June 27, 2012
In 1987, Bill Gates became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, making the Forbes 400 Richest People in America list with a net worth of $1.25 billion, up from a measly $900 million the year before. Gates was just 32 years old and Microsoft Windows was still very much in its infancy, the operating system having been introduced just a couple of years earlier in November 1985. The world of 1987 was an exciting one for Gates and he saw even more exciting things ahead.
The January 1987 issue of OMNI magazine featured predictions from 14 “great minds” about what the future held; specifically the world of 20 years hence. Bill Gates predicted that the world of 2007 would be filled with flat panel displays, diverse forms of interactive entertainment, highly advanced voice recognition software and the ability to access vast quantities of information at the touch of a button — this was a capital I, capital A, Information Age.
Gates explains the typical home of 2007:
You’re sitting at home. You have a variety of image libraries that will contain, say, all the world’s best art. You’ll also have very cheap, flat panel-display devices throughout your house that will provide resolution so good that viewing a projection will be like looking at an original oil painting. It will be that realistic.
And the information that is accessed with the help of these displays will seem limitless. His idea of a world database sounds quite familiar to the 1981 predictions of Neil Ardley that we looked at a few months back.
In 20 years the Information Age will be here, absolutely. The dream of having the world database at your fingertips will have become a reality. You’ll even be able to call up a video show and place yourself in it. Today, if you want to create an image on a screen — a beach with the sun and waves — you’ve got to take a picture of it. But in 20 years you’ll literally construct your own images and scenes. You will have stored very high-level representations of what the sun looks like or how the wind blows. If you want a certain movie star to be sitting on a beach, kind of being lazy, believe me, you’ll be able to do that. People are already doing these things.
Gates predicts the perfection of a technology that has been around for decades, but one that many people of 2012 might associate with the name Siri: voice recognition.
Also, we will have serious voice recognition. I expect to wake up and say, “Show me some nice Da Vinci stuff,” and my ceiling, a high-resolution display, will show me what I want to see—or call up any sort of music or video. The world will be online, and you will be able to simulate just about anything.
I would love to see an iPhone commercial where Zooey Deschanel or Samuel L. Jackson say “Siri, show me some nice Da Vinci stuff.”
Gates continues by explaining that you’ll be able to realistically simulate racing formula cars in Daytona but worries what it might mean when people no longer have any reason to leave the house.
There’s a scary question to all this: How necessary will it be to go to real places or do real things? I mean, in 20 years we will synthesize reality. We’ll do it super-realistically and in real time. The machine will check its database and think of some stories you might tell, songs you might sing, jokes you might not have heard before. Today we simply synthesize flight simulation.
Gates believed that all of our technological advancements would also mean the end of credit cards and checks — old technologies replaced by voice and fingerprint recognition.
A lot of things are going to vanish from our lives. There will be a machine that keys off of physiological traits, whether it’s voiceprint or fingerprint, so credit cards and checks — pretty flimsy deals anyway — have to go.
Gates also welcomed the death of what he calls “passive entertainment.”
I hope passive entertainment will disappear. People want to get involved. It will really start to change the quality of entertainment because it will be so individualized. If you like Bill Cosby, then there will be a digital description of Cosby, his mannerisms and appearance, and you will build your own show from that.
Later in the article Gates is cautious and believes that we may eventually test just how much information the human mind can take.
Probably all this progress will be pretty disruptive stuff. We’ll really find out what the human brain can do, but we’ll have serious problems about the purpose of it all. We’re going to find out how curious we are and how much stimulation we can take. There have been experiments in which a monkey can choose to ingest cocaine and the monkey keeps going to create some pretty intense experiences through synthesized video-audio. Do you think you’ll reach a point of satisfaction when you no longer have to try something new or make something better? Life is really going to change; your ability to access satisfying experiences will be so large.
Gates ends his article by explaining that he doesn’t think we can really extrapolate with much accuracy from the year 1987.
But in the next 20 years you won’t be able to extrapolate the rate of progress from any previous pattern or curve because the new chips, these local intelligences that can process information, will cause a warp in what it’s possible to do. The leap will be unique. I can’t think of any equivalent phenomenon in history.
I’d argue that the vast majority of Gates’ predictions are actually fairly accurate. Here in the year 2012 we’ve seen many of his ideas about the world of 2007 become a reality. But perhaps the most interesting prediction of the bunch is about interactive entertainment. It’s fascinating that the internet has given rise to a remix culture that values slightly different modes of interaction — from the creation of a new video itself right down to the comments — though they’re typically unsanctioned by the original artists and rights holders.
For the time being, it would seem that modern copyright law makes these forms of remix entertainment targets for litigation — despite many obvious examples of fair use. And it’s not just remix culture, but the right to parody itself that has been under attack with the rise of the internet. An animated parody show about Bill Cosby himself, called House of Cosbys received a cease and desist letter in 2005 for even daring to imitate Bill Cosby’s voice and likeness. And if you’ve ever seen House of Cosbys you can probably attest that it’s likely not what Bill Gates had in mind when he was picturing the future.
Image above is a screenshot from this video:
June 26, 2012
It’s hard to imagine a world before the ubiquitous security camera. In major cities around the world, it’s just expected that we’re all being photographed maybe dozens of times a day.
The CCTV camera has permeated popular culture and is an icon frequently used by artists who are concerned with the rise of the surveillance state. But its predominant image as the Orwellian eye in the sky wasn’t always a given. Just as people were experimenting with the potential uses of broadcast TV in the 1930s, so too were people envisioning different ways to utilize closed-circuit television in the 1950s.
And with the emergence of color television technologies in the early 1950s, the opportunities were even more expansive; CCTV might be used as a way to teach doctors-in-training or sell brightly colored dresses in a shop window while it’s modeled from inside the store.
The January 1951 issue of Radio-Electronics magazine explained how people of the future might put color CCTV to use. The battle over color broadcast TV that the article mentions was an early format war between three different companies looking for FCC approval. CBS had a field-sequential system, Color Television Incorporated (CTI) had a line-sequential system, and RCA had a dot-sequential system. In 1950, the CBS system was the front-runner but it was ultimately abandoned in 1953 and an improved version of the RCA system became the standard.
While the battle over color television broadcasting rages, another type of color television has been taking over without fanfare or opposition. The field being conquered peacefully is industrial closed-circuit television. Already established in monochrome, it is finding color a valuable adjunct.
The term “industrial television” has been interpreted to mean roughly all non-entertainment uses of the new medium, including its employment at fashion shows and in banks. In a number of applications, industrial television supervises operations too dangerous for human beings. It makes possible certain types of advertising displays and saves manpower in work requiring observation at a number of separate points.
Possibly the most publicized application of closed-circuit color television is televising surgical operations. Since internes can learn operating techniques only by watching skilled surgeons, making the operation visible to larger numbers is important.
The idea of a live model showing off a dress through CCTV seems interesting. I’m not aware of any department stores that actually did this. If you are, please let me know in the comments. I’m sure someone must’ve tried this.
It seems banks are always on the forefront of new security technologies. Just as the first practical use of microfilm was by a banker in 1925, this article imagined that new optics would allow for the quick and convenient transmission of signatures in order to verify the authenticity of a check.
Today, the use of TV cameras to investigate mining disasters is commonplace. In 2010, the 33 trapped Chilean miners were seen by a TV camera mounted on a probe sent below.
Another common use for cameras today, which was predicted in this 1951 article, is for the monitoring of traffic. Below, traffic tunnels of the future are looked after by a lone man (with apparently 24 monitors).
And then there’s the infrared camera of the future which will allow you to keep your possessions safe, even in the dark.
Lastly, there is the “staring at gauges” use of CCTV. The article includes a lot of these kinds of illustrations, but I’ve only included one example below. You get the idea…
May 29, 2012
Today most universities offer online courses that allow students to study and take tests without physically being on campus, but in the 1930s the distance learning technology of the future was television.
Both radio and television were initially envisioned as methods for point-to-point communication, but once radio broadcasting became mainstream in the 1920s universities saw the potential of the medium to reach a broad audience with educational programming. This was especially true in rural farming communities where long distance commuting to a university was out of the question.
Universities in the U.S. may have been at the forefront of experimenting with radio broadcasting, but frankly, they weren’t great at attracting sizable audiences. As Douglas B. Craig explains in his book Fireside Politics, “many university stations [of the 1920s] began operations with high hopes of bringing education to the masses, but soon faltered as broadcasting costs increased, audiences diminished, and professors demonstrated that lecture-hall brilliance did not always translate into good radio technique. These problems were quickly reflected in an unfavorable allocation of frequency or broadcast times, sending many of these stations into a downward spiral to oblivion.”
The handful of universities that were successful at attracting large audiences did so by introducing an almost confrontational approach to their presentation. University of Chicago Round Table, which began as a local Chicagoland broadcast in 1931 but ran nationally on NBC radio from 1933 until 1955, adopted a talk radio format that would be quite familiar to today’s audiences. Rather than a single professor lecturing on a given topic, University of Chicago Round Table had three professors or scientists sitting around a triangular table while facing each other. These people would then debate scientific subjects like whether there was life on other planets and whether light is a wave or a particle. As Marcel C. Lafollette notes in “A Survey of Science Content in U.S. Radio Broadcasting, 1920s through 1940s, the goal of University of Chicago Round Table was to “keep it moving and keep it conversational” — a rule of broadcasting that holds true today.
Experiments in television brought universities that had failed at radio a fresh start, but it was still unclear as to whether these technologies should be used for narrowly targeted or broadcast purposes. In 1933, the University of Iowa became the first American university to broadcast TV. The first public demonstration of television in the state had occurred just two years earlier at the 1931 Iowa State Fair, and there was tremendous excitement by scientists at the University of Iowa to see what it could accomplish. Unreliable and unclear at the time, the rudimentary television technology of the early 1930s meant that the few experimenters who owned a TV (most likely constructed by themselves, rather than purchased in a store) had to turn on their radio in order to hear the broadcast, as the audio and visual couldn’t be broadcast together. As noted in the March 16, 1933 Monticello Express (Monticello, IA):
University of Iowa’s radio and television stations WSUI and W9XK are now ready to present the first scheduled series of sight and sound educational programs ever given by an American university. This announcement was made by the department of electrical engineering last Friday. The first broadcasts will probably be made once a week between 7 and 7:30 p.m., exact evening to be determined upon later. Details of the broadcasts are now being arranged and it is expected that a regular schedule of illustrated lectures will commence next week. Illustrated lectures have been chosen for program material because they are adaptable to radio and television synchronization pictures being confined to small areas with details.
In 1935, New York University professor C. C. Clark conducted a class using a shortwave radio transceiver (a radio that can both send and receive messages) from his home. Because the radio went both ways, Prof. Clark was able to take questions from the class. The April 1935 issue of Short Wave Craft magazine reported on Clark’s experiment as a harbinger of the bold new way that classes may one day be conducted by television.
The article in Short Wave Craft included the drawing below, which proclaimed that it would be a scene “commonplace for tomorrow.” Interestingly, the article also makes mention of the need for advertising to sustain such ventures — a controversial prospect at the dawn of television broadcasting.
The scene [below] will be a commonplace one tomorrow, without a doubt, when television will be as indispensable to our every day home life as the radio program receiver is today. Television advertising will be a “brand-new art” which our advertising experts will have to develop and perfect in the future.
The article claims that practical television broadcasting is just a year or two away, but doesn’t mention the experiments at the University of Iowa. The magazine goes on excitedly about the commercial opportunities of television even though the FCC wouldn’t yet allow stations to sell advertising in 1935.
As the illustration shows we will undoubtedly have lectures of every conceivable kind present to us right in our homes, when practical television arrives, possibly a year or two off. Mathematics, geometry, and dozens of other subjects will be “apple pie” so far as broadcasting them through the air by radio is concerned, when television is available for the purpose, compared to the present situation when it is quite impractical to attempt giving lectures on geometry or other subjects, which really require diagrams or pictures to make them clear to the uninitiated. Tomorrow our whole radio broadcast background, so far as the listener is concerned, will be changed when television becomes a common everyday convenience. Not only will various subjects be taught or lectured upon and brought into our homes, but the latest styles in men’s and women’s clothes, furniture, etc., will be flashed on our home television screen, and dozens of other advertised products, travel tours, etc., as well.
It would be another four years before television’s coming out party at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and even then, the television receiver wouldn’t become a staple of American homes until well after World War II. In 1952, the FCC set aside 242 noncommercial channels to encourage educational programming. One year later, it became apparent that the funding required to produce such shows was sorely lacking. Still, Life magazine tried to keep the faith: “The hunger of our citizenry for culture and self-improvement has always been grossly underestimated; the number of Americans who would rather learn a little something than receive a sample tube of shaving cream is absolutely colossal.”
May 25, 2012
The October 1944 issue of Science and Mechanics looked at what technological advancements Americans might expect after WWII with an article titled, “Big Things Ahead — But Keep Your Shirt On,” by John Silence.
What makes this article so fascinating is that it looks at the advances of the future with optimism, but tempers that rosey outlook with realistic predictions. There were a number of stories in the early 1940s offering American readers a vision of the future after the war, but this is one of the few that asks people to keep their expectations in check. The article opens with the common assumptions of the day about the futuristic post-war world Americans would be living in:
Many of us have the idea that when Johnny comes marching home to his post-war world, he won’t know the old place. He’ll zing in on some contraption just short of the fourth dimension, and before he can zip himself out of his uniform and into his civvies, the walls of his pre-fabricated house will glow with electronic heat or his brow will be cooled by costless air conditioning.
The freezer in the basement will yield a perfect sirloin steak that the radio oven will broil to his favorite turn in something under 10 seconds, and while they’re bringing it in on an electric-plastic tray that keeps it hot, the dehydrated mush is being turned back into honest potatoes. And so on.
The piece then warns that you shouldn’t get your hopes up too much. It’s really one of the most sober and subdued pieces of futurism I’ve read from the last 100 years, but it gives us a fascinating look at the thinking of the time:
But don’t expect too much. And don’t expect it all at once. For many reasons, we aren’t going to turn things upside down as soon as the last shot is fired in this conflict. The people who risk their money to provide the things you buy are going to hold back to find out if you’ll take it before they plunge too deep. And all their research may be overruled on appeal.
The article says that frozen food will be the food of the future, with refrigerated trucks making regular deliveries to homes that have large freezers in their basements:
Foods—Quick freezing has pretty much passed its tests. People will buy frozen foods, and they’ll also store their own produce in rented lockers or home freezers. Which way will the cat jump? There are some folks who think the frozen food industry may eventually—get that “eventually”—work around to a system whereby you’ll keep a large frozen food locker in your basement, and make your purchases from a refrigerated delivery truck that comes around every week or so.
The article has a little fun with the idea that huge windows would be in fashion after the war, but may not be terribly practical:
Housing—It isn’t cricket to throw cold water on your ideas about letting the sun heat your home through huge plate glass windows. But please bear in mind that Mama is going to have something to say, too, and if your big windows open up the innards of your house to prying eyes 20 feet across the lot line, you may come in some fine sunny day to find the drapes drawn and the furnace pumping away.
The piece pointed out that advances in medicine would revolutionize our world, though they may not get as much attention as advances in consumer goods.
Medicine—Among all the scientific advances being made during the war, medicine and surgical methods probably will draw the least public attention, but they probably will influence your post-war life more than any other. The mold drugs give one example. Penicillin, the wonder mold derivative, already has been released, in controlled amounts, to the public.
And speaking of consumer goods, the writer acknowledges the sales pitches that were so common from peddlers of the era:
Household appliances—When the post-war planner regales you with stories about automatic washers, ironers, dish washers, garbage disposal machines, tell him to smile when he says it. You had all those things before the war, and you’ll have them again, if you’ve got what it takes—and that’s money and time to wait for more to be made.
In describing the community of tomorrow the writer makes reference to an illustration from 1895 that humorously imagined the future. The writer predicts that any changes in the community of the future really can’t be foreseen, but will likely be basic and simple.
Community Planning—A half century ago an artist did the same kind of thinking about his future that many people today are doing about ours. He came up with an idea of what the skyscraper of the future—say about now—would look like. [...] He reserved a large section of the building for a hay and feed store! He reckoned without the automobile, which was to change the whole complexion of things within 10 years and make his drawing appear fantastic. We can still count on a wonderful new world opening up before our eyes, but the man who promises you a preview of it just can’t deliver. The furbelows and fripperies that ease the life of the next generation are going to be governed largely on basic, probably simple, changes in our way of living that perhaps no one today can see.
The writer expects that tomorrow’s cars will be leaner and more efficient with engineers figuring out how to produce more with less. Curiously, he also holds out hope for a steam-powered car.
Motoring—On the basis of our wartime scare on the scarcity of petroleum products, it would almost seem safe to predict that the automobile of the future will be lighter and more efficient, getting as much as 50 or 100 miles to a gallon of the best grades of gasoline. The engineers probably will add strength while casting off weight. But who is to say that we won’t be extracting a fuel like gasoline from other products that will permit us to continue running our two-ton heaps because, if for no other reason, we like ‘em? And besides, although steam was tried and discarded once as an automobile power source, such improvements have been made in boilers and heating plants, as well as in the engines themselves, it is entirely possible someone will market, some day, a steam automobile that will go when you press your foot on the accelerator first thing in the morning. There are startling things afoot in both power and fuel developments. But they will be announced slowly and carefully. Watch also transmissions, especially in the hydraulics and electrical fields.
The writer predicts quite accurately that after the war the American public will see FM radio and television.
Radio—What can we look for may be these things:
- At first, a set just like we’ve always had, because the manufacturer will have all he can do at first just to fill the demand.
- Then, likely, FM, because it was about ready for the public when the conflict started, and the transmitters are already reaching a good portion of listeners.
- Television—later. Because of the short carrying qualities of television waves, it will come out first in heavily populated centers where there are transmitters.
The machine tools of war are seen as the most obvious advances that would be quickly converted for peacetime purposes.
Machine Tools—It’s most likely that the greatest advances are being made now, and not waiting until after victory is won. The stress and pressure for speedy production is bringing about advancement in the field of specialized machine tools that make our country the undisputed leader of the world’s industrial production. It may be this will prove our real victory in the war.
Futurists of the 1940s had a particular interest in helicopters, predicting that there would be a flying machine in every garage after the war. But the writer of this article is quick to explain the hurdles to such a helicopter-centric society.
Aircraft—A helicopter in your back yard? The picture is bright. You go out behind the apple tree, give the rotors a whirl, and whizz!—you’re on the office roof. At the end of the day, whizz!—and you’re back in Suburbia, tending your delphiniums. Beautiful picture, isn’t it? But you’ll probably have to keep your machine in perfect condition, to be passed on by some safety agency, and it won’t be the perfunctory windshield wiper and horn test, either. The neighbors may not care if you crack your own skull, but they won’t want you doing it on their sun porches. So for some years after the war is over, the first helicopters, and other airplanes for that matter, will be flown by people who can scrape together enough money to insure: (1) a machine in perfect condition; (2) maintenance that will keep it that way; (3) expert training in the operation of the machine. The designers say helicopters are harder to fly than airplanes.
February 3, 2012
Sports writer Michael MacCambridge wrote, “The Super Bowl contains multitudes; it has always exemplified America at its best, America at its worst, and more than anything else, America at its most.”
So it’s no surprise that the largest televised spectacle in the world has a history of using jetpacks. It doesn’t get much more spectacular than strapping a rocket to your back and taking flight in a sports stadium holding 60,000 people.
In 1967 the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs faced off in the very first Super Bowl. A crowd of over 60,000 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — and 50 million watching at home — marveled at the sight of two men from Bell Aerosystems flying like Space Age supermen with their rocket belts (the more appropriate term for the technology, though I prefer “jetpack”). Those two men were more than likely a young William P. Suitor (who would go on to be featured in everything from James Bond movies to TV beer ads) and Peter Kedzierski (who acquired the nickname “Bird Man” at the 1963 Paris Air Show).
I emailed Mac Montandon, the author of Jetpack Dreams and an editor at FastCompany.com, and asked his take on the use of jetpacks at the first Super Bowl:
“Super Bowl I was an historic and memorable event for many reasons, not the least of which being that this was the first Super Bowl, as you may have gathered from that Roman numeral. Also Bart Starr quarterbacked the Packers and was named the game’s MVP. But the thing that most people remember about the first Super Bowl was that a jetpack flew during the halftime show–and there’s nothing quite as spectacular as a live jetpack demo. Okay, that’s not really what most people remember. But I think it should be. The Super Bowl, after all, happens every year. How many times have you seen a jetpack fly?”
The Super Bowl XIX pregame show on January 20, 1985 also featured a jetpack pilot. Fresh from his flight at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Bill Suitor’s rocketbelt still had the “USA” emblazoned across the back. Suitor (the the most famous of the Bell Aerosystems test pilots) salutes the crowd and gives a thumbs up before blasting off for a short trip around the field. Frankly, it feels less spectacular to watch Suitor in 1985 than it does to see the footage from 1967. Maybe it’s because there was sadly no real technological progress made on the jetpack in those 20 years.
For the hardcore jetpack enthusiast, Bill Suitor wrote a book in 2009 titled, The Rocketbelt Pilot’s Manual.
Who knows when we’ll next see a jetpack at the Super Bowl. With any luck, Madonna will strap one on for her halftime show on Sunday. But I’m not holding my breath.