce more highly defined sounds. There might even be devices to release pertinent smells at appropriate moments – the smell of gunfire for example. Such a machine could even blast the gamer with sound via headphones. Think about that for a second. Can you imagine the ambiance of a silent arcade? Now that would take some getting used to.
Aside from some very cool spots like Ground Kontrol in Portland, Oregon the video arcade is essentially dead in the United States. And as Gen-Xers and Millenials get older, the nostalgia factor becomes less enticing for generations that had little first-hand experience with arcade games. But just as predicting the future is a tough racket, predicting the future of nostalgia can be even tougher.
January 22, 2013
Back in 1970 the idea of a black person being elected president of the United States sat somewhere between flying cars and robot servants in the realm of futuristic possibility. The ink was barely dry on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Supreme Court had only recently ruled in 1967 that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional, and there were just 10 black members of the House of Representatives and one black member of the U.S. Senate. A black president was still very much the domain of science fiction.
But civil rights activist Roy Wilkins thought Americans electing their first black president could very well be a reality by the year 2000. His prediction appeared in a 1970 book edited by Irvin A. Falk called Prophecy for the Year 2000 which included futuristic ideas from a number of notable figures. At that time, Wilkins was executive director of the NAACP.
Wilkins touches on a number of different issues that he saw as hindrances to progress, but he remained optimistic that should the “tremendous problem of education” be addressed “in the next 30 to 100 years” then the country will be greater for it. He explains that, “it took us almost 200 years to elect a Catholic President, and presumably it will take us a few years to elect a Jewish President.” With the nation’s recent progress, a black president was not “impossible.”
An excerpt from the book appears below.
I think probably what we will have in this country (if our progress in human relations between whites and blacks is going to be progressively better than it has been in the past 40 years) by the year 2000 is a great diminution in the kind of racial conflict that we now have. We will have more unity between the races. I think we’re going to evolve, not melt together. We have a distinctive contribution to make to each other.
In the United States in the year 2000, I think it will be no phenomenon to see Negroes occupying all kinds of positions on all kinds of levels. There will be interracial marriage, and people won’t talk about it as such anymore. They’ll talk about it from another point of view: is the person a good person or a bad person?
This, of course, means that the separatism which we know today, initiated, I’m sorry to say, by a good many people whom I regard as misguided among the Negroes, will give way to a mutually respectful coexistence. Each one will respect the other’s religion, and the other’s race.
I regard this period in our human relations here in the United States as an interlude. I think the young Negro militants, so called, are trying to find themselves, and as soon as they do, then they will get back on the track of being human beings rather than being black human beings. It took us almost 200 years to elect a Catholic President, and presumably it will take us a few years to elect a Jewish President.
We’ll elect a Negro President, and I don’t conceive it to be impossible. It is not in the dim future. It is not a hundred years away; it is not 200 years away. It is much nearer than that. As far as race relations abroad go, I don’t think Rhodesia can last, and I don’t think South Africa can last in its present attitude. It simply isn’t possible, no matter how well armed, and how well controlled the politics of the country happen to be by a numerical minority. It is simply not in the cards for that minority to control the majority forever. There will be either a bloody upheaval and a long struggle to the death or there will be some kind of mediation and negotiation. Rhodesia and South Africa cannot last.
In this country, we can say confidently that most of the white majority knows very little, basically, about the Negroes, and a great many Negroes, many more than you would suppose, are totally ignorant about white people and about the ways to deal with them. The belligerence and arrogance of some of the black nationalists now is a natural reaction of persons who try to cover up the fact that they are unable to deal with other people.
I think prejudice can only be overcome by knowledge, by association and by a regard for people as people, irrespective of their color. What needs to take place in the next 30 to 100 years is a tremendous program of education. People are all together, and the big problem before us is learning to live together. People are people. It isn’t a question of white versus black. It is good versus bad. And if we can see that, we are on our way.
Roy Wilkins died in 1981, so he didn’t have the opportunity to see Barack Obama elected as the nation’s first black president.
October 25, 2012
The 2012 inductees to the Robot Hall of Fame at Carnegie Mellon have been announced. And sadly, Rosey the robot didn’t make the cut. She was beat out in the entertainment category by WALL-E — a worthwhile choice, but kind of like putting Justin Bieber in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I mean, Bieber hasn’t even gone through his inevitable Chris Gaines period yet.*
Naturally I was hoping for a Rosey victory, as we’re five episodes deep into looking back at every episode of “The Jetsons.” But there’s always next year. A sincere congratulations to all the robo-winners and the hardworking teams of humans that worked on them.
The winners were chosen in four categories: Education & Consumer; Entertainment; Industrial & Service; and Research. This year’s four winners are Aldebaran Robotics’ NAO, Disney’s WALL-E, iRobot’s PackBot bomb disposal robot, and Boston Dynamics’ BigDog. You can watch video of each winner below.
Education & Consumer: Aldebaran Robotics’ NAO
Industrial & Service: iRobot’s PackBot
Research: Boston Dynamics’ BigDog
*Before you get too huffy about it in the comments, I know that Bieber won’t be eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for many more years. I was just making a chucklegoof.
August 22, 2012
Americans are gearing up for the presidential election this coming November, but many people are sadly unaware of an even more important vote taking place right now: 2012 inductees to the Robot Hall of Fame.
For the first time since its founding in 2003, Carnegie Mellon University’s Robot Hall of Fame is allowing the public to vote on which robots will be inducted. The robots are divided into four categories: Education and Consumer, Entertainment, Industry & Service, and Research. The final decision on which robots make the cut will be based half on the public vote and half on a “survey of experts.” You can place your vote here until September 30, 2012.
Past inductees to the Robot Hall of Fame have included HAL 9000, Gort, and the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner Rover. This year’s nominees are listed below. Every category is incredibly competitive, with some tough choices all around. Don’t be shy about sharing your picks in the comments.
Education and Consumer
Industry & Space
As a sidenote, I may have to give up on my campaign to get people to spell Rosey’s name the proper way. After the Robot Hall of Fame spells it “Rosie,” it seems my case for the original spelling is that much harder. (It appears as “Rosey” in the opening slate of the first episode, The Jetsons: The Official Guide, as well as on toys and memorabilia from the 1960s.)
August 15, 2012
Twenty-eight years ago this month an exhibit called Yesterday’s Tomorrows opened to the public at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. I wasn’t even a year old yet, but this 1984 exhibit would have a profound effect on my life many years later after I discovered the exhibit book by Smithsonian curators Joseph Corn and Brian Horrigan.
Back in 2007, the Paleofuture blog was still just a hobby for me, but once I discovered Yesterday’s Tomorrows I felt a sense of validation that this weird and wonderful topic of retro-futurism was indeed worthy of serious study. Maybe my blog more than an excuse to write about how cool flying cars and jetpacks might be; maybe we could learn something deeper about the American experience from all these hopes, dreams and fears for the future. After all, I may have been a lowly blogger, but here were two brilliant Smithsonian historians who had tackled the subject of historical futures so thoroughly nearly a quarter of a century earlier.
The book that I discovered and would prove so influential to my life is divided into five main chapters. The first chapter looks at the rise of futurism in America and its role in American life at the dawn of the 20th century through books, magazines, advertising and toys. The second chapter is devoted to the community of tomorrow and what future American cities and towns were supposed to look like. The third chapter involves Brian’s specialty and delves into the houses of tomorrow, while chapter four was Joe’s area of expertise: the transportation of the future. The last chapter explores the weapons and warfare of yestertomorrow, highlighting the various ways people imagined humanity (and of course, robots) might fight in the future.
Yesterday’s Tomorrows was undoubtedly the retro-futurism bible and so, back in 2007, I did some quick Googling in an attempt to track down Joe or Brian. I learned that Brian was working at the Minnesota Historical Society. I emailed him in the fall of 2007 and we had lunch at Cossetta’s down the street from the History Center in St. Paul. I had recently moved back to St. Paul after going to school in Milwaukee for a few years. During lunch I learned that not only did Brian live in St. Paul, but that we lived on the same street! Needless to say, Brian and I really hit it off and became fast friends. I have fond memories of sitting out on his porch on Sunday afternoons drinking martinis while we talked about history and politics and futurism.
In 2008, Brian introduced me to the great Joe Corn when he was visiting Minnesota to see some old friends. I immediately liked Joe and was honored to have some time to ask him questions about historical futures and America’s rate of technological progress. I’ll never forget his challenge to me — that I never accept preconceived notions about people and their attitudes toward the future. Generations are made up of people, and though it may be tempting to try to lump those people together to fit our needs, don’t assume you know what an individual was thinking based upon what generation they might belong to.
I really wish I had had the opportunity to see Yesterday’s Tomorrows in the flesh, as it were. The exhibit opened on August 9, 1984 and was on display at the National Museum of American History until September 30, when it then went on a tour of the United States. Though I was but a drooling rugrat in 1984, I have some wonderful artifacts from the exhibit that were generously given to me by Brian. One of those artifacts is the pamphlet from the exhibit shown above.
Brian also gave me some newspaper clippings that described the exhibit in great detail. A writer in the August 10, 1984 Washington Post was especially impressed by the 18 minute film at Yesterday’s Tomorrows, which was produced and directed by Karen Loveland and Ann Carroll:
The show ranges from utopian and dystopian views of mankind’s future to children’s playthings. All those toys we wish our parents had kept for us, some people have — and in mint condition. The display covers the play-time continuum in the final frontier: a 1937 Buck Rogers ray gun, a 1952 Space Patrol diplomatic pouch and a 1966 Star Trek phaser.
The highlight of the show is an 18-minute continuously playing movie, tracing science fiction in film clips from the Jules Verne-inspired “Un voyage dans la lune” in 1902 to “Blade Runner,” inspired by Philip K. Dick, in 1982. As the announcer intones, “All of us have wondered what the world would be like 10, or 100 or 1,000 years from today…”
The exhibit included over 300 models, toys, illustrations, photographs and other artifacts that gave people a glimpse into the future that never was. Brian gave me a handful of photos which show the exhibit as it stood, working jetpack and all.
The August 9, 1984 Washington Post declared that the most impressive of the artifacts at Yesterday’s Tomorrows had to be a scale model construction of a Dymaxion House from 1927:
The show’s greatest artifact, hands down, is a model constructed by Jay Johnson from the original plans of Fuller’s wonderful 1927 Dymaxion House. Metal cables from an aluminum mast suspend the glass walls and inflated rubber floor. The living quarters are raised for view and air.
That Dymaxion model is on the left in the picture below.
This next picture includes the nuclear powered car of the 1950s and if we look closely we can see some artwork from Wernher von Braun’s Collier’s space series and a 1943 rendering of a helicopter from Alex S. Tremulis in the background.
I’m forever indebted to both Brian and Joe, without whom I very likely wouldn’t have the profession I enjoy today. In 2010, I had the honor of giving a talk hosted by the Minnesota Historical Society with Brian at the Turf Club in St. Paul. Thank you Joe and thank you especially to Brian — your work and guidance have meant the world to me, an accidental historian doing his best to fill the shoes of the two great men who preceded him in this exploration of yesterday’s tomorrows.
Yesterday’s Tomorrows started at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. but went on to many other cities around the U.S. The exhibit was also revived in the early 2000s and went on a limited tour of the U.S. at that time. If you visited the exhibit in the 2000s or in any of these cities from its original tour in 1984-85, I’d love to hear your impressions of the experience in the comments: the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, the Willamette Science and Technology Center in Eugene Oregon, the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles, the Oakland Museum in California, the Museum of Science in Boston and the Whitney Museum of American Art in Stamford Connecticut.