Cloudy crystal balls: 6 future-predicting videos that missed the mark
Going out on a limb when predicting high tech can lead to hilarious results
A few weeks back, Microsoft released a "productivity future vision" video that created not small amounts of Internet buzz:
The video is slickly produced, and heavily relies on the sort of Minority Report style massive touchscreens that have been a staple of future visions like this since, well, Minority Report. 2011 touch interfaces -- including the slick Metro UI that Microsoft is betting its immediate future on -- are close enough to this point that you can sort of see how we might get there from here.
The video was discounted, perhaps predictably, by Apple-centric blogger John Gruber of Daring Fireball:
This video encapsulates everything wrong with Microsoft. Their coolest products are imaginary ... Imagine if they instead spent the effort that went into this movie on making something, you know, real, that you could actually go out and buy and use today.
The question of whether future concept videos like this are a worthy recipient of company resources is legit. But perhaps a simpler question needs answering first: are these videos ever right? We won't be able to answer the question about Microsoft's 2011 video for another few years, but thanks to the magic of YouTube, we have a deep well of examples from years past to pick through, and maybe help us come up with an answer to the question of whether Microsoft would have been better advised to spend their promotional resources on Microsoft Office giveaways.
1962: Telecom predictions play the long game
The following video, produced during Seattle's 1962 World Fair, has had a bit of an interesting history in my life, and probably in the lives of many a geek.
I'm betting that a lot of you will recognize this short from the 1998 drubbing it received from Mystery Science Theater 3000, that beloved '90s nerd-comedy staple. (The embedded video above is mockery-free, but YouTube has also preserved the version where Mike and the bots riff on it.) You can skip through the initial scenes of our young protagonists frolicking through the fair; once they get into the Bell Labs pavilion, things start getting interesting. You'll recognize a number of features that we now come to expect from our phones:
- Push-button dialing
- Speed dial
- Call waiting
- Call forwarding
- Three-way calling
The thing I remember laughing about in 1998 was the extent to which the film failed to predict how the implementation would go. In the vision of the Kennedy-era Bell Labs engineers, all the processing necessary for these advanced phone features would happen at Ma Bell's central computer. Surely nothing that an ordinary consumer would own would be powerful enough to store phone numbers or record voice messages! When I first saw this video, I thought about my answering machine and my phone with room for 20 stored phone numbers and laughed. As for call forwarding or three-way calling, well, that seemed like advanced stuff that only office PBXs would need.
Flash forward to 2011, though, and things have turned around again. The voicemail on my iPhone lives on servers run by AT&T, one of the descendants of Ma Bell. The list of contacts' phone numbers is still stored locally, but it's also out there on a different set of servers (this time run by Apple). I can also set up three-way calling and call forwarding just easily as the folks in the video can -- and the functionality needed to do that is based on the interplay between what my phone can do and what my carrier's infrastructure can do. It goes to show that if a prediction looks as if it hasn't come true, maybe you just haven't waited long enough.
1967: The very loud bedside computer
One of the most interesting things about these old videos is to look for the blind spots their creators had. Sometimes even visionaries who get almost everything right can't predict the one transformative change that will be taken for granted only a few years hence. In this 1967 BBC short, that change is the advent of the CRT monitor.
I defy you not to laugh at the vision of our pajama'd Brit, casually lying around in his tiny bed while his convenient nightstand computer terminal spits out data on paper, producing noise that sounds more or less like a machine gun. This video isn't the sort of mocked-up future prediction that we saw in that first Microsoft video; it's a real trial program of contemporary technology, to see what it would be like to have such tech in the home. As you'd expect from the state of the art at the time, what they got was not a true computer in the sense that we'd understand it, but rather a terminal for a central mainframe (which the narrator keeps referring to rather creepily as a "brain") located elsewhere.
There are some things here that seem achingly prescient. For instance, there's the idea that plugged in home users would be so addicted to networked information that they'd keep a terminal right by their bedside, to keep track of their stock portfolio and such. Front and center is the concept that the real value in having a home computer is its ability to access data over the network, an idea that seemed lost during the first heyday of the home PC (if you believe the ads, they were mostly for storing recipes, I think). There's the acknowledgement that little kids are fascinated by technology, even if they're just doing boring stuff like arithmetic. And there's even the narrator cheerfully declaring that the terminals are "simple to operate" as we see our test fiddling with multiple power cords.
Oh, but that noise! The whole family would be rendered deaf in no time with that thing going full blast for so long. And then there's all the paper you'd have to feed it. So-called glass teletypes, in which the output that would normally have been sent to a printer was instead routed to a primitive CRT screen, already available in 1964, which means that the people behind this pilot project were already a bit behind the curve. If anything, this video has convinced me that electronic displays are one of the single most important developments in the history of computing.
Then there's the economics of it. The cost quoted in the video is 30 pounds a week -- which works out to about 420 pounds, or $657, in today's money. I think most of would find a $2,800 monthly ISP bill somewhat prohibitive, even if it did allow you to get your stock prices right at your bedside.
1969: The online mall, for the ladies
If there's one thing that shouldn't surprise anyone, it's people predicting technical revolutions while completely missing social revolutions.
Just to get it out of the way now: this whole clip is built around a sexist "Man, those ladies sure can shop, right fellows?" gag right out of a sitcom from the same era. Ha ha, look at that husband shake his head at all the crazy console-spending his wife is doing! Too bad the new computers have made her housewifely duties so easy -- watch her monitor their children on a little sub-screen! -- and given her more time to shop. (If you want a much more intense version of this effect, look online for any "kitchen of the future" video from the '50s or '60s; the assumption is that these fancy high-tech kitchen appliances will be used exclusively by women.)
That having been said, the technological aspects of this video, in basic outline, seem remarkably on-target. But perhaps that too is being too charitable. It was never that hard to predict that form of shopping would take place over a computer network, or that computers would be good for balancing the home checkbook (ah, yes, that was the other thing pre-Internet PCs were pitched as being good for).
Instead, let's look at the elements of the online shopping experience that went awry here. One of the most jarring and interesting aspects of our housewife's clothing search is that, according to the narrator, she's somehow controlling a camera that's sending her a live feed of static displays of clothes at the department store. This seems insanely unwieldy and absurd, and people should have known better: they were familiar with the concepts of catalogs, after all. And watch the husband's checkbook balancing: on his screen he appears to be looking at a scan (or a photo?) of a handwritten receipt for his wife's shopping spree. Then he handwrites out a note on a special pad for transmission elsewhere.
The fundamental thing missed here is, essentially, how information would in practice be digitized. It's infinitely easier for computers to store data as encoded text than as an image of handwriting. It's much simpler to present shoppers with stored, static photos of clothing accompanied by prewritten text than it is to provide an elaborate live look at what those clothes look like in some room down at the store. This isn't something that should have surprised anyone -- data entry had taken place via keyboards for years, and development of ASCII had started in 1960. But maybe the filmmakers thought that that was all nerd stuff, and that ordinary people would never get it. They didn't anticipate our willingness to learn and adapt in order to shop without leaving the house.
1987: Apple can't do everything right
After Siri was unveiled along with the iPhone 4S, this video, an Apple promo demonstrating a hypothetical "knowledge navigator," started popping up everywhere. Can you identify what's so strange about it?
That's right: it's an Apple promo film, showing gee-whiz futuristic technology, and yet it's almost unfathomably boring. It's poorly paced, clunkily edited, and the protagonist isn't particularly sympathetic. (The whole thing is basically about a professor in a fancy office who seems to have forgotten that he has to, you know, lecture for a living, while his team of grad students presumably slave away for the glory of his research in a Guatemalan jungle.) This is the aesthetic of Apple during the Steve Jobs interregnum.
That said, it's pretty obvious why the clip got circulated so widely: it's showing something that looks very much like a Siri-equipped iPad (admittedly an iPad that folds in half, like the fabled Microsoft Courier tablet). Throw in a little Facetime, plus some stuff that looks a lot like the Web as we now know it, a full five years before Mosaic hit computers, and you have what looks like a perfect storm of tech predictions.
And yet ... well, let's go back to the initial impression, namely that this video is boring. Part of it is because getting information conversationally takes a surprisingly long time. Can you imagine how much faster it would have gone if Professor Rain Forest here had sat down at his computer, glanced quickly at his email and calendar, did some Google searching to find out the information he needs about deforestation, etc.? If he's a touch typist (as most knowledge workers are today), all that would fly by much faster than him pacing around his office ponderously giving orders to his little bow-tied virtual assistant. Despite the seeming magicalness of Siri, I'm willing to bet that much of its use arises in scenarios where typing or other finger input is inconvenient, and that it involves short, discreet commands, not rambling conversations like we see here. If you're already sitting at a desk with room for a standard keyboard, interactions like the ones here would seem hair-pullingly slow. Despite the futuristic angle of running a computer by voice, for serious work, doing so isn't as efficient as the keyboard-driven techniques that were already old hat in 1987.
1993-4: You will, with someone else
Ladies and gentlemen, enjoy the smooth vocal stylings of Mr. Tom Selleck.
These ads are pretty amazing, and there are so many correct and near-correct predictions about near-future tech that I we need a scorecard.
- GPS with turn-by-turn directions
- Tablet computers
- Ubiquitous wireless, even at the beach
- Computer-to-fax capabilities
- Wireless toll collection at full driving speed
- Digital box office (OK, I've never bought concert tickets this way, but I've definitely bought movie tickets)
- Teleconferencing with video chat
- Video on demand on your TV
- Phones small enough to wear as a watch (nobody does this, but they exist)
- Remote home monitoring
- Voice-activated digital assistant (we'll count Siri)
- Books viewed remotely via cameras, rather than digitizing characters
- Stylus and handwriting as tablet input
- Wireless toll collection requiring credit card swipe
- Video chat at phone booths
- Voice-activated door locks
- Smartcard with medical data
- Instant computer-aided translation
- RFID-tags allowing instant checkout at supermarket
- Automatic driver's license renewal at a kiosk
That's a pretty good record, especially considering that many of the misses are really just implementation details on otherwise correct bets, and others (like portable health records and automatically updated driver's licenses) are held back for non-technical reasons. But there was one huge, staggering miss that showed up in every single one of these ads. Can you spot it?
None of these products were brought to you by AT&T. The early 1990s was a period when AT&T tried to lurch away from the long-distance telephone industry and into a more general telecommunications portfolio. Most of its attempts to enter new markets like cable TV, Internet services, and computer hardware flopped, and the shell of Ma Bell was eventually absorbed by one of its offspring, SBC, which then adopted the AT&T name. You could argue that the modern-day AT&T provides some of these services just by virtue of being an ISP and cable TV provider, but it certainly didn't take the lead in bringing any of them to market.
1999: Somebody's been hijacking the 'Net, big time
We leave you on this much goofier note: the 1999 film Netforce, set in the far future world of ... 2005.
This supercut, containing every goofy bit of technobabble from the film, was unearthed by ITworld.TV blogger Keith Shaw. I leave it as a challenge to you to spot all the failed attempts to predict a mere six years into the future.
Meanwhile, I'll be enjoying lines that aren't wrong, exactly, but would never be said by anyone ever, like: "with the new codec, and the megamodems with compression" or "Any kid who can hyperlink a GIF is a webmaster now." But as usual, we should all listen to the wise, gravelly words of Kris Kristofferson: the Internet did end up providing "endless opportunities for perversion and corruption."
This article, "Cloudy crystal balls: 6 future-predicting videos that missed the mark," was originally published at ITworld. Follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook for the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos.