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.
March 29, 2013
This is the last in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The final episode of the first season (and only season until a mid-1980s revival) of “The Jetsons” originally aired on March 17, 1963, and was titled “Elroy’s Mob.”
In the opening sequence of each episode of “The Jetsons” we see young Elroy dropped off at the Little Dipper School. Down he goes, dropped from the family car in his little bubble top flying saucer; his purple and green lunchbox in hand. Despite this, viewers of the show don’t get many peeks at what education in the future is supposed to look like. All of that changes in the last episode. Here the story revolves around Elroy’s performance in school and a bratty little kid named Kenny Countdown. It’s report card day (or report tape, this being the retrofuture and all) and the obnoxious Kenny swaps Elroy’s report tape (which has all A’s) for his own (which not only has four D’s and an F, but also an H).
Elroy brings his report tape home and naturally gets in trouble for getting such low marks. The confusion and anger are settled after Kenny’s dad makes him call the Jetsons on their videophone and explain himself. But by then the damage had been done. Elroy ran away from home with his dog Astro and proceeded to get mixed up with some common criminals. (Based on the last 24 episodes of the Jetsons you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that maybe 50 percent of people in the year 2063 are mobsters, bank robbers and thieves.)
All of this trouble with the boys’ report tapes starts in the classroom, where Elroy’s teacher is passing out the tapes. According to little Elroy: “And eight trillion to the third power times the nuclear hypotenuse equals the total sum of the triganomic syndrome divided by the supersonic equation.” Elroy’s teacher, Ms. Brainmocker, praises little Elroy for his correct answer (perhaps gibberish is rewarded in the future?). But we have reason to believe that maybe Elroy’s answer isn’t correct. You see, his teacher is having a tough day because she’s malfunctioning. Because Ms. Brainmocker is a robot.
Aside from the vicious fights over racial segregation in our nation’s schools, one of the most pressing educational concerns of the 1950s and ’60s was that the flood of Baby Boomers entering school would bring the system to its knees. New schools were being built at an incredibly rapid pace all across the country, but there just didn’t seem to be enough teachers to go around. Were robot teachers and increased classroom automation the answers to alleviating this stress?
As Lawrence Derthick told the Associated press in 1959, the stresses of the baby boom would only get worse in coming years with more kids being born and entering school and the number of teachers unable to keep pace with this population explosion: “1959-60 will be the 15th consecutive year in which enrollment has increased. He added this trend, with attendant problems such as the teacher shortage, is likely to continue for many years.”
Other than the Jetsons, what visions of robot teachers and so-called automated learning were being promised for the school of the future?
Arthur Radebaugh‘s classic futuristic comic strip “Closer Than We Think” (1958-63) looked at the idea of automation in the classroom. Movies, “mechanical tabulating machines” and teachers instructing by videophone were all envisioned for the classroom of tomorrow. Each child sits in front of a console which has a screen displaying equations, multiple colored buttons and what looks like maybe a video camera or microphone mounted on the top-center of the desk.
From the May 25, 1958 edition of “Closer Than We Think”:
Tomorrow’s schools will be more crowded; teachers will be correspondingly fewer. Plans for a push-button school have already been proposed by Dr. Simon Ramo, science faculty member at California Institute of Technology. Teaching would be by means of sound movies and mechanical tabulating machines. Pupils would record attendance and answer questions by pushing buttons. Special machines would be “geared” for each individual student so he could advance as rapidly as his abilities warranted. Progress records, also kept by machine, would be periodically reviewed by skilled teachers, and personal help would be available when necessary.
But visions of automated classrooms and robot teachers weren’t exactly comforting predictions to many Americans. The idea of robot teachers in the classroom was so prevalent in the late 1950s (and so abhorrent to some) that the National Education Association had to assure Americans that new technology had the potential to improve education in the U.S., not destroy it.
In the August 24, 1960 Oakland Tribune the headline read “NEA Allays Parent Fears on Robot Teacher”:
How’d you like to have your child taught by a robot?
With the recent splurge of articles on teaching machines, computers and electronic marvels, the average mother may feel that her young child will feel more like a technician than a student this fall.
Not so, reassures the National Education Association. The NEA says it is true that teaching machines are on their way into the modern classroom and today’s youngsters will have a lot more mechanical aids than his parents.
But the emphasis will still be on aid — not primary instruction. In fact, the teaching machine is expected to make teaching more personal, rather than less.
In recent years, teachers have been working with large classes and there has been little time for individual attention. It is believed that the machines will free them from many time-consuming routine tasks and increase the hours they can spend with the pupil and his parents.
The article went on to cite a recent survey showing that there were at least 25 different teaching machines in use in classrooms around the United States. The piece also listed the numerous advantages, including instant feedback to the student about whether their answers were correct and the ability to move at one’s own pace without holding up (or feeling like you’re being held up by) the other students in a class.
The year after this episode first aired, the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair featured an “automated schoolmarm” at the Hall of Education. The desks and chairs were incredibly modern in design and included plastic molded chairs, a staple of mid-1960s futurism.
From the Official Souvenir Book: “The Autotutor, a U.S. Industries teaching machine, is tried out by visitors to the Hall of Education. It can even teach workers to use other automated machines.”
The December 5, 1965 edition of Athelstan Spilhaus‘s comic strip “Our New Age,” people reading the Sunday paper learned about humans’ ability to understand faster speech. This “compressed speech” was illustrated in the last panel of the strip as something that could easily be delivered by robot teacher of the future.
“Compressed speech” will help communications: from talking with pilots to teaching reading. Future school children may hear their lessons at twice the rate and understand them better!
Fast-talking humanoid robots have yet to enter the classroom, but as I’ve said before, we have another 50 years before we reach 2063.
The Jetson family and the Flintstone family would cross paths in the 1980s but there was also a joking nod to the connection between these two families in this episode. The “billionth rerun” of “The Flintstones” is showing on Kenny Countdown’s TV-watch. “How many times have I told you, no TV in the classroom! What do you have to say for yourself?” the robot teacher asks.
In keeping with its conservative leanings, viewers in 1963 are at least assured of one thing — that it doesn’t matter how much well-meaning tech you introduce into a school, kids of the future are still going to goof off.
March 28, 2013
Anytime the government tries to ban something there are usually loud warnings about slippery slopes and guesses as to what perfectly reasonable American past-time might be banned next. If New York City bans trans fats (as it did in 2007), what’s next? Smoking in its parks? Oversized sodas? Oh, right. It banned those things too, with mixed success.
Perhaps the most notorious ban in U.S. history was our national experiment in forced sobriety. The United States ratified the 18th Amendment in January of 1919 which outlawed the sale of alcohol and many people were (understandably) not pleased. The one-year gap between the ratification of the amendment and it becoming the enforced law of the land led many people in 1919 to speculate (and joke) about the repercussions.
Life magazine ran a number of illustrations in 1919 predicting what would happen after the law went into effect. Their most dire guess? A mass exodus. This “Great Exodus of 1925″ would be thanks to new bans on everything from baseball to pork and beans:
- No Dancing
- No Golf
- No Pie
- No Kissing
- No Theatres
- No Smoking
- No Tiddly-Winks
- No Baseball
- No Pork and Beans
- No Ice Cream
- No Lemonade
- No Candy
- No Golf
- 6 p.m. curfew
No ice cream? That’s just about the darkest dystopian prediction we’ve ever looked at here on the Paleofuture blog.
Of course, the 18th Amendment became the only amendment of the U.S. Constitution to later be repealed. Thanks to the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, Americans could enjoy a drink again, though many dry counties still exist.
What do you think? Will alcohol prohibition ever be tried again? How much longer will tobacco be legal? Is a ban on large sodas a good idea?
March 25, 2013
This is the 23rd in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The 23rd episode of “The Jetsons” originally aired on March 3, 1963 and was titled “Dude Planet.”
In the year 2063, the people in the Jetsons’ universe work just a few hours a day. When they’re hungry, they just push a button or two and out pops a fully-formed, nutritious meal. Trips to distant planets are commonplace for a middle class family of four. And humanoid robots see to their every earthly need.
But despite all this, the Jetsons are depressed.
Not all of the time, mind you. They have fun playing sports, watching TV, going out to eat, and enjoying a cigarette with their martinis. But no matter how good things may seem for the Jetson family, the show assures us that life in the future will still be a grind. The futuristic machine that magically makes breakfast will undoubtedly break. Your boss at the sprocket factory will still hound you for not working to his satisfaction. The rich and powerful will still use the legal system to their advantage.
What then is a 21st century human to do? How are we to cope with the overwhelming stresses of modern life in the future? We find that the answer for people like Jane Jetson is to retreat into a world of cultural nostalgia.
In the 23rd episode of “The Jetsons,” Jane isn’t feeling well. Life is a drag. Everything makes her irritable and her frustration with the repetition of life in the 21st century manifests itself in lashing out at the people she loves the most.
Jane goes to the doctor (at her husband’s insistence) and the doctor proceeds to run a bunch of tests. Jane tells the doctor about the stresses and general monotony of her life: “every day it’s the same thing, and every morning it’s the same thing,” she begins to explain in what sound like Nine Inch Nails lyrics. The doctor’s diagnosis is that she has buttonitis. “You need a rest,” the doctor tells Jane. “Get away from all those buttons.”
So Jane takes the doctor’s advice and decides to get away from it all. She visits a travel agency (remember those?) and books a trip to a dude ranch — a place where futuristic cityfolk can get away from the pressures of modern life and play cowboy.
It’s perhaps notable that Jane doesn’t visit a dude ranch on Earth. Instead, the travel agent tells her to visit the Beat Bar Ranch on the Beta III Dude Planet. “It’s like a page out of the old West,” the travel agent explains.
The fact that there’s apparently no suitable dude ranch on Earth could be a hint that Jetsonian technological development and rapid growth had long since swallowed any semblance of the rustic outdoors that Americans had known at midcentury. The postwar period of growth, with its insatiable thirst for suburban homes, new schools, bigger airports, and more highways was concerning conservationists of the early 1960s. Many believed that this growth meant that the days of outdoor recreation in America were numbered.
In 1962 (the year before this episode aired) a report was delivered to Congress and President Kennedy outlining the future of outdoor recreation in America. The report highlighted this postwar concern about how once-rural land was being allocated — with highways, schools and subdivisions on one side, and open spaces and unpolluted water on the other.
Decade by decade, the expanding population has achieved more leisure time, more money to spend, and better travel facilities; and it has sought more and better opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. But the public has also demanded more of other things. In the years following World War II, this process greatly accelerated as an eager Nation, released from wartime restrictions, needed millions of new acres for subdivisions, industrial sites, highways, schools, and airports. The resources for outdoor recreation — shoreline, green acres, open space, and unpolluted waters — diminished in the face of demands for more of everything else.
In the world of the Jetsons, outdoor recreation is relegated to distant planets. But at least this romanticized version of the “Old West” is still at your disposal.
The dude ranch is filled with people who we assume are in the same boat as Jane — mentally exhausted and feeling generally disconnected from any sense of personal fulfillment. Their quest to achieve happiness in the 21st century is thwarted by an evolving standard of comfort. Viewers of the show are warned that questions about the meaning of life and one’s self-worth hang over mid-21st century humanity just as they did in the 20th.
Jane heads to Beta Bar Ranch with her friend Helen but neither really seem to be enjoying themselves. It would seem that this escape into a world of nostalgia is no solution to their problems. They try their best to relax and take in the sights (like a cowboy doing his best to wrestle a robotic bull to the ground, and a robot cowboy emerging from a jukebox for a quick dance) but it’s no use. Jane simply misses her husband George too much. On top of that, she’s also jealous of the imaginary party he was throwing when they talked over the videophone.
Jane finds that reveling in nostalgia hasn’t helped her boredom with the tedium of life. Without saying as much, we assume that she resolves to simply put up with the more depressing aspects of life in the future. Happiness is at home, even when it’s not.
Today we often romanticize the past in similar ways as Jane. However, having a lot of money obviously helps one realize her dreams in playing Old West. Billionaire Bill Koch (the lesser known of the three brothers Koch) is currently building his own 50-building old west town on his 420 acre ranch in Colorado, complete with a 22,000 square foot mansion. The town will house Koch’s collection of Old West memorabilia, including a gun owned by Jesse James, Sitting Bull’s rifle, and a photograph of Billy the Kidd that he bought at auction for $2.3 million in 2011.
But 50 years hence it’s unlikely that any real-life Jane Jetsons will be able to get away from it all at Koch’s version of the Old West. Koch has said that he has no plans to make any of it open to the public.
March 22, 2013
During World War II, many Americans had high hopes for what life would be like in the future. Sometimes this was fueled by advertisers who promised that great things were just around the corner. Sacrifice for your country now they said, and all of your wildest high-tech dreams would come true after the war. As we’ve seen before, this attitude was sometimes tempered by skeptics who warned that while there may indeed be great things ahead, Americans should keep their shirts on.
Once the war ended in 1945 inventors, corporations and advertisers kicked into high gear, scrambling to perhaps make good on some of the promises they’d made during the war. But that also didn’t stop the unrelenting torrent of predictions about the leisurely society of tomorrow.
One popular area of prognostication was about how people would be traveling in the near future. The average American would soon be taking to the skies, in hyper-futuristic airplanes with all the luxuries of a swanky dinner club. One of these skyward-gazing predictions appeared in a 1948 short film called The Northrop Flying Wing, produced for the Popular Science series of films. Designed by Jack Northrop, Northrop’s sleek design screamed “airplane of the future.”
The film explained that this airplane of the future would seat 80 people and provide gorgeous views of the countryside below through large plexiglass windows:
Now a preview of the flying wing transport of tomorrow. The mid-section provides ample room for 80 passengers. Spaciousness keynotes the luxurious main lounge, extending 53 feet inside the wing. And future air travelers will really see something. Through the plexiglass windows of the front wing edge, passengers have an unimpaired view of the earth unrolling thousands of feet below. Coast-to-coast flights in four hours may not be far away.
This high-tech flyer had its roots in the military, the film tells viewers, but much like other advancements of WWII, the Northrop-built planes held tremendous promise for peacetime uses:
Wing controls are like those of a conventional plane, except for elevons, combining functions of elevator and aileron. Today a potent defense weapon, it may revolutionize commercial flying. The dorsal tip of the plane provides an excellent vantage point to see the world go by. Snug as bugs in their magic carpet, air travelers can look down on mere earthlings as the double-quartet of mighty turbo jets whistle them through space.
This flying wing bomber is the twelfth type to be designed by John K. Northrop since 1939 — the latest edition to a family of planes that may some day may rule the air.
The world of air travel in the future will be one of luxury and efficiency, with plenty of booze for good measure:
Surprisingly enough, the luxurious wing is simpler to build than other planes. Being a single unit with a structure extending from tip to tip. The sleek air leviathan carries more cargo farther, faster with less fuel than any comparable plane.
And the bar will raise the spirits who don’t feel high enough in the stratosphere. The flying wing has the stability of a fine club and refreshments can safely be wheeled in. This new device is an electromagnetic table holder.
By the end of the short film the narrator has adopted a strangely paternalistic tone about technology. We’re told that the American public “quickly accepts” the fantastic miracles bestowed upon them by science:
The public quickly accepts all the miracles that science provides. Even skyliners like this will become commonplace. But the giant flying wing is more than a super-streamlined airplane. It is the fulfillment of scientific vision, and symbolizes the practical dreams of science for our world of tomorrow.
Viewers of the late 1940s are told that thanks to science, the world of tomorrow will be the fulfillment of a glorious vision — whether they like it or not.